There is something quite predictable about The New York Times article which presents a new twist on one of the most iconic images in history–Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.  Here’s the lede from reporter Michael S. Schmidt, who has covered military topics for many years, and quite frankly, should know better:

“An internal investigation by the Marine Corps has concluded that for more than 70 years it wrongly identified one of the men in the iconic photograph of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.”

Mr. Schmidt goes on to detail the results of an official inquiry which has determined that Navy Corpsman John Bradley was not one of the flag-raisers in photograph, which was taken atop Mount Suribachi as the battle still raged on 23 February 1945.  The possibility that Bradley was not in the photo was first detailed in an article published by the Omaha World Herald in 2014; a pair of World War II history buffs took a closer look at Rosenthal’s epic photo and decided that the figure identified as John Bradley did not match other images taken of him that day.  Those photos, culled by two amateur historians from various archives and published by the Herald, show Bradley wearing “cuffed” uniform pants, while all of the men in the flag-raising photo are wearing trousers without cuffs.  


Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising, with the participants identified.  Prior to a recent USMC inquiry, it was accepted that five Marines and a Navy Corpsman (John Bradley) appeared in the image.  Now, it is believed that the man identified as Bradley was actually a sixth Marine.  

Other clues also emerged.  A photo of Bradley, taken earlier that day, shows him wearing a belt and pouches that don’t match those of the man in the Rosenthal photo.  Indeed, the figure identified as John Bradley for eight decades has a pouch with wire cutters dangling from his belt–an item that was not standard issue for Navy Corpsmen.  Over a period of weeks, the two historians, one from Ireland, the other in Omaha, became increasingly convinced that the man believed to be Bradley was actually a Marine named Harold Schultz.   

Needless to say, these claims generated tremendous controversy.  The flag-raising photo won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945; it is the most widely-reproduced image of all time and it became the model for the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In fact, sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the massive figures that form the centerpiece of the monument, began working on a maquette for his design when the photo first appeared–years before receiving the actual commission.  The memorial was dedicated in 1954, and remains one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Washington, D.C.

John Bradley’s role in the flag-raising was also the focus of a best-selling book (Flags of Our Fathers, written by his son, James), which also became the basis of a Clint Eastwood film, released in 2006.  Until those Marine history buffs began comparing old photographs, the weight of evidence suggested that the elder Bradley was the man who helped raise Old Glory on that February day long ago.

But to their credit, both the Marine Corps and James Bradley were willing to consider the possibility of mistaken identity, stretching over 75 years.  The Corps appointed a panel of experts, led by a retired Lieutenant General, who eventually arrived at the conclusion that the figure in the photograph was PFC Harold Schultz and not the Navy Corpsman.  And last month, James Bradley expressed doubt that his father is one of the men in the Rosenthal photo.  

Which brings us back to the folks at the Times and today’s update on the controversy.  For whatever reason, Mr. Schmidt and his editors claim the figure in the photo, the memorial and countless reproductions was “wrongly identified” as John Bradley, hinting at motives that were somehow sinister and conspiratorial. 

A complete telling of the episode casts events in a much different light.  The inaccurate identification of Harold Schultz as John Bradley is the product of the fog of war and the reluctance of many Iwo survivors to talk about the horrors of the campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Marines and sailors.  

As any student of the battle knows, there were two flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi that day.  The first was performed by members of a 40-man led by lLt Harold Schrier, who reached the top of the peak around 10:30 am.  John Bradley was a Corpsman assigned to that group and participated in the first flag raising, which was recorded by Marine Corps combat photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery.


A photo taken just moments after the initial flag-raising on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.  Navy Corpsman John Bradley is the sixth man from the left, with his right hand on the flagstaff.  The image was taken by Marine Corps combat photographer Sgt Lou Lowery and first appeared in Leatherneck magazine in 1947.    

The second flag-raising, also supervised by Lt Schrier, occurred about two hours later.  By that time, Lowery was heading down from the summit to deliver his film for processing.  He ran into Joe Rosenthal and another Marine photographer, Sergeant Bill Genaust, who was carrying a motion picture camera.  Lowery told them he had recorded the flag raising, but encouraged them to continue up Suribachi, because of the good view from the top of the peak.  The second flag went up shortly after Rosenthal and Genaust arrived.  Rosenthal, on assignment for the AP, shot the moment hurriedly, not really sure of what his Speed Graphic had captured. 

