US Marines To Investigate Mistaken Identity Claim In Iwo Jima Photograph

This image was snapped by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on 23rd February 1945, during a lull in the fighting in one of the fiercest battles of WWII, the Battle of Iwo Jima. It is perhaps the most famous photograph to come out of the war. It has been used on countless book and magazine covers and was eternally preserved in a bronze statue at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

The flag raising ceremony was the second to have taken place that day. The commanders on the ground wanted a large flag raised at the highest point, Mount Suribachi, and six men were tasked with raising the flagpole.   The photographer, Joe Rosenthal, was present. He took the picture but did not record the names of the soldiers that had undertaken the task. President Franklin D Roosevelt demanded that the men be identified and the Marine Corps identified the men as Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, and John Bradley. For the past 70 years, these six men have been credited with raising the flag immortalised in the photograph named ‘Flags of our Fathers’ and no one has indicated anything to the contrary – until now.

Amateur history buff, Eric Krelle, with his friend Stephen Foley, have exhaustively investigated the photograph and believe that the Marine in the centre of the photograph is not John Bradley but someone else who has only recently been identified.

The man who started the investigation was Stephen Foley, who in 2013 was recuperating at home in Ireland from surgery. He was unable to move around a lot, and being bored with television he started reading books about the Battle of Iwo Jima. In his younger days, Foley had become fascinated with World War II and especially the Battle for the Pacific. His specific interest lay with the Marine Corps who fought so courageously against the Japanese. He was always fascinated by the famous photograph, saying in an interview, “I don’t know why. It just always struck a chord with me.”

The book that he was reading contained many photographs taken on that fateful day, both before and after the raising of the flag. John Bradley appears in many of the photographs and as Foley looked at Bradley and then at the famous photograph and then at Bradley again, he slowly came to the conclusion that the man identified as Bradley in the iconic photograph could not be John Bradley as his image in the other photographs from that day did not match at all. He based his theory on a few pertinent facts.

Firstly, the trousers that Bradley was wearing that day. In the flag raising photograph, the man purported to be Bradley is wearing uncuffed trousers that hang down over his boots. In all other photographs taken of Bradley that day, he is wearing trousers with cuffs that are pulled tight, showing his boots and the leggings that he is wearing under his trousers.

Secondly, in the famous photograph the peak of a soft cap is visible under the helmet of the man identified as Bradley. No other photograph of Bradley taken that day shows the peak of a soft cap under his helmet. In a photograph called ‘Gung Ho’, which shows a group of Marines around the flag, Bradley has his helmet in his hand and it is clear that there is nothing inside the helmet.

Thirdly, Bradley’s belt came under scrutiny. In the famous photograph, the belt worn by the man identified as Bradley has ammunition pouches to hold ammunition for the M-1 rifle, a pair of wire cutters hanging on his belt and the flaps from a standard Marine ammunition belt. This fact mystified Foley as he knew Bradley was a Navy corpsman, not a Marine so he should have had a pistol belt, not a cartridge belt as he should have carried a pistol not a rifle and he would not have been issued wire cutters as all Marines would have been.

These three items convinced Foley that the US Military had not identified all six correctly. After they had been identified, and with the popularity of the photograph the six were ordered back to the US to assist with raising war bonds. Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Franklin Sousley had all been killed in the ensuing battle but the other three John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes were feted as heroes and took part in a national drive to raise war bonds.

John Bradley’s son, James, wrote the book ‘Flags of our Fathers’, which picked up the stories of the three men that returned to the US as heroes. This book was immensely popular and raced to the top of the Times Best Sellers List in 2000 and the film rights were acquired by Steven Spielberg, who produced the film by the same name, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Foley realised that by calling into question the identity of one of the men in the photograph was bound to cause a stir. It would undermine one of the great stories of American heroism from World War II so he had to be extremely cautious about simply making the allegation. He said, “The image has endured. It’s still relevant today. And so it kind of boggles my mind: Am I the first person to notice this? I can’t be the first person, can I?

When the allegations broke, John Bradley tried to keep an open mind but he was somewhat sceptical of the entire thing, saying, “So, you are telling me that there are all these witnesses, these survivors who come home (from Mount Suribachi), and nobody says anything, and then someone figures out it’s different 70 years later, when they are all gone? I mean, come on.

