I glanced toward the frieze on the monument, a rendering of the photo's image.
I'd like to tell you, I said, a little about them now.
I pointed to the figure in the middle of the image. Solid, anchoring, with both hands clamped firmly on the rising pole.
Here is my father, I said.
He is the most identifiable of the six figures, the only one whose profile is visible. But for half a century he was almost completely silent about Iwo Jima. To his wife of forty-seven years he spoke about it only once, on their first date. It was not until after his death that we learned of the Navy Cross. In his quiet humility he kept that from us. Why was he so silent? I think the answer is summed up in his belief that the true heroes of Iwo Jima were the ones who didn't come back.
(There were other reasons for my father's silence, as I had learned in the course of my quest. But now was not the time to share them with these Marines.)
I pointed next to a figure on the far side of John Bradley, and mostly obscured by him. The handsome mill hand from New Hampshire. Rene Gagnon stood shoulder to shoulder with my dad in the photo, I said.
But in real life they took the opposite approach to fame. When everyone acclaimed Rene as a hero--his mother, the President, Time magazine, and audiences across the country--he believed them. He thought he would benefit from his celebrity. Like a moth, Rene was attracted to the flame of fame.
I gestured now to the figure on the far right of the image; toward the leaning, thrusting figure jamming the base of the pole into the hard Suribachi ground. His right knee is nearly level with his shoulder. His buttocks strain against his fatigues. The Texan.
Harlon Block, I said. A star football player who enlisted in the Marines with all the seniors on his high-school football team. Harlon died six days after they raised the flag. And then he was forgotten. Harlon's back is to the camera and for almost two years this figure was misidentified. America believed it was another Marine, who also died on Iwo Jima.
But his mother, Belle, was convinced it was her boy. Nobody believed her, not her husband, her family, or her neighbors. And we would never have known it was Harlon if a certain stranger had not walked into the family cotton field in south Texas and told them that he had seen their son Harlon put that pole in the ground.
Next I pointed to the figure directly in back of my father. The Huck Finn of the group. The freckle-faced Kentuckian.
Here's Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky, I said. He was fatherless at the age of nine and sailed for the Pacific on his nineteenth birthday. Six months earlier, he had said good-bye to his friends on the porch of the Hilltop General Store. He said, "When I come back I'll be a hero."
Days after the flagraising, the folks back in Hilltop were celebrating their hero. But a few weeks after that, they were mourning him. I gazed at the frieze for a moment before I went on.
Look closely at Franklin's hands, I asked the silent crowd in front of me. Do you see his right hand? Can you tell that the man in back of him has grasped Franklin's right hand and is helping Franklin push the heavy pole?
The most boyish of the flagraisers, I said, is getting help from the most mature. Their veteran leader. The sergeant. Mike Strank. I pointed now to what could be seen of Mike.
Mike is on the far side of Franklin, I said. You can hardly see him. But his helping young Franklin was typical of him. He was respected as a great leader, a "Marine's Marine." To the boys that didn't mean that Sergeant Mike was a rough, tough killer. It meant that Mike understood his boys and would try to protect their lives as they pursued their dangerous mission.
And Sergeant Mike did his best until the end. He was killed as he was drawing a diagram in the sand showing his boys the safest way to attack a position.
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