During the past 10 years I have had the unique privilege of talking every day with World War II veterans and their families. Needless to say, I have been told many, many stories. But of all the things I’ve heard the most surprising story happens to involve one of the most historic moments in all the 20th century.
My connection to this story began aboard a ship in the waters north of New Zealand. After a lecture on Capt. James Cook I was approached by a square-jawed fellow, with the build of a wrestler, who wanted to discuss how I structured my lectures and public presentations. We made fast friends and our conversation led to a glass of wine and then a dinner during which time I learned that I was talking with New York Times best selling author, James Bradley.
Bradley had written a book about his father who happened to be one of the most famous men of the 20th century. His father, John Bradley, was among the group of Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.
James’ book, titled “Flags of our Fathers” appeared in 2000 and Clint Eastwood turned it into a movie a couple years later. After that success James wrote several more books about American activity in Asia and is currently doing more research and lectures.
John Bradley: Corpsman
Now, before we get into this story it is important to establish the fact that John Bradley was not a Marine. The “leathernecks” were 100% fighting men. Because of this, whenever they went into battle they recruited medics from the Navy to accompany them. That was John Bradley. Officially he was a “Pharmacists Mate Second Class” but on the battlefields with the Marines he was called a “corpsman.”
These corpsmen were the unsung heroes of the war. They were on the front lines dodging mortars, hunkered down in foxholes or diving across barbed wire side by side with all the other Marines, but they were armed with only bandages and syringes. They were like an emergency room doctor fighting to keep men alive, except they faced the risk of someone shooting at them 24 hours a day.
Back in February 1945 when our fleet of 450 ships arrived in the offshore waters of Iwo Jima, the generals and admirals were feeling very good. The island had been hammered for six months by dive bombers and high-speed strafing. Now, prior to the invasion, the ships rained down on the island a barrage of artillery for three days that turned virtually every square inch of Iwo Jima into a smoking crater. After such a bombardment the admirals and generals assumed the “mopping up” operations would be over in two days.
The first wave of Marines hit the beach at 8:59 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1945. Wave after wave of Marines arrived on their heels. John Bradley was with the ninth group who landed. The ensuing battle was more horrific than anyone expected. Nevertheless, in five days the Marines fought their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, where the American flag was proudly raised. It was just a spontaneous act. No one involved thought much about it. There was no ceremony or salute. However, the sight of our flag gave great joy to the Marines below and emboldened them in their struggle to conquer the island.
Despite being outnumbered and low on water and ammunition, the tenacious Japanese withstood the overwhelming force of the Navy and Marines for more than 30 days. However, John Bradley was not there to see the end of that battle. On March 12, 17 days after raising the flag, he took a blast of shrapnel in the back of his legs and and foot. Another corpsman found him and got the bleeding slowed down enough to drag him to safety. From the field hospital he was evacuated to Guam and then to Hawaii for recovery with other wounded Marines.
The raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi occurred so quickly in such a remote and distant place that it would have been completely forgotten if it wasn’t for a group of photographers who followed the Marines up to the top. One had a movie camera and others had still cameras. There was nothing special about that. Photographers followed troops everywhere.
But on that day one photographer happened to be in the right place at precisely the right time. He clicked his shutter when the pole reached the 45 degree half-way point, and nature did the rest. The wind lifted the flag and whipped it into a diamond that seems to be pulling itself upward, bursting with energy. Meanwhile, at that same exact moment the bodies of the six men pressed into a dynamic pyramid, with powerful arms, elbows and hands thrusting in every direction but all moving toward the same goal as if their actions had been carefully choreographed. In fact, that assembly of men, with every face conveniently hidden from view, is so mysteriously perfect it resembles a composition the great Michelangelo might have done on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
That lucky photographer captured a magical moment that enthralled Americans at first sight. Every mother could imagine that it was her son raising the flag; every schoolboy dreamed it was him. Magazines ran full page spreads while newspapers were bombarded with requests to see it again. It went viral from coast to coast.
With each passing day the public’s interest in the photograph grew. It was heroic. It was pure. It symbolized America and the struggle of its citizens for freedom. That single photograph grabbed people’s attention like no other and this excitement was immediately recognized by senators and military commanders back in Washington, D.C. They knew those six men were national celebrities and when they asked for money the public would not refuse.
