Monday, February 21, 2005

Who raises the flag of freedom when tyranny threatens?

John Bradley: Appleton, Wisconsin ...

Franklin Sousley: Hilltop, Kentucky ...

Harlon Block: Weslaco, Texas ...

Ira Hayes: Gila Indian Reservation, Arizona ...

Rene Gagnon: Manchester, New Hampshire ...

Mike Strank: Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania.

Most Americans don't know these names, but they know the picture of these six young men taken on February 23, 1945. On that date, Joe Rosenthal photographed these men raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. This photo became the signature image of the U.S. Marines in the nation's most heroic battle -- Iwo Jima.

Admiral Chester Nimitz aptly described the "uncommon valor" on Iwo that became a "common virtue". More Medals of Honor (27) were awarded in this battle than any other. More than 6,800 Americans died on Iwo Jima; most of them were Marines. Another 20,000 were wounded. Of the 22,000 Japanese defenders on Iwo, less than 1,000 survived. The battle lasted 35 days, more than a month after the famous photo. Indeed, most of the fighting and the casualties occurred after the the triumphant flag-raising. Half of the six flag-raisers would not leave the island alive.

Nearly five years ago, I read James Bradley's Flags of our Fathers, the story of the six Iwo Jima flag-raisers. This is a powerful book that I think every American should read. The stories of the six flag-raisers are a microcosm of the entire battle, the war in the Pacific, and indeed the great WWII generation that hoisted America on its back and led the nation to superpower status.

Flags of our Fathers makes it clear that we were fighting an enemy with a different view of human life than our own. The Japanese defenders of Iwo were ruthless and fanatical, and determined to fight to the death. Indeed, Bradley's book left me in awe of the sheer enormity of the dangers and horrors that the Marines encountered. Yet, the courage, fortitude, and astonishing character of the heroes of Iwo Jima is even more awe-inspiring than the daunting obstacles they faced.

Incidentally, the most decorated of the Iwo flag-raisers was not a Marine. He was a Navy corpsman, John "Doc" Bradley. He won the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for his actions on Iwo. Of the three flag-raisers who survived, Bradley was the only one to live a somewhat normal life after the war. (Ira Hayes' life was destroyed by alcohol. Rene Gagnon never adjusted to the fame that followed the three surviving flag-raisers.)

Still, Bradley was tormented by horrifying nightmares that left him crying in his sleep for years. Bradley was a private, quiet man, and his family did not know of his Navy Cross until after his death. This amazing, humble man symbolizes the great WWII generation.

Today's Marines are also facing a fanatical enemy who shows little regard for human life. Like their forebears, Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan are performing heroically. But today's Marines, like all of us, stand on the shoulders of the heroes of Iwo Jima. They showed the way.

It's important to recall, too, that when the Marines were hitting the beaches of Iwo Jima, the outcome of the war and America's place in the post-war world were not yet established. Now, though, because of their sacrifices and successes in securing beachheads in the cause of freedom, we look down and back and see how far they have carried us.

Semper Fidelis.