From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The Boys of Iwo Jima

Strong reasons make strong actions.


Each year my video production company is hired to go to Washington, DC, with the eighth-grade class from Clinton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, to videotape their trip. I always enjoy visiting our nation’s capital, and each year I take some special memories back with me. But this fall’s trip was especially memorable.

On the last night of our trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima Memorial. It is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts one of the most famous photographs in history—the World War II image of the six brave men raising the American flag at the top of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan. About one hundred students and chaperones piled off the buses and headed toward the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the base of the statue, and as I got closer, he asked, “What’s your name, and where are you guys from?”

I told him that my name was Michael Powers and that we were from Clinton, Wisconsin.

“Hey, I’m a Cheesehead, too! Come gather around, Cheeseheads, and I will tell you a story.”

James Bradley just happened to be in Washington, DC, to speak at the memorial the following day. He was there that night to say good night to his dad, who had previously passed away, but whose image is part of the statue. He was just about to leave when he saw the buses pull up. I videotaped him as he spoke to us, and received his permission to share what he said from my videotape. It is one thing to tour the incredible monuments depicting great moments in history, but it is quite another to get the kind of insight we received that night. When all had gathered around, 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. Six boys raised the flag.”

That’s when he pointed to the guy putting the pole into the ground and told us his name was 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 with his intestines in his hands.”

Bradley shared that detail with us because he said that people stand in front of the 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.”

He pointed again to the statue. “You see this next guy? That’s Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took Rene’s helmet off at the moment this photo was taken, you would find a photograph in the webbing. A photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that in there for protection, because he was scared. He was eighteen years old. Boys won the battle of Iwo Jima. Boys. Not men.”

The next image on the statue was that of Sergeant Mike Strank, we learned. “Mike is my hero,” Bradley exclaimed. “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 go kill the enemy’ or ‘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 next man on the statue was Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona who lived through the terror of Iwo Jima. “Ira Hayes walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my dad, and President Truman told him, ‘You’re a hero.’ He told reporters, ‘How can I feel like a hero when two hundred and fifty of my buddies hit the island with me and only twenty-seven of us walked off alive?’

“So, you take your class at school. Two hundred and fifty of you spending a year together having fun, doing everything together. Then all two hundred and fifty of you hit the beach, but only twenty-seven of your classmates walk off alive. That was Ira Hayes. He had images of horror in his mind.”

We learned that Ira Hayes died dead drunk, facedown at the age of thirty-two, ten years after the famous photo was taken.

“The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky; a fun-lovin’ hillbilly boy,” Bradley continued. “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.”

Finally, Bradley pointed to the statue’s image of his father, John Bradley, from Antigo, Wisconsin. His dad lived until 1994, but had declined all interviews. “When Walter Kronkite or the New York Times would call, we were trained as little kids to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, sir, my dad’s not here. He is in Canada fishing. No, there is no phone there, sir. No, we don’t know when he is coming back.’ My dad never fished or even went to Canada. Usually he was sitting right there at the table eating his Campbell’s soup, but we had to tell the press that he was out fishing. He didn’t want to talk to the press. 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.”

Bradley recalled his third-grade teacher calling the elder Bradley 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,” Bradley finished. “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 through the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who was a hero then . . . and now.

Michael T. Powers

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