A few years ago, an amateur researcher named Eric Krelle made a blockbuster discovery about the famous photograph of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. Krelle figured out that Private First Class Harold Schultz appears in the iconic image, not John Bradley, the Navy corpsman whose son wrote the bestseller Flags of our Fathers. The book and Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation were proved inaccurate. After at first resisting Eric Krelle’s claims, the Marine Corps finally conceded: Harold Schulz was the forgotten flag raiser.
The story of the Iwo Jima flag raising is a fascinating one, shrouded in some mystery and cloaked in a lot of misunderstanding. The story begins with the four-day fight to capture the Japanese stronghold, Mt. Suribachi, at the south end of the island after the initial invasion on February 19. To mark the volcanic cone’s capture on February 23, members of the 28th Marines put up an American flag, and Marine photographer Lou Lowry snapped a group photo.
This is the flag raising most people who were on Iwo Jima remember. Cheers went up from the Marines below, while ships at sea blared their horns. One of those cheering off shore was Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. Forrestal ordered the flag be taken down and given to him as a memento (it would eventually end up at the National Museum of the Marine Corps)
So, a second flag headed up Suribachi with a rifle squad plus Marine Rene Gagnon. Also hustling up the hill was AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. Rosenthal had heard there was to be a flag raising, but Lou Lowry, who was coming down the hill, told him he missed it. “You’ll get a great view of the island up there, though,” he said. When Rosenthal arrived up top, he saw the first flag being taken down and a group of men scrounging for steel pipe to put up a second larger flag. He swung his camera around and began shooting photos from the hip. He also took a posed shot of the men gathered around the flag, one he called a “Gung Ho Photo.”
Back on the black-sand shore, Rosenthal removed the roll of film he’d shot and placed it in a courier bag destined for development on Guam. AP Guam, in turn, wired the famous photo to New York. Twenty-four hour after Rosenthal took the shot, the picture began appearing in newspapers across the country, electrifying the homefront.
Word got back to Rosenthal that his Iwo Jima photo was famous. Someone asked him if he staged it. Assuming it was the “Gung Ho Photo,” Rosenthal said, “Well, yeah.”
That comment lives on as the source of the myth that the Flag-Raisers of Iwo Jima was a posed picture. Nothing could have been further from the truth. No photographer in their right mind would have staged a photo of men’s sides and backs with faces all obscured.
President Roosevelt himself demanded that the flag raisers be identified and brought home for a War Bond tour. The problem was no one was quite sure who was in it. Rene Gagnon was able to identify a few. Ira Hayes, who was in the photo and didn’t want to leave his men on Iwo Jima, threatened to cut Gagnon’s throat if Gagnon betrayed him. But the Marine Corps warned that Gagnon faced criminal prosecution if he withheld names, so Hayes was identified and brought back to the US. Gagnon also identified Henry Hansen, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, and Michael Strank as being part of the flag raising. Hansen, it turned out, wasn’t in the photo. Gagnon mistook him for Harlan Block, who was. But both Hansen and Block were killed on Iwo Jima on March 1. So was Michael Strank (from Johnstown). Sousley died on March 21. Gagnon, Hayes, and Navy corpsmen John Bradley (subject of Flags of Our Fathers) were the only identified flag raisers who lived long enough to return to the States.
That was pretty much the story of the Iwo Jima flag-raising until Eric Krelle, a toy designer for Oriental Trading Company, took a fresh look at the evidence. At home in Omaha, he began systematically reviewing every photograph taken on Iwo Jima in February and March 1945. He ran across a photo of John Bradley taken on February 23—same days as flag raising—and compared it to the famous Rosenthal shot.
It was obvious to Krelle that Bradley was not the same man in the flag-raising picture. Bradley wore cuffed pants. He didn’t wear a utility cap. And his Corpsman equipment belt was completely different from those in the famous photograph. Facial recognition technology backed Krelle’s suspicion. The man everyone assumed to be John Bradley in the flag-raising photo was actually Franklin Sousley, who was later killed on Iwo Jima.
But if the man identified as Bradley was Sousley, then who was the man identified as Sousley?
Krelle pressed on. Comparing the men he tracked in all the photos taken on Iwo Jima to the flag-raising still and film footage, Krelle was able to identify the mystery man as Marine Harold Schultz.
Shultz was from Detroit and had joined the Marine Corps in 1943. He’d been wounded on Iwo Jima on March 13—eighteen days after the flag raising–and sent home. After his discharge, he got a job in Los Angeles as a postal sorter and lived a quiet life, hardly mentioning the war. His step-daughter recalls him making mention of Iwo Jima and the flag raising only once shortly before he died. The step-daughter exclaimed, “My God, Harold, you were a hero.”
“No,” Schultz shot back. “I was a Marine.” Then, he fell silent.
The Marine Corps had a hard time accepting that the story they’d told the public for decades about the famous photograph wasn’t true. But after two years and a lengthy review of the evidence, a special Marine panel of judges unanimously concluded that Krelle was right.
The Marine Corps’ Commandant, General Robert Neller, was so eloquent and insightful in acknowledging their mistake that he deserves the last word:
Our history is important to us, and we have a responsibility to ensure it’s right. Although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been. Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our Corps — what they did together and what they represent remains most important. That doesn’t change.