24 Oct 2006

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), 2

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Pfc Ira H. Hayes, Pfc Franklin R. Sousley (killed in action), Sgt Michael Strank (barely visible on Sousley’s left – killed in action), Phm2c John Bradley, Pfc Rene Gagnon, Cpl Harlon H. Block (killed in action)
(Joe Rosenthal photograph

2. BACKGROUND: THE SECOND FLAG

The significance of the Iwo Jima operation, the first US ground assault on Japanese soil, was widely recognized in advance. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had travelled to the Pacific from Washington to watch the unfolding of the largest operation in United States Naval history.

On the morning of February 23rd, Forrestal was accompanying V Amphibious Corps Commander Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith to the beachead. Their landing craft had just touched shore, when the first flag went up atop the volcano. As the Marines around them cheered, Forrestal turned to General Smith, and observed: “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”

Recognizing the historical significance of the colors waving in the distance, Forrestal also asked General Smith to see to it that the flag then flying atop Mount Suribachi be replaced, and the original brought back to him for preservation in the nation’s capital.

The Navy Secretary’s orders were duly transmitted down the chain of command to Col. Chandler Johnson at 2/28 headquarters. Johnson ordered Lieutenant Ted Tuttle, his Operations Assistant Officer, to find a replacement flag. “And make it a bigger one,” Colonel Johnson added.

At the same time, 2/28 HQ was beginning to be having difficulty communicating with the patrol on the mountain’s summit. Lt. Schrier’s field telephone’s battery was giving out. Johnson decided the time had come to run a wired connection up the mountain. A fire team detail from Easy Company’s 2nd platoon, made up of Sgt Michael Strank, Cpl Harlon H. Block, Pfc Ira H. Hayes, and Pfc Franklin R. Sousley was given the assignment. They wound up being accompanied by Pfc Rene Gagnon, Easy Company’s runner, who was deliverying a fresh supply of batteries from the Easy Company command post to Lt. Schrier.

Before the five Marines headed up the mountain, Lt. Tuttle arrived with a 96″ x 56″ (2.44 x 1.42 meter) flag. The new flag came from a salvage yard at Pearl Harbor. It had been rescued from one of the American ships sunk on December 7, 1941. Tuttle gave the new flag to Gagnon, and instructed him to retrieve the original. And the fire team set off on its mission.

The Marines were followed up the mountain by the press. AP wire service photographer Joe Rosenthal had heard of a flag raising, and set off up the mountain to photograph it, accompanied by Marine still photographer Bob Campbell and Marine film photographer Bill Genaust. (Rosenthal had persuaded the armed Marine journalists into coming with him.)

When Sgt Mike Strank arrived at the top, he reported to Lt. Shrier, showed him the replacement flag carried by Gagnon, and explained: “Colonel Johnson wants this big flag raised up high, so that every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it!”

Rosenthal arrived in the nick of time, a little after noon. The Marines affixed the new flag to a formidable length of Japanese drainage pipe, and Lt. Shrier coordinated the two groups of Marines, so that the new flag would be raised simultaneously with the old flag being lowered.

The photographers had a little time to pick their positions. Rosenthal (who was very short) made himself a pile of stones to stand on. The whole procedure took only a few seconds, but the second pole was very heavy (weighing more than 100 lbs. – 45.36 kg.), and it took the combined efforts of the second group of five Marines, assisted by Phm2c John Bradley, to raise it to the vertical and secure it. So quickly was one flag raised, and the other lowered, that Rosenthal never had a chance to look in his viewfinder, he could only point his camera and trip the shutter.

But in the midst of the Marines’ effort to erect that second flag, destiny intervened. The breeze suddenly caught the flag, whipping it forward, and Rosenthal’s shutter clicked at the perfect moment freezing the six men in a pose of breathtaking monumentality. It was this photograph, this single image, which best conveyed the entire American idea of WWII, the idea of American Marines, of American fighting men, working together welded into a purposeful single entity, to assert the ideals of America, to plant the flag, despite anything the enemy could throw against them.

Astonishingly, the entire scene was actually also captured on color movie film by Marine photographer Sgt Bill Genaust, who was standing literally shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosenthal. Some of the Genaust footage can be seen here. It was also incorporated in the 1949 Alan Dwan film Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne.

The original Iwo Jima flag was brought back to Colonel Johnson, who placed in in the battalion safe. The new flag lasted for only three weeks. It was quickly torn to pieces by the wind.


5th USMC Division

PART ONE

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