With the battle still raging, Rosenthal didn’t have time to record the names of the flag raisers.  But, as the photo gained instant acclaim, there was a clamor to identify the men in that image, led by President Roosevelt, and bring them home.  By the time the search began in earnest, three of the Marines (Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley and Harlan Block) had been killed in action, and John Bradley was recovering from battle wounds.  

Among the survivors, Private Rene Gagnon (who served as a runner during most of the battle) was quickly identified as a flag raiser, and officers leaned heavily on him to identify the rest.  He signed an affidavit naming himself, Strank, Sousley, Bradley, Hank Hansen and Ira Hayes as the men in the photo.  Hansen, he claimed, was the Marine closest to the base of the flag pole–a mistake that was not corrected until Harlan Block’s mother saw the image and claimed the man in question was actually her son.  At that point, Gagnon revised his account.  Hansen also died on the island and Hayes was a very reluctant participant in the fanfare that followed. Haunted by his experiences in combat, Hayes died of alcoholism in 1955.  

As for John Bradley, he also had no taste for celebrity and was long traumatized by what he witnessed on Iwo.  But he also understood the military, and when directed to take part in the bond drive, the young Corpsman obeyed his orders.  Yet, he also moved to quickly distance himself from the fame accorded to the flag-raisers.  After leaving the Navy, Bradley became a successful funeral director in his home state of Wisconsin, fathered a large family and became a pillar of the community.  

While acknowledging his service in World War II–and participation in the flag-raising–Bradley refused to provide any details.  As recounted in Flags of Our Fathers, John Bradley struggled with the demons of war, weeping in his sleep for many years, and rejecting all media requests for interviews.  Even members of his family knew only the barest details of time in battle.  After Bradley’s death in 1994, his widow and children found a Navy Cross in a shoebox in his closet.  John Bradley received the Navy’s second highest award for valor on Iwo (for braving withering enemy fire to treat wounded Marines) and never told anyone about it, even his wife of 50 years.  

Likewise, Harold Schultz did his best to bury the past and move on.  Wounded in battle, he returned to the U.S. to recuperate and was discharged from the Marine Corps in the fall of 1945.  He spent the rest of his career working for the Post Office in southern California, living a quiet and humble existence.  Schultz didn’t marry until he was 60 and only mentioned the flag-raising once, over the supper table with his wife and step-daughter in 1992.  When his daughter exclaimed “My gosh, Harold, you’re a hero,” he said “No, I was a Marine.”  It was the last time he mentioned the event, although a copy of the Rosenthal photo was among his belongings when Schultz died in 1995.  

The Marine Corps is now updating its records to reflect Schultz’s position as one of the flag-raisers.  But why did the mistake persist for so long?  Perhaps the answers can be found in the era that produced such remarkable men.  Both John Bradley and Harold Schultz came from a time when most Americans didn’t eagerly seek fame, or to capitalize on their exploits.  Most viewed military service as a necessary  obligation after their country was attacked and they willingly did their job–not necessarily for freedom, democracy or any other lofty ideal, but for their buddies who were serving alongside. 

Raising the flags on the bitterly-contested island was part of a job they had to do.  And when confronted with extraordinary circumstances–namely, being identified as a part of that iconic image and instructed to perform fund-raising and publicity functions that came with the territory–John Bradley reluctantly agreed.  As depicted in his son’s book and the Eastwood film, there was enormous pressure to find the men in the photo and leverage that moment to push the nation on towards final victory, particularly in regards to funding the war effort through one last bond drive.  It is very clear that the elder Bradley and Ira Hayes were uncomfortable with their sudden fame and acclaim, and sought to return to a normal life as quickly as possible.  It is also clear that neither tried to profit from the experience; books and films about their lives appeared after their passing.  

The same can be said for Harold Schultz.  He was apparently quite happy to fade into the anonymity of everyday life and saw no need to correct the historical record.  Schultz was likely haunted by the same ghosts that troubled John Bradley, Ira Hayes and the other men who lived through Iwo.  They left too many friends behind to worry about about who might have been in a photo–even if it is one of the most famous images in history.  And if called on to discuss such matters, they did so with great reluctance and the utmost humility.  

That is not to say that historical inaccuracies should not be corrected.  But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Harold Schultz, John Bradley and the other men who did their duty on that remote island so many years ago.  It is a lesson in deference and respect, virtues that appear to be fading as quickly as the last men and women from the Greatest Generation.