Monday, May 27, 2013

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers

Thank You Servicemen and Servicewomen
(Military Week)

Today is Memorial Day, a day to commemorate the men and women who died during military service. It is a day to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  And for all those who have been, or are now, in the military, willing to risk their lives on so many fronts (including physical and mental), I want to say thank you.  Thank you for offering so much!  Of course, the families of all soldiers also deserve our gratitude.  I cannot imagine the heartache and stress of not knowing if your loved one will come back, and if he or she does, what kind of person will they be after what they've been through. 

If ever there was an iconic image of war, the six men raising the flag on the island of Iwo Jima during WWII, certainly comes to mind.  I have to admit that I am not a history buff.  I don’t particularly like war movies.  When I read books set in a war, the battles are usually a backdrop to the main love story.  In other words, this is not my usual pick of books.  But I became interested in Flags of Our Fathers through a forwarded email.  It was about an eighth grade class that took a trip to D.C. On one of the stops the class visited the bronze statue of the flag raising in Iwo Jima. I don’t know if the story was true, but it stated that at the memorial statue, James Bradley, the author of Flags of Our Fathers, just happened to be there. He began to tell the students about the six boys who raised that flag. The “old man” of the group was only 24.  The youngest was 18. He told how three of them never left that island.  They died there.  The other three that survived were catapulted into an unwanted whirlwind that rocked their lives.  One of them was his father, John “Jack” (Doc) Bradley.  His father, Jack, made it a point to never speak of the war.  The only thing he ever said was “The real heroes are the guys who didn't come back.” And so after his father passed away, James took years of research to find the real stories of those six men who almost everybody recognized yet not many people knew.

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers examines the lives of the six young men who became instant and even reluctant heroes in that iconic photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. The book relays the background of each of the men, who they were and what family values formed them. Bradley pieced together their histories as well as the realities of the unforgettable battle with heart wrenching detail.

It was only 1/400th of a second, the time it took to take that photo, but the magnitude of the resulting propaganda had a huge impact.  For the six men it was just that, a blip in time compared to the job they had at hand. When the flag went up the fighting was far from over, though Americans hailed the photo as a victorious boost to morale. It touched the people and the government saw it as a great opportunity. The three surviving men were pulled from the battle to begin a Bond Tour to raise more money for the war efforts.  They became instant heroes, whether they liked it or not.  Each had a different way of handling that fame.  Rene Gagnon hoped his notoriety would help him gain employment.  It didn't.  Ira Hayes hid behind the bottle and eventually died at age 32.  Only Jack Bradley, the author’s father, did his tour duty then forevermore backed away from the press after he left the service.  With great determination, he kept his private life private and never talked of the war again.  That was his way of handling it.  He decided to go on with his life.

The stories of the six men are compelling. But more than their stories, we see that they were just six small but valuable parts in a much bigger story.  There were so many others, so many who suffered, who gave their lives.  Eighty thousand American men fought 22,000 Japanese for over one month in unimaginable circumstances. Our U.S. Marines could not see the enemies.  Sixteen miles of underground tunnels hid the Japanese as they picked our guys off. After a long and bloody battle, the Marines finally did conquer that tiny sulphur-stinking island which we desperately needed for a landing strip en route to Japan.  But it was at enormous cost. 22,851 casualties. 7,000 dead. It was “one of the most intense and closely fought battles of any war.” If war books do not usually make it onto your reading list, you may want to reconsider just this once.  Flags of Our Fathers is dramatic, moving, and enlightening.

When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today

Message chiseled outside the cemetery on Iwo Jima
Flags of Our Fathers James Bradley with Ron Powers, (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), 247.


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