Rene Gagnon Jr., son of a famous Marine, says he can handle the truth about the flag raisers at Iwo Jima. Can you?

  • Rene Gagnon holds the letter with the quote from John Bradley taken in 1979, following the funeral of Iwo Jima veteran Rene Gagnon Sr. The writer of the “Chicago Tribune” article was Mary Elson. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. points to the graphic that shows the names of the men at the flag raising at Iwo Jime flag raising that the Marines allegedly will be changed when the documentary comes out this July. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. with the replica statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that his mother received. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. with the replica statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that his mother received. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. holds the replica statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that his mother received. His father was one of the men in the famous photograph taken in 1945. One of the other men previously thought to be in that photograph may not be pictured, though.

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. and his son Josh wait for the film crew to set up in Josh's living room in Manchester on Monday, May 16, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • In this 1945 photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. Joe Rosenthal / AP file

  • The three survivors of six men who raised that historic flag on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, are back in Marine uniforms as they help make a Hollywood version of the bloody invasion at Camp Pendleton, Calif. on July 27, 1949. Sound trucks in background, they watch the filming of a scene Survivors are (l to r) Ira H. Hayes, Sabchule, Ariz., John Bradley, Ancigo, Wis., and Rene Gagnon, Manchester, N.H., All three have small parts including a recreation of the flag raising. (AP Photo) Anonymous—AP

Published: 5/22/2016 12:03:54 AM

Rene Gagnon Jr., a longtime Concord resident, is convinced he knows the truth about the most famous photograph in American history.

That’s not John Bradley obscuring Gagnon’s father, Rene Sr., in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, he says. Therefore, it’s not right that Bradley has blocked the elder Gagnon from a higher profile throughout history, in both words and film.

Soon, another man, perhaps a man from California, may replace Bradley as one of six men recognized for raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945.

Before going there, though, zoom in on the photo, its impact, its detail, its effect for so many years.

What is it about that photo that has caused so much pride and awe, not to mention controversy? For the Marines, it represented the perfect scenario, fighting men struggling to spread optimism and hope in terrible conditions.

Has there ever been a moment in time, stopped in its tracks, captured forever, that creates this kind of emotion, this blend of patriotism and pride and sadness and hardship?

The men pictured represented something larger than themselves. But, as often happens with history, they were individuals all the same, people who had to be introduced in books and film. In an instant, they were public figures, like it or not.

And now, even Bradley’s son, James Bradley, admits his father wasn’t in the iconic photo.

That’s why a retired Marine colonel and a production team, hired by the Smithsonian Channel, visited Gagnon Jr. in Manchester last Monday, at the home of his son, Josh.

They’re looking back, checking sources, examining photos, perhaps rewriting history. Gagnon Jr., 68, is part of the upcoming documentary. Their conclusion, if one is reached and names are changed, will shock anyone who knows anything about the day six men dug that iron pipe into the rugged ground to lift the morale of the Marines on the beach below.

The Marines won’t say much. But they said enough in an official release, acknowledging that something was bubbling. It read:

“The Marine Corps is examining information provided by a private organization related to Joe Rosenthal’s Associated Press photograph of the second flag raising at Iwo Jima.”

That’s enough to create a buzz, and, in the age of Facebook and Twitter and all the rest, that buzz is getting louder.

The documentary, the colonel acknowledged, might be shown on the Fourth of July.

Imagine that.

Feb. 23, 1945

You know the photo. If you don’t, you should.

It was taken by Rosenthal four days after the Marines landed at Iwo Jima, a lifeless, smelly island in the Pacific with rocks and soft black volcanic ash that swallowed those men with each step as they tried to move ashore.

Japanese fighters were hidden in every nook and cranny, an unseen enemy that killed nearly 7,000 Americans and injured nearly 20,000 during the 36-day battle. Nearly 20,000 Japanese died as well.

Gagnon’s father ran the flag up the side of the mountain, a 550-foot climb, after another flag had been taken down, deemed too small. A bigger flag was needed so the men below could see it, feel it, almost touch it.

It took 1/400th of a second to create the image, a simple click of a button, but its impact resonates today, 71 years later.

The photo grew in stature when it was revealed that 27 Medals of Honor had been awarded during the battle, about a third of the total handed out during the entire war.

For decades, we’ve been told who the men in the photo were: Harlon Block planting the heavy pipe, then Bradley and Gagnon side by side, then Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley and Ira Hayes, the anchor at the back.

Gagnon Sr. was second from the right, mostly hidden, a knee and hand visible. And Bradley, we were told, was also second from the right, blocking Gagnon from full view.

