Lloyd 'Pete' Waters: Six veterans and the American flag

November 13, 2011|By LLOYD WATERS

Bernie Adkins is a neighbor and good friend of mine who lives just down the road a piece.  

In his younger days, he was a Marine, and as I reflect on Veterans Day this year, I thought about five other Marines and a Navy corpsman who made history on a chilled morning in February 1945 on a hill called Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima.

America was in the midst of World War II and had also battled an economic depression at home for many years. The war and events were dragging down the morale of the country, and then one day on the front page of every newspaper was a picture of five Marines and a Navy medic raising the American Flag on this Japanese hill.

Twenty-two thousand Japanese were embedded in caves and tunnels throughout this island, and would fight to the death in defense of the porous volcanic land. The battle would last for 36 days and American dead would number 7,000.

Joe Rosenthal was the photographer who snapped that famous picture of the flag-raising. That picture would remind the world of America’s tenacity.

This entire story is captured honorably by James Bradley, who was the son of the Navy corpsman, John Bradley, in his book titled, “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Every high school senior would benefit from reading this book.

As I revisited this story recently, I thought about another description of war provided by a young 23-year-old Army private who was probably in a foxhole on the beaches of Anzio when he wrote to his younger brother at home who had asked him about war.

He wrote: “Take a combination of fear, anger, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, loneliness and homesickness, and you might approach the feelings a fellow has.”

These five Marines and one Navy medic probably had experienced all of these emotions and even more on Iwo Jima, but when “Doc” Bradley’s son discovered an old letter in the attic, the senior Bradley had written that raising that American flag on Mt. Suribachi was “the happiest moment of my life.”

So it is with the life of a veteran. They suffer the potential loss of everything, yet always rise to defend America’s freedom to the last ounce of their blood and very being.  

If you ever saw the famous flag-raising picture or visited the monument, there are six flag-raisers in the photo. The four in the front line are Ira Hayes (Marine), Franklin Sousley (Marine), John “Doc” Bradley (Navy medic) and Harlon Block (Marine). In the back are Michael Strank (behind Sousley) and Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley).

Sgt. Strank was the leader and gave the order to raise the flag. In the days that followed, he was hit by mortar fire and killed. He was 26. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Block was second in command and took over after Strank was killed. Several hours later, he was killed by mortar fire and died in battle at the age of 21.

Sousley had red hair and a freckled face. He, too, would die on Iwo Jima at the age of 18. He is buried in Elizaville Cemetery in Kentucky.

Gagnon was the first Marine to come home. He died in a tragic accident.

Hayes, too, returned to the states, and President Truman called him an American hero. Hayes later said, “How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived?” He was never the same Pima Indian upon returning home, and he died after a night of drinking. He was 32.

Bradley, the Navy medic, was awarded the Navy Cross and returned home to Wisconsin, where he became a mortician, married and raised eight children. He died Jan. 11, 1994.

Let’s always remember that picture and the American veteran.

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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