He had received all the evidence that Foley accumulated but felt that the reasoning around the evidence was flawed. He thought that it was reasonable to believe that his father changed his uniform during the day. Bradley is also positive that his father was not the man in the iconic photograph he would definitely have said something prior to his death in 1994.

Bradley had not examined the photographs sent to him and made the conscious choice not to do so. “Listen, I wrote a book based on facts told to me by guys who had actually been there. That’s my research. That’s what I trust,” he said.

At the end of the day, the truth is the truth,” he said. “Everything is possible. But really?”

From the time that Rosenthal captured this magnificent image, the Military have struggled to identify the men in the photograph. Pfc. Rene Gagnon, a member of e Company, 5th Division, carried the flag to the summit of Mount Suribachi, so his commanders asked him who the men were that helped him raise the flag. Gagnon responded with four names; John Bradley, Franklin Sousley, Michael Strank and Henry “Hank” Hansen. Bradley had been wounded shortly after the photograph was taken and the other three were killed in the battle that raged for two days following the photograph being taken.

The last man, Pfc. Ira Hayes, had threatened Gagnon with bodily harm, should he identify him as the last man in the photograph. He was not interested in the fame, nor did he want to go back to the States and take part in a war bonds drive.

Another error, this one made by Gagnon himself, was that he identified the man at the bottom of the flagpole as Hank Hansen. Gagnon and Bradley both swore that the last man was Hanson and as a result Hanson’s mother joined the war bonds drive. In 1946, the family of Harlon Block sent a letter to their congressman saying that the man at the foot of the flagpole in the famous photograph was Block, who also died on Iwo Jima, and not Hansen.

This caused a furore and the Marines launched an investigation and in January 1947, the news was released that it was Harlon Block in the photograph and not Hansen. The Marine Corps refused to release any evidence from the investigation, much to the ire of the Hansen family.  After the investigation, the Marines released the names of the flag raisers as Gagnon, Bradley, Hayes, Sousley, Strank and Block. A spokesperson for the Marine Corps History Division, stated via e-mail, “For nearly 70 years the Marine Corps firmly stands by the final conclusions of (the) investigation and has no cause to question the identity of the six flag raisers of the second flag raising.”

Foley was convinced that the Marine in the photograph was not Bradley but then who was it? Having all the time in the world on his hands due to his surgery, Foley set about trying to identify the Marine. Taking the evidence that proved, to Foley at least, that the man was not Bradley, his trousers, his helmet with a soft cap underneath it and his belt, Foley started combing through the photographs to which he had access. From his examination of the photographs, he believed that the Maine second from the right was actually Pfc. Franklin Sousley. The official identification had placed Sousley as third from the right so if Bradley was really Sousley, then who occupied the second from right position?

Foley tried to get some response from well-respected historians but received no response to his e-mails until he decided to dispatch an e-mail to Eric Krelle, another part-time history buff, who runs the 5th Marine Division website. Krelle, at least, had the decency to read Foley’s e-mail and becoming fascinated by the idea that Foley was putting forward; Krelle took a long and exhaustive look at the evidence that had been placed in front of him. Krelle, said in an interview, “This is a strong case, Bradley isn’t in the photo. Sousley is in his place. It’s so strong I’m not sure how anyone could deny it.”

Krelle decided then and there that he was going to do everything he could to try and identify the missing man from the Iwo Jima photograph and try to get recognition for the man who should have been lauded as one of the flag raisers.

Foley, having returned to work, didn’t think that there was any way to identify the sixth man but he did not have access to the resources to which Krelle has access. Through his association with the 5th Marine Division website, he could go through a huge cache of memorabilia from World War II and speak to the families of veterans as well as other amateur history buffs.

From the Marine memorabilia came a film shot at the flag raising ceremony. Krelle watched the film over and over and then took it one frame at a time. Just as the flag was raised, the Unknown Marine walks away, crouches and then walks back to the flag. As he does this, the viewer is given a glimpse of the left side of his helmet and there is something hanging from the helmet.