The two have been joined together, attached at the hip in the photo and in life, ever since. They were the last survivors, the only two who married and had kids. Bradley, in fact, was the best man at Gagnon’s wedding.

Bradley’s son, James Bradley, wrote a best-selling book in 2000 called Flags of Our Fathers. He sold the movie rights for a film directed by Clint Eastwood six years later.

He was the son of a hero, passionate in his reporting and eagerness to tell his dad’s story, and that of the other men involved.

Now this? Enhanced imagery contradicting the original findings from the 1940s? Bradley wasn’t in the photo? That’s Sousley in his spot? That’s someone named Harold Schultz of California in Sousley’s place, in front of Hayes?

Matthew Hansen, columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, broke the story two years ago, using a local source whose investigative work was impossible to ignore.

“It’s the story about a famous photo,” Hansen told me by phone. “But it became a story about how we write history, who writes it, and how it can be sort of hard to erase it and rewrite it.”

Hard feelings

Gagnon Jr. didn’t like how his father was depicted in James Bradley’s book, and that fact has joined the sons together as well.

“He’s writing about a hero he knows nothing about,” Gagnon told me. “I’m tired of seeing Wikipedia reference Flags of Our Fathers when I Google my father’s name.”

Gagnon, perhaps nervous while waiting for the film crew last week, stood for nearly two hours, while Josh, his 33-year-old son, sat on a couch in the living room. The room was dust-free and bright, a far cry from the death and blood that surrounded Josh’s famous grandfather on that awful island so long ago.

Josh is trim, well groomed, his shirt neatly tucked into his slacks. He’s in marketing. Rene’s voice is raspy from smoking homemade, rolled cigarettes. He builds roofs and installs vinyl siding. He peered above his glasses each time we spoke.

They both read James Bradley’s book. “My grandfather was portrayed as a suave playboy who sought out fame and who didn’t find it,” Josh said.

Then the tension began to build. It always does when Rene Jr. moves into the pages of Bradley’s book.

“I don’t understand why your book is the definitive answer to my father and who he was,” Gagnon said, as though talking to James Bradley himself.

The book says Gagnon Sr., a Manchester mill worker before joining the Marines, was tightly controlled by two women, his mother and his wife, too passive to break away. It says Gagnon Sr., who looked like Tyrone Power with his black hair and rugged yet smooth features, was vain, more concerned with how he looked in his Marine uniform than most anything else.

It says Gagnon had trouble holding a job. It says he was a bitter man, upset his fame never led to a bigger career, as he said he was promised by “connections” upon his return home.

It says he was a janitor who died from a heart attack in a boiler room in 1979.

Here is an example of how Bradley’s words irked Gagnon.

A janitor?

No.

Gagnon Sr., his son says, was a maintenance man.

“There were too many derogatory statements that made my father into something he wasn’t,” Gagnon said. “There were too many liberties taken, that he was greedy.”

I called Bradley, who lives outside New York City. He said he no longer believes his father was in the flag-raising photo either. He said he studied color film of the event, shot by Bill Genaust, in his home a few months ago, a clip that was slowed down and blown up.

“Facial recognition,” convinced him, James Bradley said. He wouldn’t reveal who brought the enhanced technology into his home.

Regardless, he says he was fair in his depiction of Gagnon Sr.

“I didn’t make any of that up,” Bradley said. “I talked to people who talked to Rene. He himself said all those things, grumbling that ‘I should have been a big guy and no one is taking care of me and look at my terrible life.’ ”

It’s obvious there’s more here than a man, Gagnon Jr., wanting the truth about who, if anyone, was misidentified in the famous photo.

If John Bradley wasn’t there, doesn’t that strip his son of credibility? Doesn’t it weaken what the younger Bradley wrote about the older Gagnon in his book?

“It was a good historical document about lives and times and people,” Gagnon said. “But it sort of diminishes my father’s character while boosting his father’s credibility. I’m not trying to deny Bradley was there, I’m not trying to put his father down in the least. But when you’re going to portray this in a book about something of epic proportions, it’s like, ‘Hey, pal, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Your father wasn’t even in the photo.’ ”

American heroes

For years, the Iwo Jima photo has represented a list of contradictions and emotions.

Americans loved the picture when newspapers all over the country ran it. It showed us at our best, working hard for a common cause under terrible circumstances, with rubble at our feet and a heavy burden on our shoulders. We were saving the world from the Japanese Empire, striking back at the bombers of Pearl Harbor.

Take THAT! we seemed to be saying.

