The Photograph – America’s Last Testament to Humble Heroism

Lloyd Waters By Lloyd Waters, 24th May 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

In 2007, I took a World History class. Our weekly task was to write an essay, pertinent to the week's reading assignment, yet tied to current events.

The Most Reproduced Photograph in History

On February 23, 1945 Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a photograph of six men raising an American flag on the solitary mountaintop of a tiny speck of Pacific rock. The men, Sergeant Mike Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, Private First Class Ira Hayes, Private Rene Gagnon, and Navy Corpsman John Bradley were merely doing their jobs – following orders. The photograph captured the men raising a second, larger flag at the summit of Mt. Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, which had been captured by Marines after four days of intense fighting. The photograph began to be published only two days later in U.S. newspapers – a major feat for that day – and stirred American pride, giving the false impression that the battle for Iwo Jima was already over. In fact, the island would not be declared as secure until March 31, 1945.

The Men in the Image

Upon seeing Rosenthal’s photograph, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that the six flag raisers be sent home. However, within one week of being photographed two of the men, Strank and Block, were killed on the same day and Sousley was killed only ten days before the campaign ended. Bradley was seriously wounded just a few days after the flag-raising. The three survivors – Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon – were brought back to the United States following the battle’s conclusion and thrust into the limelight of a War Bond drive. The men were touted as heroes; however, their personal opinions of their own heroism differed.

Ira Hayes, although not physically wounded, came home a shattered man. It is widely believed that Hayes suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder even before the Iwo Jima campaign – he had been involved in intense jungle combat on Bougainville. He died after years of alcoholism in 1955.

Rene Gagnon initially basked in the light of his fame. During the War Bond tour, Gagnon was reported to have received numerous offers for employment, but the jobs never materialized. In later life, Gagnon preferred not to attend ceremonies commemorating the flag-raising. He died at the age of 54 as a janitor.

John Bradley managed to lead the most unassuming post-war life of the surviving flag raisers. He married his high school sweetheart and was the mortician in his home town until his death in 1994. He was so tight-lipped about his wartime exploits that his family did not know he had been awarded the Navy Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) for heroism on Iwo Jima.

Each one of the surviving flag-raisers died either in obscurity or craving it.

The Aftermath

Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi became the most published and reproduced photograph of all time. The photograph became the theme for the 7th War Bond drive poster in 1945. It also was used as the basis for the creation of the Marines Corps Memorial in Washington D.C. Since World War II, the photograph has been the model for countless other artistic renderings in media ranging from charcoal to paint to bronze to Lego building blocks. Each one of the reproductions, whether intended or not, stood as a silent reminder of the sacrifice of young men lost and of the humble heroism of young men who survived extraordinary circumstances.

After the jubilation over allied victory in World War II, things began to change for Americans. Due to the overwhelming lack of war damage on American soil, the United States was propelled into tremendous prosperity. American industry was not forced to recover as European and Asian industry were. Out of American victory, suburbia, the motor cult, and TV dinners were born. A new generation – the so-called Baby Boomers – came to be. They were America’s first truly spoiled generation. They did not know the adversity of their parents’ generation, nor did they (as a whole) inherit the same work ethic. The Baby Boomers were a generation of free thinkers. They questioned, and sometimes defied, authority. As a whole, reverence for institutions of the past was thrown out.

Disdain toward military heroes actually began in the 1950’s during the Korean War. Korean War veterans were virtually ignored upon their return. The idea of a conflict more savage, in some ways, than World War II simply didn’t fit in with the new American ideal.

The Baby Boomers were later faced with their own war in Vietnam. Americans openly criticized the war and the politicians who sustained it. However, the Baby Boomers also turned on their own generation. They turned on the men and women who, for one reason or another, fought in Vietnam. Insults and various projectiles were hurled at returning veterans. Battlefield heroes were scorned in their home towns. The photograph became a spitting target for the anti-war movement.

How Far We've Come - Or Declined

The Baby Boomers passed their independence and irreverence to their children, who, in turn passed it on to their children. Two generations later, Americans are the most spoiled, selfish, and impatient people on the planet. The mainstream nightly news is still filled with contempt and, sometimes, open hostility for military actions during times of war. As America increasingly uses television as the Great Baby Sitter, our youth are taught to malign real heroes.

Most war veterans will freely state their lack of concern over the reasons for any particular war. Most war veterans joined the military with idealistic thoughts of patriotism and dreams of heroism; however, many will also tell you that their illusions were dealt with in short order. Most decorated war heroes are silent when it comes to the deeds that made them heroes. They are the same kindred souls who fought in places like Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, Ia Drang, and Baghdad, alongside their brothers-in-arms. They are the same kindred souls who risked life and limb for one thing – buddies.

Unfortunately, our youngest generation, as a whole, knows nothing of heroes like Sergeant First Class Randy Shugart, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, Corporal Jason Dunham, or Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy. Sadly, they know too much about Britney Spears, Michael Vick, Snoop Dogg, and Paris Hilton.

Trailer trash antics, moral ambiguity, scandal, and self-aggrandizement are the virtues being taught to our youngest generations. The decline of America can be historically compared to the decline of Rome. It was a slow, painful decline marked with debauchery, greed, and moral weakness. History will judge us in the same harsh light one day.


Decline, Hero, Hero Or Heroines, Heroes, Iwo Jima, Joe Rosenthal, Pacific, Pacific War, Wwii

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author avatar Lloyd Waters
If it interests me, I'll probably write something about it sooner or later.

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author avatar Retired
24th May 2011 (#)

we also need to teach kids about the innovators who have the solutions to our problems, but are being suppressed by the corporations who control the government and the military.

our military used to protect us and our rights to create and prosper. now they are little more than private armies for the archaic institutions who are holding humanity back.

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author avatar Lloyd Waters
24th May 2011 (#)

I'll go a step further ...

Our military is now the plaything of megalomaniacs, used upon whim, for approval ratings.

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author avatar Retired
24th May 2011 (#)

i have to tell you man, my heart goes out to the veterans who see this, because i know it must break their hearts.

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author avatar Lloyd Waters
24th May 2011 (#)

It does.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
19th Oct 2013 (#)

a powerful piece ...thank you for the enlightenment even if it is heartbreaking...

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