Krelle identified the thing hanging from the helmet as a strap of some kind with a buckle attached but he was confounded by what the strap was. It was too thin to be a chin strap and after many hours of searching, he suddenly stumbled onto the answer. The strap that was hanging off the side of the Unknown Marine’s helmet was the strap that connected the metal outer casing to the lining and, more exciting, was the fact that only one Marine on the top of Mount Suribachi that day had a strap hanging off the left side of his helmet. Now he seemed to have zeroed in on the Marine he believed was one of the men that raised the flag, but more to the point; who was he?

Going back to his collection of photographs he found one with a caption that identified the soldier with the strap hanging from his helmet as Harold H Schultz, who originally came from Detroit.   His name had never been mentioned by anyone as being part of the flag raising ceremony but Krelle was absolutely convinced that the Unknown Marine in the flag raising photograph from Iwo Jima was Harold Schultz.

He took all the evidence that Foley and he had accumulated and wrote a blog detailing all that they had found. He expected that there would be a furore around the blog but there was only a deafening silence. Not one response was received. Krelle was unable to live with this silence so he approached a journalist Matthew Hansen, and asked him to write a story about what they had found.

Hansen started making phone calls and quickly found that the historians he contacted reacted very badly to the suggestion that something was wrong with the identification of these men. Several simply refused to even look at the evidence and others were openly rude to him. He experienced a similar reaction from World War II and Marine Corps experts, some of whom said they thought the evidence was compelling but refused to be associated with it.

Hansen then contacted Dustin Spence, who spent many years researching and filming a documentary about the flag raising on Iwo Jima and Spence agreed to look at the evidence. His conclusion was that, though there are similarities between the photographs it is not enough to nullify the accepted historical facts as put out by the Marine Corps. Clothing could be changed during the course of the day and belts could simply be picked up as perhaps Bradley’s had been damaged so he used one he found. It was just all too circumstantial for Spence.

Hansen then approached the History Department at Creighton University and two historians agreed to consider the evidence. Krelle was invited to present his evidence and gave a talk at the University. He presented blow-ups of the photographs that he believed showed the discrepancies and, to his mind, proved that the sixth man was Schultz and not Bradley.

Both the historians, Heather Fryer, an expert in 20th century American history and co-director of Creighton’s American Studies program and William Sherrard, a military historian at Creighton, both have the same view; this is compelling but not enough evidence to nullify the accepted list of names. Sherrard told Hansen, “It’s compelling, but I wouldn’t call it proof. You can make photos say what you want them to say.

Hansen had in the meantime started enquiries to track down the family of Harold Schultz as one of the big questions still hanging in the air was; if Schultz was the Unknown Marine, why did he not say anything to his family or to anyone else about being one of the men in the iconic photograph?

After a long and frustrating search, Hansen eventually tracked Schultz down via his Purple Heart and found that he had been wounded on Iwo Jima and returned to the US where he was granted an honourable discharge from the Marine Corps. He settled in Los Angeles and started working for the Post Office, a job he held until his retirement. He spent most of his life as a bachelor and only married at age 60 to Rita Reyes Schultz. His step-daughter, Dezreen MacDowell, told Hansen that her step-father had been a kind, quiet man who refused to speak about the war apart from telling her that he had lied about his age to join the Marines. He died in 1995 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Dezreen had cleared out her mother’s house and found a simple manila envelope that contained documents about Schultz’s war service. She sent the envelope to Hansen and inside was the, so called, ‘Gung Ho’ group photograph taken just after the flag raising. On the back of the photograph, Schultz had written the names of the men in it; from left to right, PFC Ira Hayes, First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, Sousley, Strank, Bradley, and then his own name; ‘PFC Harold H Schultz.’

Also in the envelope is a copy of the famous photograph and Hansen slowly turned it over, praying that Schultz had written the names on the back but it was blank. Only plain white paper started at the journalist so Schultz took the knowledge of whether or not he was in the photograph to his grave.

Two years after the first article was written, this story is getting the focus that it should. Bradley’s son now agrees that it most probably is not his father in the photograph but no formal word has come from the military. This is not a conspiracy theory, it is based on, certainly, circumstantial evidence but there is a great deal of it and it makes compelling reading. Hopefully, this will be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties and that one day the correct names will be attached to the photograph and due acknowledgement given to the correct men. It would, however, be wrong to smear Bradley’s name, he fought for his country and was wounded at Iwo Jima and received the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE