James Bradley: Flags of our fathers

Attendees at December’s Cayman Captive conference had a rare and unexpected treat in the form of James Bradley, who was able to fill in at the last moment for scheduled keynote speaker Charlie Wilson, Basia Pioro reports.

While Mr. Bradley’s name may not be instantly recognizable, the reason for his success as a writer and amateur historian is: an instantly recognizable photo taken during WW II on Iwo Jima which shows American servicemen raising a flag. The photo has been reproduced across the globe and remains a popular subject, imitated and interpreted by soldiers, artists, humorists and sculptors time and time again.

It just so happens that Mr. Bradley’s father, John Bradley, was one of the soldiers in that famous shot taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal.

Despite many odds, Mr. Bradley was able to unearth not only the photograph’s story, but the stories of each soldier depicted. It resulted in first a bestselling book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” and later a Hollywood movie of the same name directed by Clint Eastwood.

The Journal sat down with Mr. Bradley to hear more about his remarkable story.

He told us his father, who died in 1994, never spoke about the war with him or his family, despite having been feted as a national hero upon his return to the United States from Iwo Jima. Aside from his fame from the photograph, Mr. Bradley’s father had also been awarded the Navy Cross for heroism, a secret he kept from his family until his death.

Captivated by his discovery that his father had kept boxes of mementos from the war in his office, over five years Mr. Bradley painstakingly researched not only him but all of the young men behind the photo. It was worth it. “Flags of our Fathers,” instantly became a bestseller once it was published.

As Mr. Bradley explained, the photo was taken after 310 members of Easy Company, part of an initial force of 110,000 Marines who arrived in a convoy of 880 ships, had been fighting for four days trying to capture the Japanese-controlled island of Iwo Jima. The Japanese force of 22,000 Japanese were dug in underground, holed up in 1,500 rooms connected by 16 miles of tunnels.

Both Japan and the US valued the volcanic island as it was only 650 miles from Tokyo. The Japanese wanted to hold it as no foreign army in Japan’s 5000 year history had successfully trod on Japanese soil.

“To the US, Iwo Jima’s importance lay in its location, midway between Japan and American bomber bases in the Marianas,” said Mr. Bradley.

“Since the summer of 1944, the Japanese home islands had been reeling from strikes by the new, long range B-29’s, but the US had no protective fighters with enough range to escort them. Iwo was ideally located as a fighter-escort station and a sanctuary for crippled bombers,” he said.

However, not only did the Japanese strategy call for no Japanese survivors, each soldier was to kill 10 Americans before being killed themselves. It was hoped a rout on Iwo Jima would deter further American attacks on Japan.

After a prolonged bombardment that had little effect, American troops invaded on 19 February 1945. From Mt. Suribachi, the 550-foot volcanic cone at the islands southern tip, Japanese gunners were able to cover both landing beaches..

“There were no front lines. The Marines were above ground and the Japanese were below them underground. The Marines rarely saw a Japanese soldier alive, while the Japanese could see the Marines perfectly,” said Mr. Bradley.

Of the members of Easy Company, only 50 of its 310 men survived, and in 36 days of fighting there were 25,851 US casualties (1 in 3 were killed or wounded) with 6,825 Americans and 21,000 Japanese killed.

Origins of a photo
The photo was taken much earlier, on the fifth day of battle.

“They had 40% casualties to date. Sergeant Michael Strank got the order to climb Mt. Suribachi. Mike picked his boys and led them safely to the top. A group of soldiers had already raised a smaller flag on the same spot, and Mike explained to the boys that a larger flag had to be raised so that ‘every Marine on this cruddy island can see it.’ It was Mike who gave the orders to find a pole, attach the flag and put ‘er up!” said Mr. Bradley.

A look at the photo shows six flag raisers, four in the front and two in back.

The front four are Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley and Harlon Block.

The back two are Michael Strank (behind Sousley) and Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley).

“Strank, Block and Sousley would die shortly afterwards,” said Mr. Bradley.

“But thanks to the photo, Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon became national heroes within weeks.”

Thanks to Mr. Rosenthal’s photo, when they returned home, the surviving soldiers were chosen to be the symbols of FDR’s 7th and wildly successful war bond drive. Over two months, it raised $24 billion dollars, an astronomical sum in 1945.

Overcoming his father’s reticence through other avenues, and unfazed by overwhelming unwillingness from dozens of publishers to take on the book, James Bradley turned what he saw as impossibilities into reality – one of his biggest challenges he’d ever faced.

“You take the most reproduced photograph in history, and then when you analyze it, it isn’t a picture of boats, or trees, it’s a picture of humans, and of those humans there were no stories out about them,” said Mr. Bradley.

“I was able to get the stories behind the figures in the photo. I had the story, and 27 publishers over 25 months told me nobody would be interested. That’s two years of your life looking at your families and friends moving on, and there I am getting stacks of letters from publishers turning me down.”

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Bradley said that he didn’t experience the kind of frustration other writers might experience because he was so convinced that people would be interested in reading the book.

“Maybe if I had another topic things might be different,” he said. “People said ‘you have stick – to – itiveness’, but that is not the whole of it. I knew the book would be a success, gauging how whenever I showed the picture to people, they were always interested,” he said.

“I knew that people knew that photo, and I stuck with the belief that they wanted to know more. I pitched it as a #1 New York Times bestseller. That seemed to me to be a no-brainer.”
Mr. Bradley says anyone interested in learning from veterans should follow up before it’s too late, and avoid hesitation.

“When it came to me, in terms of talking to veterans, my father had fought with them, they had respect for him, and I suppose they felt they could naturally trust the son,” said Mr. Bradley.
“When talking to them, I told them I just wanted the real thing,” he continued.

“Most times when recalling a difficult or painful time, people have a funny joke, a one-liner they pull out to deflect from the core memories. I was on a mission, and I can say that if people are interested in pursuing a story, they get the questions answered.”

Mr. Bradley dismissed shyness and the fear of insulting someone as obstacles to getting the story.

“If you say you’re shy, in my opinion that means you’re not interested, as saying you are shy covers all sort of excuses. When you say you are trying to do something, that is not the same thing as actually doing it,” he said.

“I think if, say, a grandson approaches a grandfather with genuine interest, and asks him to talk about his past, the grandfather will believe that he is interested.”

Mr. Bradley said the biggest reward for him in writing “Flags of our Fathers” was getting the stories out about the three boys who were killed.

“All they had was a boyhood, they just never had the chance to get married, to watch their kids to grow up, I had to bring what they had, their boyhood, to light,” he said.

“No matter if I am feeling shy or it is difficult to ask, I am crying along with the veterans I interviewed. I cried many times over the years. I had to say “I really feel sorry for you, if you’re going to break down sir, just know the story is important.”

Mr. Bradley asserts that the experience of writing his book has definitely shaped his opinion about war – evidenced by his decision to create the James Bradley Peace Foundation. The organization sends young Americans overseas to experience the cultures of Japan and China in the hope of creating better intercultural understanding.

“My father was traumatised by war, he cried in his sleep for four years. This is the thing about war, it’s not black and white, you have a thousand different things going on,” he said.

“I’m more interested in why the general public is interested in reading about war. I think as somebody said once, all war is civil war, you go up to the moon and look down, we are just killing each other – there is only one human race.”