Iwo Jima 75th anniversary

U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan,  Feb 23, 1945.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Harold “Pie” Keller, a young man from Brooklyn, Iowa, was serving his country, fighting for his life and trying to protect his fellow Marines on the remote Pacific Ocean island of Iwo Jima when he got a message from back home.

His first child, Ken Keller, had been born on Feb. 15, 1945.

So, naturally, the corporal danced a bit in celebration.

The news provided a moment of normalcy and joy amid the horrors of World War II.

And, for most people close to him, that event was the most personal story they knew about his experience during the battle of Iwo Jima – which raged between the United States and Japan for 36 days in February and March 1945.

Keller, though, was also part of a historic event that occurred 75 years ago. He, along with five other Marines, raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, an instance captured in one of the most iconic photos ever taken. But Keller was never officially identified as one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers until late 2019, four decades after his death in 1979 at the age of 57.

“A newborn son that he hadn’t seen and then the flag raising — yeah, pretty amazing week,” his daughter Kay (née Keller) Maurer said during a telephone interview.

Maurer thinks her father might have told some relatives, including his sisters, about being a flag-raiser shortly after the war, but never sought any attention. She would occasionally be asked about her father being in the picture, but he never provided any firsthand information to her or others later in life.

Brooklyn, Iowa, is a town of about 1,400 residents, 60 miles south of Des Moines.

“I think he just didn’t want any claim to fame,” Maurer said. “He was just a quiet man who just loved his little life in that little town of Brooklyn. I think it’s that. I think he just didn’t want that recognition. And I think also it might have been that they just lost so many good friends over there. And why would you want to be associated with any fame or important thing when you can think of all these buddies that you lost that didn’t make it home? I’m kind of thinking both of those reasons.”

Three misidentified

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the photograph. But he did not write down the participants’ names.

And so the uncertainty began.

Rosenthal’s film was flown to Guam and then radio telegraphed back to the United States where it became an immediate sensation. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to use the living flag-raisers to promote the upcoming Seventh War Loan Drive. Marine Corps Cpl. René Gagnon, who was believed to be in the picture, was brought to Washington, D.C., to provide identifications. He named Navy corpsman John Bradley, along with Marines Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Hank Hansen and finally — and reluctantly — Ira Hayes, who had threatened to beat up Gagnon if he told anybody about his involvement.

Strank was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Franklin Borough, outside Johnstown, Pa.

Rosenthal’s picture became the blueprint for the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial — dedicated in 1954 in Arlington, Va.

But only three of the original Marines named — Strank, Sousley and Hayes — were actually in the photo. The other three were misidentified.

Why this happened still is not fully understood.

“It’s not explicit, but, as we were going through all this, it’s pretty clear what happened is Bradley just went along with Gagnon’s identifications,” Keil Gentry, Marine Corps University’s vice president for business affairs, said. “Then Hayes said, ‘That’s not Hansen, that’s (Harlon) Block.’ And then stuck to the rest of the identifications. As near as we can tell, they were basically told, ‘Hansen and Block were both killed in action, so basically shut up ... go out and sell war bonds.’”

Bradley was involved in raising a first flag that was replaced by a bigger one shorty afterward.

“Bradley, I think, pretty quickly realizes he’s not in the photo,” Gentry said. “But, interestingly, he did help raise the first flag.”

Gentry continued: “Gagnon and Bradley represent the Navy and the Marine Corps and the nation well. The Seventh War Loan Drive is the most successful ever. And so that photograph and the performance of those two — that sailor and that Marine — had strategic effect. I think that’s important to note.”

James Bradley, son of John Bradley, said if his father was picked specifically for the tour he would “like to see some evidence,” during an interview conducted over the phone, using WhatsApp, while he was in New Zealand.

“People will say ‘they must have’ and ‘they probably did.’ They’ve been looking for the smoking gun for years now, these guys,” said James Bradley, who co-authored The New York Times bestseller “Flags of Our Fathers.”

“And it would be great if there was a government conspiracy, they said, ‘John Bradley, you take this place because this guy stutters.’ That would be fascinating,” Bradley said. “I’d love to know it. But what happened was that it was 1945 and they couldn’t make WhatsApp calls.”

In his opinion, the “U.S. government has mishandled these identifications for years.”

“People are putting responsibility on the guys that were there,” Bradley said. “They weren’t thinking about photos. As they were watching their friends’ brains blown away, they weren’t aware that photos were being looked at back in the United States. If the guys who were in the pictures that we now know, if they came forward like in 1966 and said, ‘Hey, I think I’m in that photo.’ Well, we’ll commit you to the crazy house here. It’s a very strange story.”

Getting it right

Hansen’s identification was the first to be corrected. Block was put into his spot — at the base of the flagpole — in 1947.

After the war, Hayes visited Block’s family and told them that their son was in the picture. The Blocks wrote to their congressman, who contacted the Marines, leading to the eventual clarification.

Early talk circulated that some other misidentifications might have occurred.

“There has always been a sentiment that there were misidentifications,” said historian Dustin Spence, who began closely examining the photo in the 2000s. “That was one of the first things I started hearing when I got involved in this. I was at a Marine Corps reunion and a Marine veteran — an Iwo Jima veteran — stood up and said there was misidentification. This wasn’t like a new thing that there were misidentifications. What was the difficult thing to do was getting the hard evidence to make the case.”

But seven decades passed without much analysis being done.

