'Flags of Our Fathers' Author Recounts Learning of His Dad's Quiet Courage
James Bradley tells of the experience of delving into the history of his reticent war-hero father through one of America’s most timeless photographs.
Six men in motion, in action as if they were parts of one being with 12 hands, grasping, pushing, surging forward.
Now frozen in time, and timeless.
Six men, Marines and a Navy corpsman, took hold of a flag on top of Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific during World War II and together raised it to signal victory.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal caught the act on film and it became the most iconic picture in American history, representing our collective will for victory and our brotherhood in arms.
One of those men was John Bradley. When he came home from the war, he spoke almost nothing of the great conflict, his part in it, or even his moment of fame in the flag-raising.
His son, James Bradley, grew up knowing next to nothing about it. When he learned more as an adult, he made it his personal goal to understand what propelled his father and the other men toward that moment.
Author learned from libraries
Bradley spoke Thursday at the Wauwatosa Public Library Foundation Leadership Luncheon at the Crowne Plaza, which recognized the achievements of Wauwatosa students as well as contributions to the library from the Bartolotta family.
But featured speaker Bradley was also the centerpiece – and not only for his father's story. He had a few things to say about the importance of libraries, as well.
Raised in Antigo, Bradley gained an early inspiration and fondness for the power of libraries and the knowledge they hold.
"I couldn't talk until I was 3 1/2 years old," Bradley said. "I mumbled, and people made fun of me."
Looking to improve his speaking skills, Bradley's mother enrolled him in the Antigo Library School, where Bradley was able to unleash the wealth of words trapped inside.
"I think the reason why I am up here speaking, and the reason I ever wrote, was because of a library," Bradley said.
Hero had little to say on the subject
Growing up in the same household with a World War II hero, Bradley was never exposed to the events that had heaped accolades on his father.
"My father never spoke to me about the war," Bradley said. "He would always change the topic."
John Bradley's reticence about storming the beaches of Iwo Jima extended not only to his son but also to his own wife.
“After my dad died in 1994," James Bradley said, "I phoned my mom (and said) I would like to take down everything Dad told you about the Iwo Jima flag-raise.
“She said, 'It wouldn’t take very long, because he only talked about once in our 47-year marriage.'”
When Bradley’s father passed away, the key to the mysteries of his father's heroism was finally revealed in a closet containing three boxes filled with Iwo Jima memories. One letter specifically detailed the event that would define the unwavering patriotism of the time.
"At the bottom of one box was a letter my father wrote from Iwo Jima," Bradley said. "In that letter, he wrote that he had little to do with raising the flag but it was the happiest moment of his life."
One letter launches a voyage of discovery
From that one letter began a journey of newfound admiration and discovery, as Bradley began investigating the invasion of Iwo Jima and the grisly details of blood-soaked beaches blistered with bullets that blanketed the Americans.
"Iwo Jima is America’s most heroic moment," Bradley said. "We stamped out more medals for bravery than any other moment in the United States."
The sensation surrounding the photo of six young men lifting the flag became a catalyst for a quick succession to public fame, which was a change of pace for the 22-year-old elder Bradley.
"My father sent back a letter to his mother in Appleton," Bradley said. "He wrote, ‘I hope the pictures with the president don't make it back to Wisconsin because my pimples are so bad.’"
After meeting President Harry Truman, the three soldiers who survived the conflict returned home to began assisting in raising money for the war effort through war bonds, and garnered an enormous $26 billion in two months.
After uncovering the truths of his father, Bradley began his research toward finding out about the men who shared the moment in what would become the bestseller and film “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Publication becomes a lesson in persistence
Even though the photo had become the most reproduced in history, within a 26-month period Bradley's book was turned down 27 times.
Bradley said he recounted that to actor and director Clint Eastwood while they Eastwood was preparing to make "Flags" into a film.
“Clint just said, ‘Sounds like my career.’”
Those rejections became a point to be shared with the students attending the event as a lesson in perseverance against long odds.
After five years, from conception to publication, Bradley finally saw his homage to the men who raised the flag come to life – as a story of men who in their humble natures thought they where just protecting their friends in battle.
They, however, underestimated the impact of their quiet courage. Through Bradley’s journey toward discovering his father’s legacy, he found that through the quietest courage, they made the largest impact.
Wauwatosa men who remember
The connections that the book and photograph had upon Wauwatosa’s community run deep.
Al Exner, a Navy corpsman who had been stationed at Iwo Jima, asked about an issue with the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington, DC, wherein the figure of Bradley’s father had his gun removed from the statue, creating the legend of the empty pouch on his hip.
“According to the Geneva Convention, corpsmen where not supposed to have a firearm. However, the Japanese didn’t seem to have read it,” Bradley said.
His father, in other words, had armed himself for combat, and the photo captured that.
Soon after the statue was unveiled, Bradley said, military leaders "were giving speeches to packed stadiums about the mysterious pouch.”
Scott Olsen of Wauwatosa had a closer connection. He brought photos of his brother and Bradley’s father from their days during the war.
“My brother was with your father," Olsen said. "They where both Navy corpsmen.
“Your father then became an undertaker and embalmed my father.”