Find those men!
The word went out from the Pentagon: Find those six men and bring them to Washington — now!
For the generals and admirals on Iwo Jima, the task of searching for six guys out of the 70,000 Marines was the last order they wanted to hear. They quickly tracked down the photographer who took the picture but Joe Rosenthal had not written down any of the soldier’s names. So the search went on.
Who were those guys? And where were they now?
Eventually, their names became known but a quick search sadly revealed that three of them — Block, Strank and Sousley — had already been killed. However, two were still able bodied and one had been wounded. Both Marines, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, were pulled back from the front lines and sent on their way home. The wounded man was not hard to track down.
John Bradley rested in his cot in a Hawaii hospital ward along with hundreds of other men. As he gazed around at the amputees and horrific wounds surrounding him, he probably felt he had been very lucky. Those days passed slowly until the moment he was approached and asked if he had raised a flag on Mount Suribachi. He replied “Yes” and they told him to get his clothes — he was going home.
The news spread like wildfire. Three of the Iwo Jima heroes were coming home. The public was ecstatic. Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and James Bradley were national icons. Everyone wanted to meet them and hear their story.
Throughout the remaining months of World War II, the three men toured from city to city asking people to buy Liberty Bonds. Public relations and fund raising became their duty.
After the surrender of Japan, these men were discharged. Bradley married, had a family of eight children and became a respected mortician operating his own funeral parlor. From all appearances he lived a quiet, normal life, but try as he might, the story of his famous deed followed him everywhere.
James describes his father as someone who did not talk about the war and who also was very successful at dodging newspapermen looking for a story. In fact, it might be said that he completely shunned having any involvement in this historic flag raising on Iwo Jima. In the decades following WWII, John Bradley apparently only gave three or four interviews. However, in November 1954 Richard Nixon pulled him out from his quiet life and thrust him before the public during the unveiling of an enormous sculpture outside Arlington National Cemetery. One can only imagine what Bradley must have thought as he gazed upward at the 32-foot tall statue of himself, cast in pure bronze.
Bradley suffered a stroke and passed away in 1994. He had been one of the greatest of what became known as the “Greatest Generation.”
End of the story. Or so it seemed.
Unraveling a mystery
Enter the historical sleuths.
When historical sleuths uncover the unknown past and try to show the truth it makes some people very upset. They are accused of “rewriting history” or trying to advance their own agenda. However, we are aware that much of the literature we call history is merely the first draft, and the actual truth is waiting for someone to uncover, sometimes years and years later. And this is the story of John Bradley and Iwo Jima.
In this case it took an Irish gentleman by the name of Stephen Foley. One day, while recovering from surgery with nothing to do, he happened to look closely at the photograph of that flag raising and noticed that John Bradley was wearing a cap under his helmet. The bill of this cap sticks out. But this inquisitive fellow then noticed in a photograph taken a few minutes later that Bradley’s cap is missing.
Looking closer he noticed that when Bradley was raising the flag his pant cuffs were turned down whereas several minutes before his pant cuffs were turned up.
Where did the cap go? And why would Bradley adjust his trousers at a time like that?
More photographs were requested. In fact, every single photograph taken that day was gathered and analyzed. Initially each soldier resembled everyone else and are indistinguishable, however, upon closer examination they all had unique details. Some wore wedding rings while others carried distinctive weapons. The random pattern of the camouflage on everyone’s helmet was realized to be almost as unique as a fingerprint. Each man there became known from the front, back and side.
This research led to a very obvious overlooked detail that should have been noticed. In the photo of Bradley raising the flag, we see he is wearing a cartridge belt with wire cutters and a couple ammo pouches for an M1 rifle. But in the photograph of him taken earlier that morning, he is loaded down with pouches, satchels and bags. In fact, he is carrying so much weight that a pair of suspenders was clipped to his pistol belt to hold up the load. And across each shoulder is slung another satchel. As a corpsman, Bradley was a walking ambulance. He had to have everything necessary close at hand, which included rolls of gauze and bandages, cotton balls, splints, slings, morphine, syringes, water, tourniquets, saline and plasma. Fully loaded, he carried more than 20 pounds of medicines and supplies.
So the question immediately came up. Would Bradley have removed his load of supplies in order to be more agile while raising the flag? If so, where did he get the cartridge belt with the wire cutters? That really didn’t make any sense.
