Rene Gagnon Jr., the son of a hero by any definition, dies at 74

  • Rene Gagnon holds the letter with the quote from John Bradley taken in 1979 at the funeral of Iwo Jima veteran Rene Gagonon Sr.The writer of the Chicago Tribune article was Mary Elson.

  • Rene Gagnon Jr. with the replica statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima that his mother received.

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/23/2022 8:01:23 PM

Rene Gagnon Jr. remained restless until the day he died.

For more than seven decades, he was known as the son of a hero. Part of a royal family, really. His father, Rene Gagnon Sr., had been named as one of the six men, shown in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, struggling to raise the American flag during World War II, on a tiny remote wasteland called Iwo Jima.

Rene Jr., who lived in Concord for 30 years, died earlier this month at the age of 74, still wounded that the Marines had revisited the photo in 2019, using an outside agency and today’s technology to examine what might have been missed.

It turns out that 74 years after the event, the report concluded that Rene Sr. was not one of the flag raisers. Instead, Harold “Pie” Keller of Iowa was the mostly-hidden Marine, second from the right in the famed photo, which ran in newspapers across the country in 1945 and provided a lift to a war-weary nation.

Keller was added to history books, nudging Rene Sr. aside. It’s a fact that was not easily accepted by those in Rene Jr.’s camp.

Not after so many years. Not after Rene Jr.’s children and grandchildren had always had the most thrilling show-and-tell sessions in school. About a man, shown with five others, on postage stamps and coins, who posed for a statue bigger than King Kong in our nation’s capital, who was portrayed in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

Rene Jr. didn’t believe the news. Or he preferred not to believe it, telling me the last time we met that maybe, just maybe, the investigators got the story wrong.

He said he hadn’t seen the digital evidence used to prove that his father wasn’t one of the flag raisers, and until he did, he’d remain skeptical.

“I don’t have the technology to say whether or not that was my father,” Rene Jr. told me.

Circling the wagons

His allies said they also had doubts that Rene Sr. wasn’t in the picture. Rene Jr.’s daughter, Becky O’Dell of Franklin, referring to the mind-boggling and life-changing revelation that her grandfather wasn’t in Rosenthal’s masterpiece, said this week, “We are not convinced of that. It broke all our hearts to hear that.”

Rene Jr.’s restlessness extended elsewhere. In the oddest of subplots, three years before the Marines announced that Rene Sr. wasn’t in the photo, an investigation showed that Navy Corpsman John Bradley wasn’t in it, either. That was announced 16 years after his son, James Bradley, had reintroduced the major players in his best-selling book, Flags of Our Fathers, and 10 years after he’d sold the rights to Eastwood for his Hollywood blockbuster.

John Bradley had been the best man at Rene Sr.’s wedding, but that hardly mattered. Things turned awkward, causing tension between the sons of the fathers.

Rene Jr. was troubled for years. His father died in 1979 at the age of 53. He never liked the portrayal of his father – a shallow, hard-drinking playboy – in James Bradley’s book.

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

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

Rene Jr. asked me to help him write a book of his own, to explain to the public that his father was a good man, a hard worker, a pained individual who lived a tough life, with a wife who tried to manipulate him, cash in on his fame.

I met Rene Jr. several times and spent hours with him. He was gentle, easy to talk to. His voice was raspy from smoking homemade, rolled cigarettes. He built roofs and installed vinyl siding, and he peered above his glasses each time we spoke.

O’Dell said her father’s idea to write a book had everything to do with setting the record straight, not money.

“He (Rene Jr.) wanted to write a book to promote his father, get his story out there,” O’Dell said. “The book would have shown his character. I worked with him at the time when the movie came out, and I had quite a few conversations, and he was really upset over how (James) Bradley perceived his father.”

And that’s not all

The strange connection between the two took on a life of its own. James Bradley, living in New York City, defended his description of Rene Sr. in 2016, telling me by phone that Rene Jr. was envious of James Bradley’s success.

“I didn’t make any of that up,” he said. “I talked to people who talked to Rene (Sr.). 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.’ ”

James Bradley also said that he had no choice but to accept the facial reconstruction technique that showed Franklin Sousley was in the picture, not his father, John Bradley.

He was in another photo, showing a smaller flag attached to a pole. Strangely, no one came forward through the years to set the record straight.

Were the Marines confused because two flag-raising photo sessions were shot? Once realizing this, were they ordered to keep their mouths shut, to leave the names as they were, avoiding controversy? Did anyone knowingly misrepresent themselves, for profit?

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

He was. So was Rene Sr., and we should stop here, acknowledge that both men were heroes, photo or not.

Under fire from the Japanese, Rene Sr. ran up Mt. Suribachi with the famous flag, handed it off to other Marines, then raced back down with another version, deemed too small to inspire Marines on the beach, still four weeks away from securing the island.

