Ray Duckler: Son of Marine in iconic photo pays tribute to his father

Last modified: 5/29/2014 9:20:27 AM
The wind that day caused a ripple in the American flag, captured in a split second by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal.

The photo itself caused a ripple as well, and an enduring one at that. It stretched across the country and remains strong today, nearly 70 years later.

Rene Gagnon Jr. of Concord feels the impact more than most, in so many different ways. His father, Rene Gagnon Sr., is one of six servicemen shown planting the flag in Rosenthal’s iconic photo, taken during the battle for Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

Today, his son’s thoughts move down several paths, a hidden, complex series of directions, like the corridors, below ground, that the Japanese used to defend their island.

To us, the power of that blink-of-an-eye moment is everywhere. It’s the symbol of the Marine Corps, proud and strong, representing a defining moment in our history. It makes us feel good about who we are, and it reminds us to not take weekends like this one for granted.

It was re-created on a postage stamp, inspired a giant likeness in Washington, D.C., and re-energized a country exhausted by war.

For Gagnon, though, it’s more. He feels the honor and the glory, sure, but he also feels the sting of revisionist history. He doesn’t like the way his father, who died in 1979 at the age of 54, has been portrayed, saying it painted an unfair picture.

And the photo brings back ugly memories of his late mother, who, Gagnon says, profited off her husband’s fame and, more than lost opportunities he thought he’d earned through the photo, caused a great deal of his pain.

There’s a book by another son of one of the heroic six, and a movie, made by Clint Eastwood. Both are viewed as vital documentations on the men frozen in time in Rosenthal’s photo. Both say Gagnon Sr. was unsuccessful, bitter, drunk.

“A lot of people quote the movie,” Gagnon, a 66-year-old construction worker, told me in his Concord apartment last week. “And I’ll say to them, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

Google Gagnon or the battle itself, and you get info like this:

“However, in the end, it amounted to almost nothing, and left him bitter and an alcoholic. He worked at menial jobs but was fired from most of them, the last one on Memorial Day, 1978.”

And this from the book, written by James Bradley, son of Jack Bradley, who helped plant the flag that day:

“He bitterly inventoried his lost ‘connections’ – the jobs promised him by the government people when he’d been at the height of his fame, jobs that never materialized.”

Not true, according to Gagnon.

“The movie was fabricated,” Gagnon said. “The movie portrayed him as not having a functional life. It portrayed people offering him jobs, and when he didn’t get them he became bitter. That wasn’t the case. In real life he owned his own travel agency and had a nice house.”

An island, a battle, a photo

Gagnon said his father described a beach with black volcanic ash and a strong smell of sulfur. “Sort of like a dead island,” Gagnon said.

But an important one, just 8 square miles, the perfect landmark to illustrate how something seemingly insignificant could be so vital.

The United States needed a springboard close to mainland Japan. Iwo’s airfields were in a great spot for the U.S. to flex its air muscle, sitting less than 800 miles from Tokyo.

Gagnon called his father a Marine radio runner, who moved in and around American troops to relay information where it was needed.

On Feb. 23, he was needed to carry an American flag up to the 550-foot summit of Mount Suribachi, on the island’s southern tip, intended to symbolize hope and strength to the men down on the beach. Another flag, deemed too small to inspire, had been taken down.

Five Marines – Gagnon, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley and Ira Hayes – and Bradley, a Navy corpsman, attached the flag to a heavy iron pole and jammed one end into the shell-littered surface.

They had no idea they were creating their own immortality, no idea their actions that day would come to represent a snapshot of how the United States views itself, and wants to be viewed by all countries in the world.

They were just there, working together, helping out. Rosenthal whirled and clicked.

Controversy would later erupt, with skeptics questioning whether the shot had been staged. Rosenthal spent the rest of his life, six decades, defending the photo’s integrity, but research and a video of the event clearly show that a moment in human history had been captured naturally.

“It just happened that (Rosenthal) caught the right click at the right moment and my dad happened to be there,” Gagnon said. “They needed an extra hand, so it was like, ‘Let’s push this flag up.’ ”

Gagnon Sr. is the hardest figure to see in the photo. He’s second from the right, blocked by Bradley. His knee is clearly visible, but his helmet is hard to see.

Rosenthal had no idea what he’d created when he pressed the button. The sight of an American flag going up on the island’s highest point gave hope to the frightened, tired men on the beach.

Later, back home, the photo did the same for a frightened, tired nation. One look at it tells you why. It sucks you in with details, including jagged fragments on the ground, men with equipment belts, rifles, helmets, a background that stretches forever and six men, working together in an effort that looks exhausting, but which seems to have an end in sight.

Civilians saw the picture as a pure victory over a hated enemy. In reality, the photo was taken on the fourth day of a 36-day battle, and three of the men – Strank, Sousley and Block – would be dead within days.

None of that seemed to matter, though. The photo inspired.

“Everyone saw photos of the devastation at Pearl Harbor,” Gagnon said. “When you look at that, you wonder, how can you transform that evil into something good? You looked at the Twin Towers being knocked down and you see all the agony, the pain and destruction, and you think what can you offer as a counterbalance to that. The flag-raising was a counterbalance to Pearl Harbor.”