The overlooked Marine
Looking closer and closer at the patterns of the camouflage on each helmet led to the startling discovery. The man, second from the right was not John Bradley; he was actually a Marine from Kentucky named Franklin Sousley. Sousley was killed by a Japanese sniper less than a month after the photo was taken.
Suddenly, it occurred to them that one of the most famous moments in all of U.S. Marine Corps history was a case of mistaken identity. The Corps was presented with these details and immediately rejected this presumption. They took the information and locked it in a drawer. They felt it was preposterous that some Irishman could ever know more about Iwo Jima than they did.
Later, some Marine historians quietly began to examine these photos and realized their mistake. In June 2016, the Marine Corps officially announced its conclusion — John Bradley had not raised that flag on Iwo Jima.
One mystery was solved but this led to another. How could John Bradley have looked at that photograph and thought it was a picture of him?
Was his memory blocked from the horrors he had seen? Is it possible that he forgot how much equipment he carried? Is this an example of the “fog of war” that we hear about so often?
There is no hint that Bradley had any secret agenda. He did not boast or write books about the ordeal. In fact, he is not known to have discussed the subject, even with his family. People who knew him said he was an honest and trustworthy man who neither lied or deceived anyone.
I talked with James Bradley a few weeks ago.
He is doing very well and is happy. But when I brought up this topic about his father he turned sulky and grave. Clearly, he was as stunned as everyone else. His career as a writer was launched on the accomplishments of his famous father, and now that deed had been turned upside down.
I have thought about this for a long, long while. I have studied the photographs again and again. This is one of the most famous photographs in all of American military history. I find it nearly impossible to believe that John Bradley could carry that enormous load of medial supplies in war and later see a photograph of a soldier carrying almost nothing and believe it was a portrait of him. That goes beyond reason.
I can imagine only one possible explanation. Maybe it is cynical, but my theory goes like this.
We know for a fact that there were two flags raised on Mount Suribachi. John Bradley helped raise the first flag pole, which occurred around 10:30 in the morning. The second flag, when the famous photo was taken, was raised around 12:30.
Later, after the photo went viral and Bradley was found in the hospital they asked him, “Bradley, did you raise that flag on Mount Suribachi?” He replied honestly, “Yes.”
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. Bradley is finally handed a copy of the photograph and he has his first glimpse of what everyone was talking about. Bradley instantly realizes, at that moment, that wasn’t him. In my imagination, Bradley is startled by this mistake and immediately asks to speak with a commanding officer.
Now my imagination takes me to a small private room where several humorless senators and grim-faced generals have assembled. A cloud of thick cigar smoke hangs above their heads. Corpsman Bradley explains their mistake and expresses his hope they can find the right guy.
And then I imagine a general stepping up face to face with Bradley and informing him that this is an extremely delicate matter of great national interest. The general calmly explains that everyone in America — including the president — already knows his name and they want to shake his hand. Then they explain that raising money will be used to buy more ships and planes to shorten the war, which will save more American lives.
Finally, the humorless general half shouts a command, “Listen, Bradley, from now on, and for the rest of your life, that guy in the photograph is you! We don’t care what you think.
“From this moment on, if anyone asks you, you tell them it is you.”
“And that’s an order!”
That is the scenario I imagine. It is the only one that makes sense to me.
We know, for a fact, that everyday some former American military or CIA worker goes to his grave with secrets the public will never know. It might be about Vietnam or about Fidel Castro, or it might be about John F. Kennedy, Saddam Hussein or even Iran-Contra — things they did or things they saw; money that changed hands; weapons sold to bad guys. The public would be shocked if we knew the truth, but these loyal Americans are tight-lipped and take their secrets to the grave.
I am convinced corpsman John Bradley got caught up in one of these cover-up affairs. He was ordered to keep his mouth shut and went to his grave hoping the secret would never be revealed.
He was a true American hero. Just not the particular hero in that remarkable photograph.
Rex Ziak is co-founder and president of Obon Society, an international humanitarian organization that reconciles the lingering grief of war through people to people contact that is achieved during the return of battlefield souvenirs. In an earlier life he uncovered the unknown story of Lewis and Clark’s arrival at the Pacific Ocean, which sparked the creation of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.