Ordinary People

Reprinted from PN January 2001

Nearly half the men and women who have served in the U.S. military forces during times of war are alive today.Veterans Day salutes them—and all who served.

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The following tribute appeared on the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Web site:

Each year, I am hired to go to Washington, D.C., with the eighth-grade class from Clinton, Wis. (where I grew up), to videotape their trip. I greatly enjoy visiting our nation's capitol, and annually I take some special memories back with me.

On the last night of our latest trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima [U.S. Marine Corps] memorial. This, the world's largest bronze statue, depicts one of the most famous photographs in history—that of the six brave men raising the American flag at the top of a rocky hill [Mount Suribachi] on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during World War II.

More than 100 students and chaperones piled off the buses and headed toward the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the statue's base, and as I got closer, he asked, "Where are you guys from?"

I told him we were from Wisconsin. "Hey, I'm a Cheesehead, too," he said. "Gather around, and I'll tell you a story."

James Bradley happened to be in Washington, D.C., to speak at the memorial the following day. He had been ready to leave when he saw the buses pull up. I videotaped him as he spoke to us, and received his permission to share what he said on that tape.

It is one thing to tour the incredible monuments filled with history in Washington, D.C. But it is quite another to get the kind of insight we received that night. When everyone had gathered around, Bradley reverently began to speak.

"My name is James Bradley, and I am from Antigo, Wis. My dad is on that statue, and I just wrote a book called Flags of Our Fathers, which is number five on the New York Times best-seller list right now. It is the story of the six boys you see behind me. Six boys raised the flag.

"The first guy putting the pole in the ground is Harlon Block. He was an all-state football player. He enlisted in the Marine Corps with all the senior members of the football team. They were off to play another type of game. A game called War. But it didn't turn out to be a game. Harlon, at age 21, died with his intestines in his hands. I don't say that to gross you out but because there are generals who stand in front of this statue and talk about the glory of war. You guys need to know that most of the boys in Iwo Jima were 17, 18, and 19 years old."

He pointed to the statue.

"You see this guy? That's Rene Gagnon from New Hampshire. If you took Rene's helmet off at the moment this photo was taken and looked in the webbing of that helmet, you would find a photograph. A photograph of his girlfriend. Rene put that in there for protection, because he was scared. He was 18 years old. Boys won the battle of Iwo Jima. Boys, not old men.

"The next guy here, the third guy in this tableau, was Sergeant Mike Strank. Mike is my hero. He was the hero of all these guys. They called him the Old Man because he was so old. He was already 24. When Mike would motivate his boys in training camp, he didn't say, 'Let's go kill some Japanese' or 'Let's die for our country.' He knew he was talking to boys. Instead, he would say, 'You do what I say, and I'll get you home to your mothers.'

"The last guy on this side of the statue is Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. Ira walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my dad. President Truman told him, 'You're a hero.' Ira told reporters, 'How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me—and only 27 of us walked off alive?'

"So, you take your class at school—250 of you spending a year together having fun, doing everything together. Then all 250 of you hit the beach, but only 27 of you walk off alive. That was Ira Hayes. He had images of horror in his mind. He died dead drunk, face down at age 32, ten years after this picture was taken.

"The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Ky. A fun-lovin' hillbilly boy. He died on Iwo Jima at age 19. When the telegram came to tell his mother he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to Franklin's mother's farm. The neighbors could hear her scream all night and into the morning. The neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.

"The next guy [is] John Bradley, from Antigo, Wis. My dad lived until 1994, but he would never give interviews. When Walter Cronkite's producers or the New York Times would call, we were trained as little kids to say, 'No, I'm sorry, sir, my dad's not here. He is in Canada fishing. No there is no phone there, sir. No, we don't know when he is coming back.'

"My dad never fished in or even went to Canada. Usually he was sitting right there at the table eating his Campbell's soup. But we had to tell the press that he was out fishing. He didn't want to talk to the press. You see, my dad didn't see himself as a hero.

"Everyone thinks these guys are heroes, because they are in a photo and [on] a monument. My dad knew better. He was a medic. John Bradley, from Wisconsin, was a caregiver. In Iwo Jima he probably held more than 200 boys as they died.

"When I was a little boy, my third-grade teacher told me my dad was a hero. When I went home and told him that, he looked at me and said, 'I want you always to remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who did not come back.'

"So, that's the story about six nice young boys. Three died on Iwo Jima, and three came back as national heroes. Overall, 7,000 boys died on Iwo Jima in the worst battle in the history of the Marine Corps.

"My voice is giving out, so I will end here. Thank you for your time."

Suddenly the monument wasn't just a big old piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before our eyes with the heartfelt words of a son who did indeed have a father who was a hero.

Maybe not a hero for the reasons most people would believe, but a hero nonetheless.


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Ordinary People


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