year I am hired to go to Washington, DC, with the eighth grade class
from Clinton, WI., where I grew up, to videotape their trip. I greatly
enjoy visiting our nation's capital, and each year I take some special
memories back with me. This fall's trip was especially memorable..
On the last night of our trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima memorial.
This memorial is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts
one of the most famous photographs in history -- that of the six
brave soldiers raising the American Flag at the top of a rocky hill
on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during WW II
Over one hundred students and chaperones piled off the buses and
headed towards the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the
base of the statue, and as I got closer he asked, 'Where are you
I told him that we were from Wisconsin. 'Hey, I'm a cheese head,
too! Come gather around, Cheese heads, and I will tell you a story.'
(It was James Bradley) who 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 passed away. 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 filled
with history in Washington, DC, 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. (Here
are his words that night.)
'My name is James Bradley and I'm from Antigo, Wisconsin. My dad
is on that statue, and I wrote a book called 'Flags of Our Fathers'.
It is the story of the six boys you see behind me.
'Six boys raised the flag. The first guy putting the pole in the
ground is 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 21, died with his intestines in his hands. I don't say that
to gross you out, I say that because there are people who stand
in front of this statue and talk about the glory of war. You guys
need to know that most of the boys in Iwo Jima were 17, 18, and
19 years old - and it was so hard that the ones who did make it
home never even would talk to their families about it.
(He pointed 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 and looked in the webbing of that helmet, you
would find a photograph...a photograph of his girlfriend Rene put
that in there for protection because he was scared. He was 18 years
old. It was just boys who won the battle of Iwo Jima. Boys.. Not
'The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sergeant
Mike Strank ... (from Johnstown, PA). Mike is my hero. He was the
hero of all these guys. They called him the 'old man' because he
was so old. He was already 24. When Mike would motivate his boys
in training camp, he didn't say, 'Let's go kill some Japanese' 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 last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian
from Arizona. Ira Hayes was one of them who lived to walk off Iwo
Jima. He went into the White House with my dad. President Truman
told him, 'You're a hero' He told reporters, 'How can I feel like
a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me and only 27
of us walked off alive?'
So you take your class at school, 250 of you spending a year together
having fun, doing everything together. Then all 250 of you hit the
beach, but only 27 of your classmates walk off alive. That was Ira
Hayes. He had images of horror in his mind. Ira Hayes carried the
pain home with him and eventually died dead drunk, face down, drowned
in a very shallow puddle, at the age of 32 (ten years after this
picture was taken).
'The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from
Hilltop, Kentucky. A fun-lovin' hillbilly boy. His best friend,
who is now 70, told me, 'Yeah, you know, we took two cows up on
the porch of the Hilltop General Store. Then we strung wire across
the stairs so the cows couldn't get down. Then we fed them Epsom
salts. Those cows crapped all night.' Yes, he was a fun-lovin' hillbilly
boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. 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. Those neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.
'The next guy, as we continue to go around the statue, is my dad,
John Bradley, from Antigo, Wisconsin, where I was raised. My dad
lived until 1994, but he would never give interviews.
When Walter Cronkite's producers 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 there right 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, like Ira Hayes, my dad didn't see himself as a hero. Everyone
thinks these guys are heroes, 'cause they are in a photo and on
a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley from
Wisconsin was a combat caregiver. On Iwo Jima he probably held over
200 boys as they died. And when boys died on Iwo Jima, they writhed
and screamed, without any medication or help with the pain.
'When I was a little boy, my third grade teacher told me that my
dad was 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. Three died on Iwo
Jima, and three came back as national heroes. Overall, 7,000 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
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
with the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who
was a hero. Maybe not a hero for the reasons most people would believe,
but a hero nonetheless.
One thing I learned while on tour with my 8th grade students in
DC that is not mentioned here is, that if you look at the statue
very closely and count the number of 'hands' raising the flag, there
are 13. When the man who made the statue was asked why there were
13, he simply said the 13th hand was the hand of God.
Great story - worth your time - worth every American's time.
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