NIEMANN: These six young men made history in 1945

Posted: Aug. 15, 2011 8:01 am Updated: Nov. 29, 2014 8:17 am


This is the story of six young men who will forever be remembered throughout history because of what they did on Feb. 23, 1945.

You've heard of the event for which they are remembered -- anonymously -- and you've seen them in the picture that was taken that day. The picture cemented the event as a major event in American history, even though it occurred half a world away. You probably never knew their names or anything about them.

Until now.

There was 20-year-old Harlon Block, a former all-state football player from Yorktown, Texas; Rene Gagnon from Manchester, N.H., who was just 18 at the time; and Mike Strank, who was born in Czechoslovakia and was 24 at the time. Of the other three, Ira Hayes was a 22-year-old Pima Indian from Sacaton, Ariz., Franklin Sousley was a 19-year-old from Hilltop, Ky., and John Bradley was a 21-year-old Navy Corpsman medic from Antigo, Wis.

Four out of the six were privates in the Marines at the time. Prior to joining the military, these six men did not know each other. What was their history-making event?

They were the five marines and one Navy corpsman who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

It was John Bradley's son, James, who wrote the best-selling book, "Flags of our Fathers," in 2000. The book was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg in 2006. We've all seen the picture as we learned about the flag-raising, but what happened to these six men after that?

Despite capturing Mount Suribachi, the battle continued for another month until the island was declared "secure" on March 26. Three of the men later died in battle on that island, while the other three were able to return home to America.

Sgt. Mike Strank died by friendly fire when his squad was being attacked. Cpl. Harlon Block took over command of the troops on the day that Strank died, but he was killed by the Japanese later that same day. Pvt. Franklin Sousley was shot in the back by a Japanese sniper less than a month after helping raise the American flag.

When Sousley was just 3 years old, his 5-year-old brother died due to appendicitis. His father died when Franklin was just 9. He also had a younger brother who died in a car accident at the age of 18. When word of Franklin's death reached his mother, it was said that she screamed all night and into the next morning. She screamed so loudly that her neighbors could hear her; the neighbors lived a quarter of a mile away.

Pvt. Ira Hayes was found dead after a night of heavy drinking and playing cards in his hometown of Sacaton in 1955. He was in a fight that night, and drowned facedown in a very shallow puddle; the exact cause of his death was never determined. He was just 32 years old.

Pvt. Rene Gagnon relied on menial labor jobs when he returned home because that's all that was available to him. He died at age 54 in 1979 in his hometown of Manchester.

John Bradley, a Navy corpsman, lived the longest of the six men. He died of a stroke in 1994 at age 70. Hayes, Gagnon and Bradley all took part in the 1949 war film, "Sands of Iwo Jima." Each man portrayed himself in the film.

Bradley was awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart, Strank was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and Sousley was awarded the Purple Heart.

There was one more person involved in this photo. Just like the other six, his name remains mostly unknown throughout history. The Associated Press photographer who took the photo was Joe Rosenthal of Washington, D.C. He received a Pulitzer Prize for taking the photo.

Years later, when he was asked about it, he humbly replied, "I took the picture, the Marines took Iwo Jima."



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