The U.S. Marine Corps verified this spring that it has launched an investigation into some identity-discrepancies regarding the Iwo Jima flag raisers in Joe Rosenthal’s renowned AP photograph of 23 February 1945. It is commonly known, of course, that the monumental picture actually captures the second U.S. flag raising atop Mount Suribachi (this second raising put up a larger flag). Three of the servicemen in the photo didn’t survive to make it back home. The remaining three who did make it back—Marine Privates Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, and Navy Corpsman John Bradley—found themselves the focus of fanfare, hero treatment, and War Loan–tour celebrity status as they circuited the country.
But is Bradley really even in the photo? Not according to amateur historians Eric Krelle and Stephen Foley, who started coming out with their evidence in 2014. The doubts they raised picked up steam as the Smithsonian began working on a documentary about the flag raising and eventually contacted the Marine Corps with a mounting suspicion that Bradley was not involved, though he claimed to have been. Bradley’s son, James Bradley, had even written a best-selling book, Flags of Our Fathers, about his father’s participation in the iconic event; the book spawned an acclaimed movie directed by Clint Eastwood and a successful writing career for Bradley.
As the controversy has been escalating, Naval History succeeded in unearthing the following transcript buried within the voluminous World War II files of the National Archives’ Record Group 38. As evidenced here in his own words, in a now-declassified U.S. Navy interview recorded two and a half months after the occurrence, Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley claimed, unabashedly and with detail, that he had, in fact, been one of the celebrated Iwo flag raisers—during the second raising that yielded the famous photo:
Captain Wright: This is May 9th, 1945. This afternoon we have with us John H. Bradley, Pharmacist’s Mate, 2/c, who was with the Marines on the now-famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Bradley has kindly consented to tell us of his experience with the Marines and at Iwo Jima. The next voice that you hear will be that of John Bradley, Pharmacist’s Mate, 2/c.
Bradley: I was attached to the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima and I was a member of the 28th Marine Regiment who raised the American flag on the highest point on that island, which is Mount Suribachi. The company that I was assigned to hit the beach (we were in the ninth wave), we hit the beach approximately H-Hour plus 45, which would be 45 minutes after H-Hour. When we hit the beach I was a little bit too busy to do any sightseeing at the time because we had a lot of casualties around the beach. In our company we went right up in the front lines about 45 minutes after we hit the beach and we stayed there. The 28th Marines sector of that island was the southern tip of Iwo Jima, which Mount Suribachi was on.
In the morning of D plus 4 we organized a patrol of approximately 40 men. . . . At that time we didn’t know if we were going to be able to plant the American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi but previous to that the Navy gave the mountain a terrific bombarding, assisted by the Navy, Army and Marine Corps fighter planes.
We started up the mountain immediately after the naval barrage and plane strafing was over and we reached the top. And I might add that the reason we reached the top of Mount Suribachi without a single enemy shot being fired was because the Japs were still in their caves waiting for the bombardment to be lifted. When we reached the top we formed our battle line and we all went over the top together and much to our surprise we didn’t find a Jap in sight. If one Jap had been up there manning one of his guns I think he could have pretty well taken care of our 40-man patrol.
Well, the minute we got up on top we set our line of fire up, the Lieutenant in charge placed the machine guns where he wanted them, had our rifle men spotted and immediately we sent patrols to the right and to the left. We went up the mountain almost in the middle so consequently we sent patrols around to the right and left to take care of any Japs that might come out. When we got there I was with the group that swung to the left and immediately the Lieutenant sent a man around to look for a piece of staff that we could put the American flag on. And the Japs had some old pipes that were laying around there, they used these pipes to run water down below the mountain. And we used this Jap pipe and we attached the American flag on there and we put it up. And Joe Rosenthal happened to be there at the right time. He came up a little while after we were on top and much to his surprise the picture that is now so famous . . . the Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi.
After the flag was raised we went back to work taking care of the Japs that were here and there and we found many of them in caves. In fact in one cave we counted 142 Japs. And the flamethrowers did a fine job on top of the mountain. We tried to talk them out. They wouldn’t come out so then we used the flamethrowers as a last resort. There were numerous caves all around there and we didn’t have one single casualty on top of that mountain. . . .
Captain Wright: Bradley, in the picture which man are you?
Bradley: I’m the one that’s second from the right as you’re looking at the picture. And right next to me there you can see a man’s helmet sticking up, that’s Pfc. Gagnon. The man bending over nearest to the ground is Sergeant [Henry O.] Hansen. And the one in the back of me with the rifle slung on his shoulder is Pfc. Ira Hayes. He is also a survivor. And the one in the back of Hayes, is Pfc. [Franklin] Sousley who was later killed in action on the north end. And there’s two men that you can hardly see in the picture, they are from, the one on the right hand side is Pfc. Rene Gagnon who is a survivor of the flag raising. And the other one in back of Gagnon is Sergeant [Michael] Strank who was killed later in action on the north end of Iwo Jima.
Lieutenant Porter: . . . Some Naval officers that have been back said that the naval ships let go a great cheer or salute when they noticed the flag up. Could you hear anything of that demonstration or see anything of it?
Bradley: Well, at that time we didn’t think of the significance of the flag raising but they’ve told me that they did and it seems to me that I can recall something of that. We men up on top of the mountain weren’t thinking of anything like that at the time. In fact we were all worried.
Lieutenant Porter: I understand this is the second flag raising that occurred there.
Bradley: That’s right. The first flag was a smaller flag and it was put up by Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas of Tallahassee, Florida. He was the Platoon Sergeant in charge of the 40-man patrol. He put up that flag about one-half hour before this larger one was put up. It was so small that it couldn’t be seen from down below so our Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler W. Johnson sent a four-man patrol up with this larger flag, which is the flag you see on the poster for the 7th War Loan Drive.
Lieutenant Porter: None of these six men in the picture then actually carried the flag up?
Bradley: No sir, the flag was carried by the Lieutenant in charge of the patrol. That was the first flag. And the second flag that went up was carried, in the patrol, there was Sergeant Strank who was in the second flag raising and whose picture is on it and Pfc. Hayes and Pfc. Sousley. They were in the group of the four men that the Battalion Commander sent up with the second flag.
Lieutenant Porter: . . . How long were you on top of Mount Suribachi?
Bradley: We stayed there approximately three days, a little over three days and then we received our orders to go to the north end.
Lieutenant Porter: How long did the flag stay up?
Bradley: The flag stayed up all the while. That flag was never taken down.