Then, in June 2016, the Marine Corps announced that Harold Schultz, a Marine, was in the photo. Bradley was not.

Three years later, following an exhaustive, multi-agency investigation, Keller was identified and Gagnon removed.

“My father led a happy life and had eight kids,” Bradley said. “The flag-raising wasn’t part of his identity. But there are other families whose fathers and grandfathers have died and are just being told now ‘Oops, we made a mistake. That was your dad in this photo. And you never knew it when he was alive. And now he’s dead.’ I don’t know. The government has just mishandled this thing from the beginning.”

The process was complex, involving hours of conducting interviews, checking historical documents and analyzing photos and videos, including the celebratory “Gung Ho” images from Mount Suribachi, with contributions made by historians, the Marine Corps, the Army and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The effort resulted in the publication of the Marine Corps History Division’s “Investigating Iwo: The Flag Raising in Myth, Memory, & Esprit de Corps” in 2019.

“I truly wish that they had never identified any of the folks in the photograph so that those six individuals who really worked together as a team — that represented everybody on the island,” Gentry said. “But once you start putting names to it, then I think we as the Marine Corps have an obligation to get it right.”

How they decided

Spence, creator of the documentary “Forgotten Flag Raisers,” and fellow historians Brent Westemeyer and Stephen Foley conducted key research that helped clarify the identities.

“I guess it was important to us to get the names right and correct the record,” Foley said. “Remember, this is one of the most famous photos in the world and then President Roosevelt ordered those involved to be sent home. Unfortunately, three men were killed in action. Of the three that were returned as heroic flag raisers, it turns out only one of them actually was a raiser. I guess knowing what we did, it was important to prove that those who were involved were recognized.”

Westemeyer said his original goal was not to correct any information.

“It just kind of started to flow to me, just starting to compare Rosenthal’s photo with other photos that were in Bradley’s book,” Westemeyer said. “I think Bradley’s book is obviously what spurred this on more than any other fact.”

And even after countless hours of investigation, questions still remain.

“Obviously, we still can’t say why two men who were involved kept quiet and two that said they were involved maintained their stories despite not being involved,” Foley said. “We haven’t been able to ascertain as to why this was so. We do feel that Harold Keller did not want to go on a Bond Tour anyway and after it took place he couldn’t really say that it was him in the photo. Harold Schultz is a more difficult character to figure out. He had no family of his own and had personal tragedy in his life while fighting in the war. It might not have mattered much to him either.”

Schultz, a Detroit resident, originally was determined to be in what is called position five by a panel in 2016 and then the FBI’s digital evidence library in 2019. He was identified by several factors, including a broken helmet-liner strap and his rifle sling being attached to his stacking swivel instead of sling swivel.

“These characteristics are clearly visible in the Gung Ho photographs, where Schultz is identified as the Marine kneeling next to Corporal Keller, as well as in (USMC war photographer William) Genaust’s motion picture footage and Rosenthal’s iconic photograph,” as determined by the Marine Corps History Division’s report. “In its review of all of the photographs known to have been taken on Mount Suribachi that day, the board did not find any other Marine exhibiting both a broken helmet liner strap and a rifle sling attached to the stacking swivel.”

Schultz returned to the United States, joined the postal service and died in 1995.

A few years before his passing, Schultz reportedly told his stepdaughter about being in the photo, to which she responded by calling him a “hero.”

He replied: “No, not really, I was a Marine.”

‘Doing the right thing’

As a result of the information released in 2016, Sousley moved one slot into the position previously identified as Bradley. Schultz was placed into Sousley’s former position, and Bradley was removed.

But the investigation continued.

The three historians developed a close relationship with Maurer, who provided access to her father’s war materials. In 2019, he was identified by comparing the iconic image, Rosenthal’s Gung Ho picture and photos taken by Army Pvt. First Class George Burns in which facial characteristics and distinctive camouflage patterns on his helmet were noticed.

Spence was present to record Maurer’s reaction when Foley, who was in Ireland, told her the news.

“It’s a big thing telling the family your father is in one of the most reproduced images of all time,” Spence said. “I wanted to make double sure that we’re doing the right thing here before we open up that door.”

Keller was placed in the spot previously identified as Gagnon.

The discovery came as a revelation to Maurer, one of Keller’s three children, whose father never told her much about his war experience to the point that when he was making recordings for information to be included in Richard Wheeler’s book “The Bloody Battle for Suribachi,” he would not speak in front of her.

“Whenever dad would get out the tape recorder, I thought, ‘Here’s my chance, I can hear his stories.’ So when he’d get out the tape recorder I’d plunk down there in the living room with him and he’d reach over and shut the tape recorder off,” Maurer said. “Then we’d have this test of wills. I would be like, ‘I’m just going to wait you out and eventually you’ll get sick and turn it back on again.’ He’d look at me with this grin on his face, like ‘Oh, I can wait you out.’ So we’d sit there a while. And finally then the little high school junior was kinda like ‘OK’ and then I’d get up and leave.”

Maurer considers the flag-raising to be a small part of her father’s war experience, which included fighting at Bougainville Island, Guadalcanal, Midway and Iwo Jima.

“My thoughts always go toward not the flag-raising but the fact that he not only survived those battles but that he came home mentally OK,” Maurer said. “I just think of those four big battles, how many buddies he lost, the hell that he went through and to come home and be this normal, good family man, that is more astounding to me than the flag-raising.”

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Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, Pa.

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