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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 9, 2001

Flags of Our Fathers book cover

Family matters

James Bradley's father hardly
spoke about the war he fought at
Iwo Jima and the flag he
and five others raised


Bullet "Flags of Our Fathers":
By James Bradley with Ron Powers (Bantam), $24.95

By Burl Burlingame

WHAT makes the photo work is that you can't make out who's in it. Six anonymous Marines, standing in for all of us, pushing up an American flag in the midst of nowhere, all with their backs to the camera or their faces in shadow, a hurried snapshot that symbolizes more than a simple act.

The photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima in the Western Pacific became a beacon of freedom and an icon of a generation. It is also likely the most reproduced photograph in history.

But even as a little boy, James Bradley knew exactly who the fighting man in the middle was, the one with his face deep in shadow. Even at the hometown barber shop, getting his hair clipped, the barber would point him out to strangers, and little Jimmy Bradley would solemnly confirm it.

The man in the photograph was his father.


The Pacific War Memorial Association, seeking to recreate a sculpture of the Marine flag-raising at Iwo Jima, is hosting a fund-raising dinner and book-signing event with James Bradley, author of "Flags of Our Fathers," beginning at 6 p.m. March 16 in the Tapa Ballroom of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Ray Lovell will be the emcee, and there will be entertainment by master bagpiper Justin Stodghill and the U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club. Admission is $100, $60 of which is tax-deductible.

For information and reservations, contact the Honolulu Council Navy League at 422-9404 or email Web site at

Navy Corpsman John Bradley, one of three flag-raisers to survive the battle of Iwo Jima, never talked much about the war to his boys. When James Bradley's brother was assigned by a teacher to interview his father for a history paper, all the man would say was, "We put up a pole and someone took a photo."

But when his father died, Bradley discovered several dusty boxes where John Bradley had hidden away correspondence with other Iwo veterans. As Bradley read through the letters, he realized that his father, as a corpsman, had held dozens, perhaps hundreds of dying boys in his arms as their blood soaked into the sand. He felt a bit of the pain his father must have felt. He cried.

The discovery of the secreted correspondence set Bradley off on an obsessive quest to discover as much about Iwo Jima as he could. The result was the best-selling memoir "Flags of our Fathers," judged by no less than historian Stephen Ambrose as one of the best battle accounts ever written.

Bradley, on the U.S.-bound leg of a return visit to Iwo Jima, is the guest of honor at a fund-raiser and book signing for the Pacific War Memorial, which is undertaking a new casting of the classic statue based on Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph. The statue will be placed at the gateway park of Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe.

We caught Bradley at his home in upstate New York, where he was looking out the window at a lonely bluebird playing in the deep snow.

"You hear that these men of the so-called 'greatest generation' are humble and quiet, and that they have a hard time talking about what mattered to them in the war," mused Bradley, an inspirational speaker who put his career on hold to interview more than 200 veterans for the book. "I didn't find that to be the case at all. In some ways, it was a catharsis to be able to talk about it.

"The problem is that no one who wasn't there can grasp the horror. You know, the vets say that you could always tell who was going to die by what they said. If they yelled 'Corpsman!' they were going to make it. If they screamed 'Mommy!' you knew they were going to die. The battlefield was littered with broken kids crying for their mothers.

"But my dad, because of that flag-raising, had people like Walter Cronkite and magazine writers demanding he tell them about the battle. He couldn't do it. He built a wall. And that void is what drew me in. The mystery is that photo, a picture every American knows, an image in every encyclopedia and history book since 1946, and my father couldn't talk about it."

World War II is not just a conflict that has come and gone. The fallout has resonance in the present world and will for a long time to come, said Bradley. "It's simply the largest event in the history of humankind, and that's no exaggeration. Eighty million, at least, dead. Empires vanished. The ascendency of capitalism. Maps changed.

"I hear all the time about how kids don't properly appreciate the war, that present generations aren't learning about the past. I hear that from the veterans. I always answer, When you were 16 years old in 1939, was history YOUR favorite subject? Of course not. Kids don't like history because adults make it boring for them.

"The other typical question is whether today's youth could be as brave as those of the World War II generation. Of course! We were wimps, that was why Hitler and Tojo took us on! What America suffered in the depression was nothing compared to the tough kids going into the military in Japan and Germany. We hung Japanese war criminals for abusing our troops -- they should have been hung for abusing their own troops.

Photo courtesy James Bradley
James Bradley, center, surrounded by his family.

"There was no reason for us to be militarized. America did its best to stay out of the conflict as long as possible.

"The answer is, it's not a lack of quality in the American spirit; it was the quality of the threat that faced us. Pearl Harbor was practically next door. We were an immigrant country and the world was aflame. Relatives were being butchered."

With the cultural weight of the United States leaning toward the East Coast and Europe, is the conflict in the Pacific given short shrift?

"Sure. We're largely a European-descended nation. How many books are there on Hitler, and how many on Tojo?

"The European campaign was also land-based, which is easier to comprehend. You can visualize going from Sicily to Rome or Normandy to Berlin. But Eniwetok to Iwo Jima? Give me a break. All that water in the Pacific makes it an alien territory to most Americans.

"The enemy was also different. No matter how evil the Germans were portrayed in movies, they always had spiffy uniforms and drove Mercedes cars and drank champagne from crystal. The Japanese were portrayed as aliens, creatures."

"But I'll tell you -- the map room in the White House is centered on the Pacific Ocean. That's where the real center of the world is."

Bradley's first visit to Iwo Jima was eye-opening. "It was stinky and ugly, but the main thing is that it's so small, a very tiny place for 100,000 guys to be fighting for 36 days, gaining just a few feet a day. Mount Suribachi is only as tall as the Washington Monument. You can recognize people on top of it."

The fierce fighting on Iwo Jima became a national legend, and the little volcanic slag-heap is one of the few Pacific campaigns that citizens recall. John Wayne, who made the film "Sands of Iwo Jima," used black sand from the island in his cement handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

But Bradley feels talk about a "Greatest Generation" is "gobbledygook."

"These men didn't fight and die to make the world safe for democracy. They did it to protect their families and friends. They felt they had to do it, and they did it superbly. Patriotism didn't energize these guys. There was no hatred in them for the enemy. No.

"It was love that won the battles, love for their buddies. They were fighting for their families, and that family was their unit."

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