In reality, though, the battle had another month left, and three men in the photo – Block, Strank and Sousley – would soon be killed. Sousley, in fact, was shot and killed within arm’s reach of Gagnon, who later signed an affidavit documenting what had happened.

“A rifle shot hit him in the back and came out through his chest,” the affidavit read in part. “. . . He was killed instantly.”

The three identified survivors – Gagnon, Bradley and Hayes – were ushered home and sent on a bond tour to raise money for the war effort. Hayes, a Native American, was subject to racism, and his drinking eventually forced officials to pull him from the tour and tell the public he had left to rejoin his buddies in the Pacific.

All three smiled and waved their way across the country, as post-traumatic stress disorder mixed with guilt over the treatment they were receiving. Others had been left behind to die.

What was the big deal? They were simply doing their job. They ended up in a photo. So?

This was exploitation blended with necessity, something that helped raise billions of dollars to fight the Japanese while parading three men around who were greatly damaged inside.

Later, John Bradley served as best man at Gagnon Sr.’s wedding, decades before a son’s book was published, angering the other son.

And Gagnon helped identify who was in the famous photo, naming Bradley.

“If you want to write that my dad was not there,” James Bradley said, “Know that he was RIGHT there.”

Bradley sent me a photo showing his father near the flag after it had been raised. He wrote me an email, too.

“John Bradley was right next to the six flag raisers and he immediately jumped in to supply the ropes to secure the pole,” James wrote. “So Bradley was part of the action but not in the Rosenthal photo.”

A photo comes into focus

Asking Bradley what he and his father knew and when they knew it is a delicate process.

It moves to the core of their integrity.

Yes, John Bradley was on that island in 1945, during some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting in human history. And yes, Bradley was a hero, recipient of the Navy Cross and Purple Heart, wounded when shrapnel sprayed him, hospitalized in Hawaii before the bond tour.

But as cruel as it sounds and as painful as it is to ask, if Bradley wasn’t in the photo, why didn’t he say something years back?

It was confusing, sure. War always is, and in this case a photo had been taken earlier on the same day, of a smaller flag being raised on Suribachi. Bradley is in that one, his hand on the pole.

But later, once Bradley had seen the photo we’ve all seen, didn’t he know then that he wasn’t in it?

His son says no. John Bradley was told he was in a flag-raising photo, which he was, and he went with it.

“It’s like I’m in a rugby scrum, a two-hour game, and I’m in five different scrums and I’m on the bottom,” James Bradley said. “One of the piles of bodies becomes famous and they tell me I’m in that photo. I believe it.”

Bradley also said he had no idea about the misidentification when he wrote his book, nor did he know when he sold the movie rights.

“The public has a lot of opinions,” Bradley told me. “I can’t get involved with what people think.”

Gagnon rubbed his thumb across the tips of his index and middle fingers, the universal sign for cash, when asked why the younger Bradley might have proceeded if he knew his father was not in the photo.

“I do think that basically he knew about it way back when,” Gagnon said during an interview in his living room. “He was aware of it, but he has a book out there and he sold movie rights.”

To bolster his case about the elder Bradley knowing the truth before he died in 1994, Gagnon slid a small piece of paper out from a manila envelope, a handwritten quote lifted from an Oct. 21, 1979, edition of the Chicago Tribune. Someone following this new information sent it to him from California.

Gagnon believes it might be a smoking gun, proving that John Bradley knew all along he wasn’t in the photo.

The 37-year-old quote, attributed to John Bradley, says: “It sounds ridiculous to have six men trying to raise one flag, but with this wind whipping around it just became too much for them. So I just jumped in and gave them a hand.”

Interpret the passage any way you want. That it shows Bradley entered the scene after Rosenthal had snapped his Pulitzer-Prize winning photo. Or that Bradley was part of the initial group of six, and deserves to be a household name among historians and war buffs.

“Doesn’t that sound like a confession?” Gagnon asked. “Doesn’t that sound like he’s saying, ‘I watched six people put (the flag) up?’ ”

Mary Elson, who still lives in the Chicago area, wrote that piece for the Tribune. She interpreted Bradley’s words differently.

“I thought he was saying that he was watching them and when he didn’t think they were going to get it raised, he jumped in,” Elson told me by phone. “My impression was that was before the photo was taken. He never gave me any reason to believe that he wasn’t in that photo.”

I read her the quote again.

“It is a quote that has some ambiguity to it,” Elson said. “In retrospect, maybe it could be read a couple of different ways, but it’s almost impossible for me to believe he was not telling the truth about his participation.

“I think it disturbed him that he was made into a hero. I think he rejected that notion.”

