Flags of our fathers

Terry Garlock's picture

There is a fine movie playing in local theaters, “Flags of Our Fathers,” based on the book of the same name written by James Bradley about the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in WWII. I wish all of you who can stand the realistic gruesome scenes of battle would see this movie about how a war has to be packaged and marketed to the American public. There is a priceless underlying message about heroes.

Adm. Chester Nimitz got it right in 1945 when he said “uncommon valor was a common virtue” as he marveled at the brutal punishment absorbed by U.S. Marines fighting the Japanese on Iwo Jima. James Bradley’s father was one of those who raised the flag over Iwo Jima in the famous photograph, but his father never talked about it and James never knew until his father’s death. When he did some research he found a story worth writing about.

James tracked down the decorated heroes from the Iwo Jima battle because he wanted to understand where that uncommon valor comes from. With each interview he became more frustrated as they each told him the same thing in varying words. “I didn’t do anything special,” they each said, “I just did my job like the other guys.”

Eventually Bradley figured out he was focusing on the wrong half of Adm. Nimitz’s observation, and that the real answer was in the common virtue of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things. These Marines suffered together, and they fought desperately to keep one another alive.

And when some of them were decorated for heroism, they didn’t want to stand out from all the others; they took enormous pride in being just one of the guys who did their job, the buddies they came to love and admire.

When the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo was received back in the U.S., it was an excellent photo that went all the way to President Roosevelt, who ordered the men in the photo home so these “heroes” could be on display on a tour selling badly needed war bonds. Everywhere these men went they were celebrated as heroes, and it ate at them because they knew the whole thing was a lie.

First was the false impression that the flag raising signified victory, when actually it was amidst the heated battle that lasted another 35 days.

Second, the first flag had been raised earlier that day atop Mt. Suribachi and had prompted cheering by the Marines all over the island who could see it, and ships at sea blew their fog horns for the flag. But that flag was replaced with a second, larger flag later that day. It was the second flag, the replacement, in the famous photo.

Third, these men knew they were no heroes for pushing up a pole with a flag on it while their brother Marines were fighting and dying far below. And while they toured the U.S. being touted as heroes at every stop, their brothers were still fighting and dying in the Pacific.

The Marines on tour became sick of the distortion, sick of being packaged as a false hero, sick of the American public needing to be sold heroes while America’s sons were fighting and dying.

I think maybe they knew what Adm. Nimitz knew, that all the men on Iwo Jima were fighting desperately to defeat the enemy, to bring the battle to an end, to survive. Ordinary men took extraordinary risks not to be a hero, not to receive medals, but to do their duty and to help their buddies live through it.

If you ask any one of those Marines still alive today, my guess is they are far more proud to be one of the guys they fought with than any medal or special recognition they may have received.

I think it was the same aboard my father’s ship, the Fanshaw Bay, as they furiously fought the Japanese fleet to protect our invasion force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf when McArthur’s army returned to the Philippines.

It was the same decades later for me in Vietnam. I was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the 334th in Bien Hoa, near Saigon. We were called when ground troops were in trouble.

One day I was shot down, badly hurt and in grave danger. Two fellow pilots, John Synowsky and Graham Stevens, risked their necks to rescue me. When I thanked them later from my hospital bed for saving my skin, they brushed it off and said, “Any of the other guys would have done the same thing.”

The remarkable thing is, they were right. That’s what Adm. Nimitz meant by common virtue.

When I get together with fellow Vietnam veterans, some have important medals and some don’t, but we pay no attention to those things. What matters to us is what I imagine matters to the brave men who fought on Iwo Jima, and other veterans of other battles in other wars.

What matters is that we once put our asses on the line for each other while we were serving our country, once when we were young, once when we were at our best.

Maybe that’s the payoff of Adm. Nimitz’s common virtue, that we would never let anyone call us a hero because the heroes are the ones who didn’t come back, but no matter how old or fat we get, we can see in one another what we like most about ourselves.

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