The Boys of Iwo Jima
(From the book: Heart Touchers “Life-Changing Stories of Faith, Love, and Laughter)
by Michael T. Powers
Each year my video production company is hired to go to Washington, D.C.
with the eighth grade class from Clinton, Wisconsin where I grew up, to
videotape their trip. I greatly enjoy visiting our nation’s capitol, and
each year I take some special memories back with me. This fall’s trip was
On the last night of our trip, we stopped at the Iwo Jima memorial. This
memorial is the largest bronze statue in the world and depicts one of the
most famous photographs in history — that of the six brave men raising the
American flag at the top of Mount Surabachi on the Island of Iwo Jima, Japan
during WW II. Over one hundred students and chaperones piled off the buses
and headed towards the memorial. I noticed a solitary figure at the base of
the statue, and as I got closer he asked, “What’s your name and where are
you guys from?
I told him that my name was Michael Powers and that we were from Clinton,
“Hey, I’m a Cheesehead, too! Come gather around Cheeseheads, and I will
tell you a story.”
James Bradley just happened to be in Washington, D.C. to speak at the
memorial the following day. He was there that night to say good-night to his
dad, who had previously passed away, but whose image is part of the statue.
He was just about 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 from my
videotape. 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 all had gathered around he reverently
began to speak. Here are his words from that night:
“My name is James Bradley and I’m from Antigo, Wisconsin. My dad is on that
statue, and I just wrote a book called Flags of Our Fathers which is #5 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. Harlon was an all-state football player.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps with all the senior members of his 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 the age of twenty-one, died with his intestines in his hands.
I don’t say that to gross you out; I say that 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 seventeen, eighteen, and
nineteen years old.
(He pointed to the statue)
You see this next 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 eighteen 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 twenty-four.
When Mike would motivate his boys in training camp, he didn’t say, “Let’s go
kill the enemy” or “Let’s die for our country.” He knew he was talking to
little 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 Hayes walked off Iwo Jima. He went into the White House with my
dad. President Truman told him, “You’re a hero.” He told reporters, “How
can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me and
only twenty-seven 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
twenty-seven of your classmates walk off alive. That was Ira Hayes. He had
images of horror in his mind. Ira Hayes died dead drunk, face down at the
age of thirty-two, ten years after this picture was taken.
The next guy, going around the statue, is Franklin Sousley from Hilltop,
Kentucky, a fun-lovin’ hillbilly boy. His best friend, who is now 70, told
me, “Yeah, you know, we took two cows up on the porch of the Hilltop General
Store. Then we strung wire across the stairs so the cows couldn’t get down.
Then we fed them Epson salts. Those cows crapped all night.”
Yes, he was a fun-lovin’ hillbilly boy. Franklin died on Iwo Jima at the age
of nineteen. When the telegram came to tell his mother that he was dead, it
went to the Hilltop General Store. A barefoot boy ran that telegram up to
his 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, as we continue to go around the statue, is my dad, John
Bradley from Antigo, Wisconsin, where I was raised. 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 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,
’cause they are in a photo and a monument. My dad knew better.
He was a medic. John Bradley from Wisconsin was a caregiver. In Iwo Jima he
probably held over 200 boys as they died, and when boys died in Iwo Jima,
they writhed and screamed in pain.
When I was a little boy, my third grade teacher told me that my dad was a
hero. When I went home and told my dad 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. 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, 7000 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 in his own eyes, but a hero nonetheless.
Michael T. Powers
Copyright © 2000 by Michael T. Powers
Michael T. Powers, the founder of HeartTouchers.com and Heart4Teens.com, is
the youth minister at Faith Community Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. He is
happily married to his high school sweetheart Kristi and proud father of
three young rambunctious boys.
He is also an author with stories in 29 inspirational books including many
in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and his own entitled: Heart Touchers
“Life-Changing Stories of Faith, Love, and Laughter.” To preview his book or
to join the thousands of world wide readers on his inspirational e-mail
list, visit: www.HeartTouchers.com