The Chicago story, which coincided with the death of Rene Sr., also reveals John Bradley’s mood that day. He gave Elson 10 minutes, then walked away from her.

At the time, Bradley was considered to be the final man left among the six in the photo.

Bradley “puffed nervously on a cigarette,” Elson wrote.

“The subject that had been raised,” the story continued, “was one he had avoided talking about publicly for more than 20 years, and he didn’t want to talk about it now.”

There’s no definite proof there, of course, but Gagnon wonders to this day about Bradley’s behavior.

“All he had to say was that he felt really sorry to hear about Rene Gagnon, he was a nice guy, they were friends, that’s it,” Gagnon said. “Instead he’s chain smoking. He’s totally pissed off.”

A closer look

So, was John Bradley there, in that photo?

A pair of men whose names you don’t know got this rolling. Stephen Foley, an amateur historian who lives in Ireland, lay in bed recovering from hernia surgery three years ago. He had lots of time to stare at photos and film, over and over and over.

He sent his findings to smart people, historians and authors, but no one wrote back. So then he turned to Erik Krelle of Omaha, a fellow war buff who had his own website, honoring the Marines.

Together, they noticed cuffed pants in one photo but not in the famous photo. And the soft cap under Bradley’s helmet in one photo, but gone in the famous photo. And the belt that did not match, and the profile that did not match and suspenders that did not match.

Again, no one listened.

Except for Matthew Hansen, the columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. He feared these two no-names, Foley, the building supply worker, and Krelle, the toy maker, were publicity seekers wasting his time.

Hansen, though, agreed to meet Krelle at a local coffee shop.

Bingo.

“After 15 minutes with Eric,” Hansen said, “I knew he was not crazy, and I knew he had something that potentially could be an amazing story, at least for those who care about military history. I started calling historians and experts.”

Unreal, Hansen thought. Change the name of one of the Iwo Jima flag raisers? After all these years?

It had always been Bradley who’s depicted as part of the enormous monument just outside of Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Va. That’s Bradley shown in countless reproductions of the photo, Bradley in books written about that fragment in time, Bradley portrayed in the Eastwood movie, Bradley on that stamp you licked to mail a letter.

Its reach and importance, the way in which it reminds us to respect the Marines and all who fought against tyranny in the 1940s, continues to grab our attention, even today, and now we’ve got a fresh chapter to add to its background.

At first, the Marines slammed the door on the new evidence, emailing Hansen, “For nearly 70 years the Marine Corps firmly stands by the final conclusions of (the) investigation and has no cause to question the identity of the six flag raisers of the second flag raising.”

Things have changed.

Krelle told Hansen his research revealed that a man named Harold Schultz was in the photo, not John Bradley. Schultz, who received a Purple Heart for his bravery on Iwo, is shown in the first-flag raising photo and in the aftermath of the second.

He moved to Los Angeles after the war and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Is that him in THE photo?

He has a stepdaughter named Dezreen MacDowell, who told Hansen two years ago that her stepfather never said a word to her about being directly connected to the second flag raising.

Not a word.

The cameras roll in

The production team and retired Col. Matthew Morgan, both hired by the Smithsonian Channel, showed up more than an hour late to Josh Gagnon’s Manchester home.

The crew set up lights and cameras around the living room couch. A Smithsonian spokesman told me the press are never allowed to watch filming of one of their documentaries. And in this case, the potential for news value is off the charts.

I spoke with Morgan, of Michigan, who at 6-foot-4 and lean looked taller than he was, and whose baby face made him look younger than 44. Morgan served in the Marines for 24 years, retiring in 2013. He served in Iraq in 2007-08. He carefully worded his answers when asked if the documentary will reach any definitive conclusion.

“We’re looking at everything we can get our hands on,” Morgan said. “The U.S. Marine Corps has obviously said they are considering this evidence, but their decision has yet to be made.”

Morgan then dropped a bombshell: Independent of the Marines, he’s been working on the story, the possibility that Bradley was not in the photo, for more than a decade.

Why?

“Call it a curiosity,” Morgan said. “I’m not going to tell my thoughts on it.”

“I’ve seen a lot of the other photos,” Gagnon told Morgan. “I’ve seen the rolled up pants in one photo and not in the other. He (John Bradley) does not fit there.”

Outside, while Gagnon puffed on a cigarette, my phone rang and a Smithsonian spokesman explained there was an embargo on anything uncovered thus far.

It’s not on the record anywhere that anything will change. But Gagnon thinks he already knows the answer.

“He wasn’t there,” Gagnon said, before drawing deeply on a cigarette. “The Marines want to put an end to this conflict. If they weren’t going to budge, they wouldn’t be here.”




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