Marines reveal that Rene Gagnon of Manchester, whose son lives in Concord, was not in the flag-raising photo at Iwo Jima 

  • Rene Gagnon’s father, late manchester native and resident Rene Gagnon, was one of six men to shove that flagpole into mt suribachi during the battle of iowa jima.Here, Gagnon holds a photo of his father on tour with the famous Rosenthal photo of the flag-raising.Rene Gagnon Jr.’s father, late Manchester native and resident Rene Gagnon, was one of six men to raise the American flag during the battle of Iwo Jima. Gagnon holds a photo of his father on tour with the famous Joe Rosenthal photo of the flag-raising. File

  • FILE - In this Feb 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. The Marines Corps announced Thursday, June 23, 2016, that one of the six men long identified in the iconic World War II photograph was actually not in the image. A panel found that Private First Class Harold Schultz, of Detroit, was in the photo and that Navy Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class John Bradley wasn't in the image. Bradley had participated in an earlier flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File) Joe Rosenthal

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

  • (From left) Ira H. Hayes, John Bradley and Rene Gagnon were celebrated for having raised the flag at Iwo Jima. It has since been determined that Bradley and Gagnon were not in the famed photo. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 10/17/2019 2:38:05 PM

Push aside the names associated with the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, Va., if only for a moment.

Instead, let’s try something different. Let’s remember the Marines as a unit, as a team, as a fighting force that stormed the beaches on this tiny island made of soft, black volcanic ash.

The battle, seven months before the Japanese surrendered to end World War II, claimed nearly 7,000 American lives. Three times as many Japanese were killed, and all those deaths occurred in just five weeks.

I mention this after NBC reported shocking news this week, that for the second time in three years, it was discovered that a man in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo – six Americans planting our flag atop Mt. Suribachi simply to raise morale – was not who we were told.

The real identity of the mostly-hidden Marine, second from the right, was Harold “Pie” Keller. He replaces Rene Gagnon of Manchester. Gagnon’s son, also named Rene, lives in Concord.

Believing that the father of a Concord resident was one of the famed six in that photo put us on the ground floor of this amazing story about this awful battle. It opened a door that the younger Gagnon, who’s 72, was more than willing to step through.

And why not? His father, who died in 1979 from a heart attack at the age of 54, was a hero, one of the Marines who stormed the island, and the man chosen to carry the original flag, deemed too small, down Suribachi and bring the final, larger flag back up.

Sniper fire followed him, down and up. Does the fact that Gagnon was not in the photo diminish anything he did, anything the 7,000 Americans killed did, anything the nearly 20,000 Americans injured did?

Of course not. That’s why the Marines, who confirmed that Keller was misidentified this week after exhaustive research by three private sleuths, turned to their talking points, just as they did three years ago when it was discovered that John Bradley wasn’t in the photo, either.

“Regardless of who was in the photograph,” read an official Marine statement to NBC, “each and every Marine who set foot on Iwo Jima, or supported the effort from the sea and air around the island is, and always be, a part of our Corps’ cherished history. In the words of General David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, ‘They are all heroes.’ ”

We in this business despise public relations statements, which never seem to dig below the surface, offer anything substantive, or shed any perspective or context on a subject.

Not this time, though. The Marines nailed it.

That was a photo of the Marines, not merely six Marines.

Obviously, though, when a photo of this kind of power surfaces in newspapers across the country, which is what happened in this case, the immediate thought is to name the people in the picture.

It’s the power of images, the perfect recruiting tool, in this case worth more than a thousand words. This time, it was worth respect for thousands of lives by showing the public back home how courage could blend with hardship.

Naming these men was no easy task. Not in the chaos and blood that was Iwo Jima. And another photo of the first flag raising was released as well, plus others that showed Marines celebrating their flag-planting achievement, even though another month of fighting lay ahead.

But until recently, the names had remained the same for decades. Then, after digital technology zoomed in close, we learned that John Bradley wasn’t actually in the photo. A man named Harold Schultz was.

Now this.

It’s left Gagnon reeling. He’s 72, retired from his job installing vinyl siding a few years ago. He told me that his father no doubt knew the truth, yet he never mentioned anything to him about not being in the photo. That hurt.

“In my 20s or 30s he could have sat me down and told me,” Gagnon Jr. said. “I’m feeling somewhat betrayed by this.”

Then, after a few minutes, Gagnon’s view changed. He began hoping that maybe, just maybe, the investigators got it wrong. He said he hasn’t seen the digital evidence used to prove his father wasn’t one of the flag raisers, and until he does, he’ll remain skeptical, saying, “I don’t have the technology to say whether or not that was my father.”

It’s a good bet that this new information is accurate, and it’s also a good bet that Gagnon knows this, especially after the Marines, always mindful of public perception and image, admitted they got it wrong.

Meanwhile, Gagnon has taken great pride in telling the story of his famous father. His license plate reads “Iwo Jima,” and his home is full of photos showing Gagnon, Bradley and Ira Hayes – the three survivors whom the Marines claimed were in the picture –traveling the country on a bond tour to help support the war.

But the news has turned Gagnon’s life upside down.

“It’s a massive blow,” he told me. “I have kids and grandkids and they’re all like, ‘What’s this all about?’ My whole family is devastated.”

Which is how the Bradley family must have felt in 2016, when the truth about John appeared. This is a sore spot for Gagnon. John’s son, James Bradley, wrote a book and sold the movie rights to Clint Eastwood before news broke that his father wasn’t in the photo.

Gagnon’s bitterness toward James is palpable. He’s never cashed in, although he’s working on a book and says, “I’ll have to rewrite my forward.”

Gagnon did his best to keep his feelings in check three years ago, when I spoke to him about an upcoming documentary that included the Bradley mistake.

That didn’t last long, though. His view of both Bradleys had been simmering for years.

“I’m not trying to bash (John),” Gagnon told me. “Well, I am. I didn’t want to bash him, but, Goddamn, the man knew (he wasn’t in the photo), and so did the son.”

The real identities in both cases surfaced after months and years of examining photos and film from that day, Feb. 23, 1945. In Gagnon’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 of the man second from the left, which matched the helmet worn by Keller but not the one used by Gagnon.

Also, a wedding ring was spotted. Keller was married, while Gagnon 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.

Despite the new evidence, the Marines did not revoke any praise for Gagnon.

“Private First Class Gagnon played a significant role in the flag raising on Mount Suribachi and his role will never be diminished,” the Marines said in their statement. “He was directly responsible for getting the larger second flag to the top and returning the first flag for safe keeping. Without his efforts, this historical event might not have been captured, let alone even occurred.”

But what, really, does it matter who  was in the photo? Like the statement said, maybe it’s time to nudge aside names and focus on this group as a unit, working together, climbing up that volcanic ash that tried to swallow them as they moved, wondering who’d get hit with the next bullet or piece of shrapnel.

Talking about his father’s newly-discovered role, Gagnon said, “I know he did what he was told to do, and he did it.”

Of course he did.

He was a Marine.

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