In February 1975, I walked into a travel agency in Manchester, New Hampshire, intending to quit my stressful part-time job there because I had found better work. The manager, Pauline Gagnon, fired me before I had a chance, saying I mistakenly had charged a customer $100 too much for an airline ticket.

So I left, deprived of the satisfaction of seeing even a mild look of dismay on her face in reaction to my departure. I never saw her again. I also never again saw her husband, René, a quiet, middle-aged man who mostly sat at a desk in the front corner of the office, doing paperwork. I have had many occasions to think about him since then, however.

I thought about him in October 1979, when I was working as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal, and the newspaper published a wire service story about his death. It was deemed newsworthy because Gagnon was one of six men credited with having been photographed while raising a large U.S. flag on volcanic Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. It was about six months before Japan’s surrender in World War II. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image, which was reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp, as a memorial sculpture in Arlington, Virginia, and in countless other representations.

The Gagnons never mentioned their Iwo Jima connection to me, but I only worked with them for a month, and they never got to know me well enough to discuss such things, even if they had been inclined to do so.

On Wednesday night, NBC News reported that Gagnon, who wore his burdensome fame like a crown of thorns, wasn’t in the photo at all – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1995, more than 15 years after Gagnon’s death, I was working in Tokyo as the Japan Bureau chief for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. military personnel in the Far East. The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima’s conclusion was approaching, so on March 13, I called Rosenthal, who by then was retired after a long career as a photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle. I asked him questions about his photo — probably the same questions innumerable other reporters had asked over the decades since it became famous, but he was gracious nonetheless.

After a half century, he said, he still remembered “the sounds, the sights, the screams and the yells” of the battle unfolding all around him. He also noted that as a civilian photographer, he was there by choice.

“There were a lot of guys around who were doing it under orders,” he told me, “so I figured, ‘Who am I to shrink from it?’”

The flag event occurred on Feb. 23, 1945. A small U.S. flag already had been planted on the mountaintop earlier in the day, but then Marine Col. Chandler Johnson gave a larger flag to Gagnon, who then was a 19-year-old Marine private 1st class assigned as a messenger with 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, and told him to take it up the hill as a replacement for the first one. The second flag, 96 by 56 inches, had been rescued from one of the U.S. ships sunk in 1941 at Pearl Harbor, according to James Bradley’s bestselling book “Flags of Our Fathers.”

At the top of the hill, Rosenthal, who was about 5 feet, 3 inches tall, was piling up stones at the rim of the volcano so he could stand on them to get a better view of the second flag raising, Bradley wrote. Suddenly the flag was in motion, so Rosenthal raised his Speed Graphic camera, waited for the peak of action, then fired off a single shot on black-and-white film without even looking through his viewfinder.

None of the Americans on the mountain attached any special significance to that second flag, and the strong wind reduced it to tatters within three weeks. But when the photo appeared two days later in newspapers across the United States, the flag achieved immortality.

The U.S. military identified the six flag raisers as Gagnon, Sgt. Hank Hansen, Cpl. Ira Hayes, Sgt. Michael Strank and Pfc. Franklin Sousley, all Marines; and Petty Officer 2nd Class John Bradley, a Navy medical corpsman who was James Bradley’s father.

Rosenthal, who didn’t have time to ask for their names, was in no position to confirm or refute their identities.

“I didn’t know these fellows either before I took the pictures or afterward,” he told me.

Later, what Americans thought they knew about that iconic moment slowly began to unravel.

The first major correction occurred in 1947, when the military said the man previously identified as Hansen actually was Cpl. Harlan Block. Hansen had helped raise the first flag that day, and he witnessed the raising of the larger flag, but he did not participate in it. Both men died in battle with the Japanese six days after the flag raisings, a fact that undoubtedly hindered proper identification of the men in the photo.

That was the state of public awareness when the Virginia monument was dedicated in 1954, when Gagnon died in 1979, and when I called Rosenthal.

Shortly after that interview, my newspaper sent me to Iwo Jima itself to cover a gathering of U.S. and Japanese veterans of the battle there. The Japanese navy, which controls the otherwise uninhabited island, granted special permission for the ceremony. Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, then the U.S. ambassador to Japan, was the keynote speaker. I hiked through the sulfur-tinged caves where the Japanese troops had hidden during the battle, and I trudged along the black sand beach where the U.S. forces had come ashore under heavy fire. I also scanned the crowd, wondering whether Pauline Gagnon might be there among the hundreds of attendees, but I never found her. I still don’t know what I would have said to her, if anything.

The 1947 revised list of flag raisers remained the accepted wisdom when James Bradley’s book was published in 2000 and when director Clint Eastwood’s film of the same name was released in 2006.

My wife, normally not a fan of war movies, insisted that we see the movie because of my encounter with Gagnon nearly three decades earlier, so we did. I was surprised to see that Pauline Gagnon also was a character in the movie. She was portrayed as a calculating, social-climbing attention seeker who wanted to cash in on her husband’s fame. It’s a fair reflection of James Bradley’s book.

Bradley cites many sources who recalled Pauline Gagnon’s persistence. One was Lillian Lebel, who worked in the Gagnons’ travel agency. “Pauline loved the fact that he was famous,” Bradley wrote, quoting Lebel. “She liked the attention it brought to her. I remember how she was visibly excited about a 1975 trip to Washington, D.C. She went shopping for new clothes. René had an ‘I couldn’t care less’ attitude. He didn’t want to go, but Pauline insisted.”

If René Gagnon was a reluctant hero, I thought then, perhaps it’s because he, Bradley and Hayes had experienced too much of the limelight during the many war bond tours the government sent them on immediately after the photo’s distribution. Or maybe it’s because promises of a movie career or a government job never materialized, although he did make a cameo appearance in the 1949 John Wayne movie “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

Then in 2016, the story unraveled a bit more. The Marine Corps announced that John Bradley, the former Navy medical corpsman, also was not in the Rosenthal photo. Instead, the Marines said, the man in the photo is Pfc. Harold Schultz, who, like Bradley, also survived the war. Confronted with new evidence, James Bradley declared himself convinced that his father was not in the photo — rendering both his book and the Eastwood movie sorely in need of revision.

It’s a good thing that didn’t happen yet.

On Wednesday, NBC News reported that the Marines, after reviewing the detective work of some amateur historians, now believe that Gagnon wasn’t in the Rosenthal photo, either. The man misidentified as Gagnon actually was Pfc. Harold “Pie” Keller, they said. Gagnon was on Mount Suribachi that day, the Marines acknowledged. But he was not one of the sainted six Marines. The Marines confirmed the NBC report in a statement Thursday, that after questions had been raised by historians who studied photos and films.

All these developments suggest that we still haven’t learned all there is to know about this historic event, or any other, for that matter.

Did Gagnon know that he wasn’t in the Rosenthal photo, and if so, was his reluctance to be depicted as a hero the byproduct of a guilty conscience? Or was he unaware, having lost track of exactly what he did during the fog of battle? And how much does it really matter who raised that flag?

As novelist William Faulkner famously wrote in his novel “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never over. It’s not even past.”

 

Joseph Owen is the former copydesk chief of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.


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