Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers. Bantam Books, 2006, paper.
Flags of Our Fathers is a son’s commemoration of a veteran of the Pacific War. Published in 2000, it was the basis for a film released in 2006. The elder Bradley had died a few years previous to the book’s publication. In clearing out a closet, his family discovered boxes of letters and photographs that told the story of Bradley’s war experiences.
During World War II, John Bradley served in the Navy Medical Corps attached to a Marine company. He was part of the first wave of an amphibious force of 80,000 men that landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. This year was its 70th anniversary.
Capturing the island was important to our strategy of defeating Japan. Japanese planes, based on Iwo, were menacing our bombers on their way of Japanese cities. The island had 22,000 fanatic Japanese defenders who would fight to their death. Mostly young recruits, they had constructed a network of pillboxes and underground bunkers that made them almost impossible to see, and kill.
On the fourth day of the battle, a company commander sent a platoon to secure the top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A flag was taken to the top and unfurled so that the Americans fighting below could have some assurance that victory was theirs, even though they had a month of deadly combat still ahead.
The company commander, thinking that the flag should become a battle souvenir, sent up a replacement flag with four marines who were laying a telephone line to an observation post at the top of Suribachi. They were joined by two more marines in hoisting the replacement flag, one of them the author’s father.
This second flag raising was caught by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal. His image was transmitted by wire to the U.S. Two days later, the photograph, the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima, appeared on the front page of most Sunday morning newspapers. It became an instant success and then an American icon.
Three of the men who had raised the flag died before the battle was over. John Bradley was wounded and in a military hospital when those in the photograph were identified. He and the two surviving marines were flown back to the States to be the focus of a war bond drive in the spring of 1945.
Bradley found this celebrity status a mockery of both the brutality and heroism of battle. His two comrades also found the experience of a transition from battlefield to instant celebrity status shattering. They had left their comrades to finish their battle. One of his marine comrades, Ira Hayes, a Native American, never recovered. He took to the bottle and died a tragic death in 1955.
You are told enough about these six marines to understand much about their lives and families: their common experience as kids growing up in depression America; their marine training, which had transformed them collectively into efficient killing machines; the horror of what they saw and experienced; the death of many of their companions the difficult return to civilian life after the shock of battle; the nightmares and weeping. To cope with those phantoms, John Bradley found it necessary to put out of his mind the most vivid experience of his life.
James Bradley found out that his father was in the Iwo Jima photograph from a third-grade teacher. When he asked his dad about his being a hero, the elder Bradley insisted that the picture had nothing to do with heroism and that the real heroes were the men who never returned. The subject was dropped and never again raised in his presence.
Flags of Our Fathers received much praise from readers and reviewers; few books have captured the complexity and furor of war and its aftermath as well. It reminds us that the memory of the Pacific war will soon no longer be in the possession of the living. The ‘greatest generation’ will no longer be around to tell their story.