The Boys of Iwo Jima

The Boys of Iwo Jima

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

The Boys of Iwo Jima

The service we render others is the rent we pay for our room on Earth.

Wilfred Grenfill

Each year I travel to Washington, D.C., with the eighth-grade class, from Clinton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, to videotape their trip.

I greatly enjoy visiting our nation’s capital, and each year I take some special memories back with me. This fall’s trip was especially memorable.

On the last night of our trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima Memorial. This memorial is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts one of the most famous photographs in history—that of the six brave soldiers raising the American flag at the top of a rocky hill on the Island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WWII.

We piled off the buses and headed towards the memorial, where I noticed a solitary figure at the base of the statue. As I approached him, he asked, “Where are you guys from?” I told him that we were from Wisconsin. “Hey, I’m a Cheesehead, too! Come gather around, Cheeseheads, and I will tell you a story.”

His name was James Bradley and he just happened to be in Washington, D.C., to speak at the memorial the following day. He was there that evening to say goodnight to his dad, who had passed away. I videotaped him as he spoke to us and received his permission to share what he said from my videotape.

Touring the incredible monuments in Washington, D.C., is spectacular, but it can’t compare to the insight we received that night. When we had gathered around him, he reverently began to speak. . . .

“My name is James Bradley, and I’m from Antigo, Wisconsin. My dad is on that statue, and I just wrote a book called Flags of Our Fathers which is number five on the New York Times bestseller list right now. It is the story of the six boys you see behind me. The six boys who raised the flag.

“The first guy putting the pole in the ground is Harlon Block. Harlon was an all-state football player. He enlisted in the marine corps with all the senior members of his football team. They were off to play another type of game. A game called ‘war.’ But it didn’t turn out to be a game. Harlon, at the age of twenty-one, died horribly. I say that because there are generals who stand in front of this statue and talk about the glory of war. You guys need to know that most of the boys in Iwo Jima were seventeen, eighteen and nineteen years old.

“You see this next guy? That’s René Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took René’s helmet off at the moment this photo was taken, and looked in the webbing of that helmet, you would find a photograph. A photograph of his girlfriend. René put that in there for protection, because he was scared. He was eighteen years old. Boys won the battle of Iwo Jima. Boys. Not old men. The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sergeant Mike Strank. Mike is my hero. He was the hero of all these guys. They called him the ‘old man’ because he was so old. He was already twenty-four. When Mike would motivate his boys in training camp, he didn’t say, ‘Let’s die for our country.’ He knew he was talking to little boys. Instead, he would say, ‘You do what I say, and I’ll get you home to your mothers.’

“The last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. Ira Hayes walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my dad. President Truman told him, ‘You’re a hero.’ He told reporters, ‘How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me and only twenty-seven of us walked off alive?’

“The next guy, going around the statue is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky. A fun-lovin’ hillbilly boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of nineteen. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to his mother’s farm. The neighbors could hear her scream all night and into the morning. The neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.

“The next guy, as we continue to go around the statue is my dad, John Bradley from Antigo, Wisconsin, where I was raised. My dad lived until 1994, but he would never give interviews. You see, my dad didn’t see himself as a hero. Everyone thinks these guys are heroes, ’cause they are in a photo and a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley from Wisconsin was a caregiver. In Iwo Jima, he probably held over two hundred boys as they died. And when boys died in Iwo Jima, they writhed and screamed in pain.

“When I was a little boy, my third-grade teacher told me that my dad was a hero. When I went home and told my dad that, he looked at me and said, ‘I want you always to remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back—did not come back.’

“So that’s the story about six nice young boys. Three died on Iwo Jima, and three came back as national heroes. Overall, seven thousand boys died on Iwo Jima in the worst battle in the history of the marine corps. My voice is giving out, so I will end here. Thank you for your time.”

Suddenly the monument wasn’t just a big old piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before our eyes with the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who was a hero.

Maybe not a hero for the reasons most people would believe, but a hero nonetheless.

Michael T. Powers

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE. ©UFS. Reprinted by Permission.

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