Meanwhile, Gagnon Sr. evolved on the island, in a matter of days. He went to war as a Marine with a romanticized view of battle, looking to fight evil and save his country and his girlfriend, who would later become his wife.

But then he saw a Japanese soldier in one of those countless Iwo caves, and his perspective changed.

“Everyone is just staring at each other, and my father in his mind is thinking this guy has a wife, mother, daughter, and I have a mother, and I have a girlfriend,” Gagnon Jr. said. “Why are we doing this? His buddy got shot and killed, and he had to turn around and fire on the soldier and killed him. When you’re making eye contact from 10 feet, it gets real personal. It was one of the worst moments he had to go through.”

Back home, the photo, with its inherent power and emotion, saved Gagnon, Bradley and Hayes from further fighting. The three were plucked off the island before the battle had ended, Gagnon Jr. said. They were used for a public relations campaign that moved from state to state by train, pushing war bonds to finance the war.

Guilt rode the train with them. Through no fault of their own, they’d left their brothers, many of whom later died, while they became symbols of American strength and justice.

In the end, the Battle For Iwo Jima left nearly 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese dead. Gagnon, Hayes and Bradley were heroes, a label rightfully earned, to be sure, but they worried that others who stayed at Iwo longer and suffered more would be left out of the celebration.

Plus Hayes, an American Indian, often turned out to be uninvited, Gagnon Jr. says he was told, forced to stay in the hotel, given a bottle of booze as his country’s token of appreciation.

“My father thought the way he was treated was deplorable,” Gagnon said. “He thought the three of them together were good enough to be on this bond drive, then they should all be good enough to go down and partake in whatever celebration they’re throwing.”

In 1954, Gagnon Jr., just 6 years old, joined his father for the ceremony unveiling the giant Marine Corps War Memorial, a re-creation of the scene captured by Rosenthal.

Bradley and Hayes were there, too. Hayes died three months later, at the age of 32. The official cause was exposure, but alcohol and depression no doubt were involved.

Look, Dad, you’re on TV

The photo, of course, became part of the Gagnon home, in both Manchester and Hooksett. Gagnon Sr. married the girl he’d left behind during the war, and Gagnon Jr. was their only child.

As he got older, Gagnon Jr. began to understand his father’s place in history. When history classes focused on World War II, little Rene knew more than everyone else, including, sometimes, the teacher.

When WMUR signed off for the night, the national anthem would play and a shot of the statue in D.C. would appear.

There’s dad, Gagnon Jr. would think.

“When history books started showing the picture, I would start arguing with the teacher, ‘No, no, you got the facts wrong,’ ” Gagnon said. “They’d ask what made me the judge of that and I’d say, ‘Well, see that photograph of the flag-raising? Well, my dad is one of those people.’ ”

Gagnon Sr. returned to Manchester after the war, working several jobs. He was a ticket agent for an airline, opened his own travel agency and did some accounting work.

He had a nice home and enough money. He did not have a drinking problem, as has been stated, Gagnon Jr. said, and he never turned bitter when the spotlight faded and jobs he’d been promised didn’t surface.

He died after suffering a heart attack in 1979, while working in a boiler room as the head of maintenance at an apartment complex. That, according to several reference points, means he died as a janitor, a man who could not hold a job.

In reality, Gagnon Jr. revealed, his father took the job to distance himself from the family travel agency and his wife, who had fed tabloid media outlets lies about her husband, for money Gagnon Sr. never saw.

“She told them stories that he was a drunk,” Gagnon Jr. said.

The two remained married, but they were miserable as a couple, until the day Gagnon Sr. died.

The elder Gagnon’s wife, Pauline, died in 2006, the same year Eastwood’s movie came out. Gagnon Jr. says he never fully forgave her for exploiting and mistreating his father, but says, “I am through being angry. It doesn’t accomplish anything.”

A role model

Gagnon Jr. has been living in Concord for more than two decades. He does construction work and installs vinyl siding. He’s been married for 35 years, has four grown kids and five dogs, and says he’s happy.

He’s short and stocky. He wears glasses, has a gravelly voice and smokes cigarettes, like his father did.

Gagnon Sr., who greatly resembled Tyrone Power, was played in Eastwood’s movie by Jesse Bradford, who called Gagnon Jr. for information.

After watching the movie at a theater in Concord, a TV reporter met Gagnon Jr. in the parking lot and asked him what he thought. “Hollywood,” Gagnon said he remembers saying.

To this day, Gagnon Jr. says the media portrayal of his father bothers him. Gagnon Sr. was a good man, his son says, a good role model, sober, hard-working, successful.

“My dad taught me everything in life,” Gagnon Jr. says. “He taught me that once you learn something in life, pouring concrete or wiring a house, no one can take it away from you. He taught me how to respect people and talk to people.”

He’s still teaching, nearly 70 years later, about why tomorrow is a very important day.

“You look at that photo and it’s kind of hard not to get behind the men,” Gagnon said. “It’s pure magic.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


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