I haven’t yet reviewed any books that took place in the Pacific Theater during World War II. My month of Japan has changed this. One of the first books I read was Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley.
A Note on History:
The Battle of Iwo Jima didn’t occur until 1945, a little more than three years after the start of America’s entrance into World War II. The Americans wanted the Iwo Jima as a staging post for attacking the main Japanese island. It ended up being useful for emergency stops for B-29 bombers. The Japanese didn’t give up the island lightly, though. They’d turned the island into a warren of underground bunkers and fought with tenacity. In the end, only a handful of Japanese soldiers escaped the island alive; the rest were killed or committed suicide.
This book focuses on the six Marines who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in that fateful photograph immortalized everywhere. Each of the men—Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and John Bradley—made their way to this moment of flag raising from different lives in different parts of the country. While Bradley tells the story of each one, he has a special place for John Bradley, his father.
Although the men are considered heroes, war changed them, shaped them. Those of the six who survived the brutal 35 days of fighting (most of which came after that photo) were never the same. Through them we come to understand true heroism.
The book is powerfully descriptive. The characters, the real people who were there, force you to look at a war fought decades ago like it was just yesterday.
Bradley does a masterful job of telling the stories of the six men (and others) who were there. I found myself not like Rene Gagnon. He was weak and whiny. On the other hand, Michael Strank, a sergeant, was my favorite. He loved his men, fought for them, and eventually died for them. I also love Harlon Block, a good ol’ Texan, and Franklin Sousley, a Southern boy.
The book starts out with Bradley’s reminiscences of his father and then travels back and forth from Iwo Jima to how each of the six men found their way there. And yes, it traces how each one who died, died. But it doesn’t stop there. It continues through the Battle of Iwo Jima, through the end of World War II, through the lives of the surviving three flag raisers.
The language was simple and brutal. Sometimes simplicity is the best way to convey something, and war is a language without words. However, it did provide some good insights into the true nature of heroism:
“Today the word ‘hero; has been diminished, confused with celebrity.’ But in my father’s generation the word meant something. Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion.”
This book is about real heroism, but perhaps not that heroism that you’ve seen in movies. It’s about the quiet heroism of fighting for freedom, for the other guy, for a country, for family. It’s dying for someone when necessary; it’s living when life is hard.