Meanwhile, John Bradley was wounded at Iwo and hospitalized before his name began to circulate.

In the end, more than 7,000 Americans were killed during the five-week battle. Three times as many Japanese died.

Rosenthal’s photo, however, narrowed the field, gave faces and names and structure to the unimaginable, allowing Americans to actually meet these symbols of courage, study their faces, hear their stories.

Confusion begins

The names, six of them, were gathered through the chaos of war. Were the men properly identified? Accuracy was secondary. Connecting a name to a Marine, quickly, mattered. They would be the perfect spokesmen to tour the states and raise money for the war effort.

And that was it. They planted the flag, the Marines said. They represented the best of the best. Three of them died within a week of Rosenthal’s photo.

The three survivors who supposedly were in the picture – Rene Sr., John Bradley and Ira Hayes – were sent home, all psychologically wounded from the war, all pained with guilt that their buddies remained on that God-awful island.

They smiled, filled stadiums, sold war bonds. Rene Sr., dark with Tyrone Power good looks, became famous.

The Marine Corps War Memorial, outside Washington, D.C., was built in 1954. Rene Sr., Bradley and Hayes were there for the dedication of a titanic statue, with six 32-foot figures lifting a 60-foot iron pipe. The flagpole.

A shocking realization

The real identities in both cases surfaced after a pair of amateur sleuths with some free time studied all photos and film connected to the event, on Feb. 23, 1945. In Rene Sr.’s case, Keller’s face eventually became easier to see.

Other details emerged. Tiny details, easily overlooked. Like the crease and camouflage pattern on the helmet worn by Keller, not Rene Sr. Also, a wedding ring was spotted. Keller was married, Rene Sr. was not.

These findings – difficult to uncover because faces were obscured in a tangle of bodies atop Mt. Suribachi – were examined by the FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory, which confirmed the conclusion.

It’s a good bet that this relatively new information on both men was accurate. Especially after the Marines, always mindful of public perception and image, admitted that they got it wrong.

In John Bradley’s case, he wore uncuffed pants in the famous photo, but then had tightly cuffed pants in other photos taken the same day.

A cap can be seen beneath a helmet in Rosenthal’s photo. That, however, could not have been John Bradley, who wore just a helmet that day, no cap.

And what about the cartridge belt with ammunition pouches and the wire cutters hanging off John Bradley’s belt? As a Navy corpsman, he would not have been carrying those items.

Documenting their findings

From here, it gets even stranger. Rene Jr. was included in a Smithsonian Channel documentary in 2016, filmed at his son’s house in Manchester.

The topic: New technology strongly suggested that John Bradley was not in the photo. A man named Sousley was.

Rene Jr., already upset over James’s depiction of his father in print, spoke his mind to me.

“It was a good historical document about lives and times and people,” Rene Jr. said. “But it sort of diminishes my father’s character while boosting his father’s credibility.”

He continued: “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.’ ”

Then, three years later, came a punch to the collective gut of Team Gagnon. Rene Gagnon Sr. wasn’t in the photo, either. A kid from Iowa, Harold ‘Pie’ Keller, was.

Human nature kicked in. Loyalty. Hope that the Marines got it wrong. Feelings that only family and allies of Rene Sr. and Jr. would have. Feelings no doubt that outsiders would wave off.

O’Dell’s bond with her father was unbreakable, palpable. She toed the party line. She questioned the report claiming that her grandfather was not in the most famous photo in American history.

And she felt ambushed, upset that no one had called Rene Jr. during the news coverage announcing that another Iwo Jima soldier – this time Rene Sr. – had been wrongly identified, the second one in three years.

“No one wanted to talk to him,” O’Dell said. “They should have said on the phone with dad that this is what we found, but I don’t think it was fair that he could not question the story before it broke.”

O’Dell was born in June of 1980, eight months after Rene Sr. died. She said her father called her “Daddy’s little girl.”

Rene Jr. and his wife, Judy, moved in with O’Dell and her husband, Shannon, last year in Franklin, after living in Concord for 30 years.

Shannon wrote the obit. “Predeceased by his dad Iwo Jima flag raiser Rene Gagnon Sr.,” it read.

In this case, perception is reality. Rene Gagnon Sr. was a hero, needing no photo to prove that. But he might have raised the flag in Rosenthal’s photo, right?

That’s the way it’s always been. O’Dell remembers bringing endless photos to school for show and tell. She knew the story well. The whole story.

She corrected her teacher, who said four men had raised the flag in the photo.

“There were six,” said O’Dell, the grade-school kid.

“How do you know so much about this photo?” the teacher asked.

“My grandfather was there,” she said. “He was one of those men.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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