Yesterday I finished reading one of the best books I have ever read, "Flags Of Our Fathers," by James Bradley. The author's father John was one of the six American Marines that was shown planting the United States flag (pictured left) on Iwo Jima in February 1945. It would become of the most famous photographs in history.
John Bradley very rarely talked with his family about his time on Iwo Jima, or the fact he was in the picture or won the Navy Cross for heroism. (He just wanted to move on with his life, but he was also a corpsman, and saw some terribly unspeakable sights on the island in the midst of the battle.) So after his father dies in 1994, James Bradley did years of research into the Battle of Iwo Jima and story behind the famous photograph.
It is a very stirring book. The Marines suffered more casualties taking Iwo Jima than any other battle in American history. The book goes into brutal detail of the fight and savagery of the Japanese forces that were dug in on the small island. It took the US five weeks to win Iwo Jima, and they paid a heavy price for it: over 7000 men killed, and 26,000 wounded.
James Bradley follows the lives of all six of flagraisers in the photograph: his father John, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley, and Rene Gagnon. You come to know these young men from very diverse backgrounds and cultures. He goes into detail about the landing on Iwo Jima, and especially the first few days afterwards. He also goes into the story of how the flagraising in the photo was not the first one, but actually a second one (as one of the commanding officers wanted the original flag for himself).
The book is centered around how the photograph changed the lives of three of the men (as the other three were killed before the Battle of Iwo Jima ended). The photograph literally became an albatross for those men involved. They were called "heroes" but it is quite clear they didn't think of themselves as that. Hayes, an American Indian from Arizona, has a terrible alcohol problem, and his demons get the best of him and he dies at the young age of 32. Gagnon was always uncomfortable with the hero-worship as well, and Bradley simply would not talk to the press for years about his experience on Iwo Jima.
The American public went nuts for the photograph after it was first published. Some myths came along with it, and Bradley goes into detail and sets the record straight.
I was really surprised when I read at the conclusion of the book that 27 different publishers rejected this book before it was finally published. I was captivated by it, and I have not yet seen the Clint Eastwood film that came out earlier this year that was well-received. I can't wait to see it, and I also look forward to seeing "Letters From Iwo Jima," about the war from the Japanese soldier's perspective, also directed by Eastwood.
"Flags Of Our Fathers" puts the hero-worship and the famous photograph in proper perspective when John Bradley once told his son, "The real heroes of Iwo Jima were the men who didn't come home." The photograph may have captured a moment in time on Iwo Jima, but those survivors were never comfortable being idolized because of it.
It's an incredible book, and I'm glad I had the chance to read it.