Monday, November 12, 2012

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

I got this message from a friend of mine on chat the other day:
"Did you know....there was a Gagnon involved in raising the American Flag (a famous photo) in the the battle of Iwo Jima in WW2 also a Pepper as well. I watched the movie last night. Flags of our Fathers."
"Seriously? A Gagnon AND a Pepper? That's pretty random."
"Yes. The Gagnon was one who raised the flag. Look on Wikipedia. Very interesting."
I thought it was very interesting indeed.  Gagnon is my birth name - my father's name.  Pepper is my brothers and sisters name.  I go by Pepper because it was less complicated growing up.  And here, in a very famous moment in WWII, there was a Gagnon and a Pepper fighting together.

You may have seen this famous photo:  (The following has been copied from Wikipedia)

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is a historic photgraph taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal. It depicts five United States Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the flag of the United States atop Mount Suribachi[1] during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and came to be regarded in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time.

Of the six men depicted in the picture, three (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, and Michael Strank) were killed during the battle; the three survivors (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) became celebrities upon their identification in the photo.

The famous picture taken by Rosenthal actually captured the second flag-raising event of the day. A U.S. flag was first raised atop Suribachi soon after it was captured at around 10:20 on February 23, 1945. This flag was too small, however, to be easily seen from the nearby landing beaches.

Rene Arthur Gagnon
Gagnon was born March 7, 1925 in Manchester, New Hampshire, the only child of French Canadian immigrants from Disraeli, Quebec, Henri Gagnon and Irène Marcotte. René grew up without a father. His parents separated when he was an infant, though they never divorced. When he was old enough, René worked alongside his mother at a local shoe factory. He also worked as a bicycle messenger boy for the local Western Union. René was drafted in 1943 and elected to join the Marine Corps.

On orders from Colonel Chandler Johnson—passed on by Captain Severance—Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon H. Block, Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley, and Private First Class Ira H. Hayes spent the morning of the 23rd laying a telephone wire to the top of Suribachi. Severance also dispatched Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon, a runner, to the command post for fresh walkie-talkie batteries.

Meanwhile, according to the official Marine Corps history, Tuttle had found a larger (96-by-56 inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship LST 779. He made his way back to the command post and gave it to Johnson. Johnson, in turn, gave it to Gagnon, with orders to take it back up Suribachi and raise it.

After the event, Rene Gagnon recalled:
"On the morning of February 23 when the Colonel ordered these four men to take up the flag, they started going up and the communications were faulty between the top and the bottom of the mountain and they ordered me to take up the radio battery. When I got up there the four-man patrol with the flag had just got up there and they were about ready to put it up and when I got up I delivered the battery and then I went over to them and I was watching them put up the flag and the very heavy Japanese pipe…it weighed quite a lot…so they said lend a hand…so I just got into it...."

Mount Suribachi is the dominant geographical feature of the island of Iwo Jima.
The Marines reached the top of the mountain around noon, where Gagnon joined them. Despite the large numbers of Japanese troops in the immediate vicinity, the 40-man patrol made it to the top of the mountain without being fired on once, as the Japanese were under bombardment at the time.

Rosenthal, along with Marine photographers Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust (who was killed in action nine days after the flag-raising), was climbing Suribachi at this time. On the way up, the trio met Lowery (the man who photographed the first flag-raising). They had been considering turning around, but Lowery told them that the summit was an excellent vantage point from which to take pictures.

Rosenthal's trio reached the summit as the Marines were attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal put his Speed Graphic camera on the ground so he could pile rocks to stand on for a better vantage point. In doing so, he nearly missed the shot. Along with Navy Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John H. Bradley, the five Marines began raising the U.S. flag. Realizing he was about to miss it, Rosenthal quickly swung his camera up and snapped the photograph without using the viewfinder.  Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote:
"Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don't come away saying you got a great shot. You don't know."
A diagram of the photo indicating the six men who raised the flag: Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley (†), Michael Strank (†), John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Harlon Block (†).
(†) = Killed on Iwo Jima

Of the six men pictured–Michael Strank, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, and Harlon Block–only three (Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley) survived the battle. Strank was killed six days after the flag-raising when a shell, likely fired from an offshore American destroyer, tore his heart out; Block was killed by a mortar a few hours after Strank; Sousley was shot and killed by a sniper on March 21, a few days before the island was declared secure.[16]

Following the war, plagued with depression brought on by survivor guilt, Hayes became an alcoholic. His tragic life and death in 1955 at the age of 32 were memorialized in the folk song "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", written by Peter LaFarge and recorded by Johnny Cash in 1964.  Bob Dylan later covered the song..

According to the song, after the war:
Then Ira started drinkin' hard
Jail was often his home
They'd let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you'd throw a dog a bone!
He died drunk early one mornin'
Alone in the land he fought to save
Two inches of water in a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes.
Likewise, Rene Gagnon's last years were bitter; he died an alcoholic from a massive heart attack in 1979 at the age of  54.

Following the war, John Bradley was staunchly tight-lipped about his experiences, often deflecting questions by claiming he had forgotten.  During his 47-year marriage, he only talked about it with his wife Betty once, on their first date, and never again afterwards.  Within the family, it was considered a taboo subject. He gave exactly one interview, in 1985, at the urging of his wife, who had told him to do it for the sake of their grandchildren. Following his death in 1994, his family went to Suribachi in 1997 and placed a plaque (made of Wisconsin granite and shaped like that state) on the spot where the flag-raising took place. At the time of Bradley's death, his son James knew almost nothing of his father's wartime experiences. As a catharsis, James Bradley spent four years interviewing the families of all the flag raisers, and published Flags of Our Fathers, a definitive book on the flag-raising and its participants. This book inspired a 2006 movie of the same name, directed by Clint Eastwood.

 So there you have it.  Rene Gagnon was a distant relative.  One of my great grandfather's cousins.  Actor Barry Pepper played Michael Strank in the film.  Imagine if he had played the role of Rene Gagnon   

Upon further research I discovered that there was indeed a Lieutenant Wayne Pepper who fought in Tinian, July 1944.  But there wasn't much written about who he was or whether he survived the war.  Still, I think it's pretty ironic to see the names Gagnon and Pepper together in history.  Main article: Battle of Tinian
Je me souviens Rene Gagnon.  Lest we forget Wayne Pepper.   And of course all the other brave soldiers  who lost their lives at battle, including the Japanese soldiers who defended their country.  They were all just boys.  What a waste of good lives and good men.  Let us make peace, not war.  

Written with love by Tracy Lyn Joy Temple Gagnon Pepper   

No comments: