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The Myth Of The 13th Hand

April 18 2003 at 8:17 AM
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Dick G  (Login Dick Gaines)
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May 23, 2002
Americans draw strength
from Iwo Jima Memorial
By Patrick Butters
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Iwo Jima Memorial sits atop the manicured Arlington Ridge like a giant Buddha, a shrine to the U.S. Marine Corps and a must-see tourist stop. Based on a World War II news photo, the hulking mass of bronze shows five Marines and one Navy hospital corpsman straining together to raise the American flag during the battle of Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 23, 1945, the Marines were four days into their assault on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island 650 miles south of Tokyo. The Americans battled for 36 days against a dug-in, unseen enemy to win the eight-mile island. The battle was one of the most ferocious of the war.
This Memorial Day weekend, with the memory of firefighters raising a flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center in September fresh, Washingtonians may look again at this monument to valor and at the graves of three of the men it depicts, who are buried nearby at Arlington National Cemetery.
• • •
As in today's war on terror, there was no front line on Iwo Jima. Volcanic ash was everywhere. The Japanese hid in caves, in holes on sides of mountains, behind cliffs. Japanese engineers built 16 miles of underground tunnels. The Marines used flamethrowers to reach the enemy.
The results were shocking: 6,825 Americans dead, 19,217 wounded and at least 20,000 Japanese killed. Victory allowed 2,400 American B-29 bombers to make emergency stops en route to targets on Japan's islands.
The memorial depicts a moment from one campaign, but it honors all Marines who died in battle. That's why it's officially named the United States Marine Corps War Memorial.
"I don't want to sound corny, but it represents more than Iwo Jima," says Matthew A. Virta, a cultural resource manager with the National Park Service, which maintains the memorial. "It means service to your country and the Marines' sacrifice. Look at that statue: Three of those six guys didn't make it. It puts things in perspective."
The Marine Corps Marathon starts and finishes here. After Memorial Day, the Marines Corps will hold its Sunset Parade every Tuesday evening here. Sometimes Marines practice drills here. Semper fi oozes from this eight-acre plot.
Tour buses stop here en masse. Five Porta-Johns sit beneath nearby trees. Teen-agers pose for pictures on the steps of the memorial's black base. Mr. Virta estimates that roughly 1.5 million people a year visit the site. Sitting between Arlington National Cemetery and Rosslyn, it's not easily accessible. The memorial shares a sloping, 25-acre plot of land with the tall but little-known Netherlands Carillon.
• • •
Americans love their icons, and this memorial is one of the most prized. Although the photo was taken 57 years ago by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, the image of Iwo Jima has not strayed from public consciousness. Shortly after the September 11 disaster at the World Trade Center, a photographer caught three harried, dirty firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero.
Instantly the photo was compared to the Iwo Jima Memorial and inspired calls for a sculpture — an idea that died when the model for the sculpture was revealed to be not true to life, a statue of the three men who raised the flag, but a nod toward diversity, a representational statue of a white, a black and a Hispanic.
The Iwo Jima image, though not untouched by controversy, has a different history. The flag raising took place on Mount Suribachi, which at 550 feet was the highest point on the island. Although Japanese were still hiding in caves on the mountain, the Marines made it to the top on Feb. 23. At 10:30 a.m., a small American flag was hoisted atop Suribachi. It was considered too small, however, so that afternoon, six men raised an 8-foot American flag.
"I'm sure those guys raising the flag raised some spirits," says Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Police Lt. Steven J. Feldmann, 46, a former Marine and National Guardsman. In Washington on vacation, Mr. Feldmann has come to the memorial for inspiration for a Memorial Day speech.
"They gave more than they possibly could," he says. "We've always rallied around the flag."
"Look at the Civil War. The flag carrier was the most important part of the unit. If he fell, another would reach down, pick it up and give up his weapon."
Mr. Rosenthal photographed the second flag raising. Within days, the photo spread across the world. It struck the American public like a bomb: In 4,000th of a second it caught the spirit and camaraderie of fighting a just war.
Congress called for a sculpture almost immediately. With public approval, it also pressed the postal officials to release a commemorative 3-cent postage stamp, even though postal rules forbid depicting living people. It was out by July, and 137 million of the stamps were sold.
Sculptor Felix de Weldon, who had served in the Navy, was commissioned to build the large bronze sculpture. President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the memorial on Nov. 10, 1954, the Marine Corps' 179th anniversary.
• • •
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial weighs 100,000 tons and is 78 feet high. Each man stands 32 feet on 6 feet of granite slope. (The survivors posed for de Weldon,and he used photographs and reported measurements to size the other three.)At the top of the 60-foot pole the American flag waves 24 hours a day by presidential order. The 10-foot-high, polished-black Swedish granite base displays the seemingly endless list of conflicts the Marine Corps has fought since its founding in 1775. After 15 years as a Park Service staffer, Mr. Virta still marvels at how the statue dominates the hillside and can be seen a "good ways."
"If you want to be philosophical, the huge, large and immense memorial parlays into the immensity of sacrifice that the Marines gave to their country," he says.
Their six faces look almost the same: intense and expressionless. Two soldiers wear rifles. The folds in their shirts resemble vertical ribbing. The photographer and sculptor are credited on the base, but the subjects are not identified. A simple, shimmering quote from Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz about the Iwo Jima men reads: "Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue."
"It touches me right here," says Marcia Jacobs, 35, of Sumner, Wash. She taps her pink blouse. "I'm grateful when I think of these men, and all the men and women who died."
She starts to cry. Ms. Jacobs leads an association dedicated to establishing the National Brain Tumor Victims Memorial that is gathering in Washington. Her daughter Anjuli died of a brain tumor when she was almost 4.
So Ms. Jacobs can identify with the mothers of these men, such as Pfc. Franklin Sousley, the 19-year-old flag-raiser from Hilltop, Ky. Almost a month after raising the flag, Sousley was shot dead in the back by a sniper at Iwo Jima. After his mother found out, her farming neighbors heard her screaming all night.
The other flag raisers were also affected, whether they died or made it home.
"They look tired and worn out," says Matthew Drennan, 55, from Lindsay, Okla. With dark hair, a round face and a somber look, he squints in the sunlight. "They look like 40-year-old men," he continues, gesturing to his 23-year-old son Matthew, a member of the Army's military police, "when they were probably 19-year-old kids."
Unit leader Sgt. Mike Strank ordered his men to put up a flag big enough that "every Marine on this cruddy island can see it." A week later, Strank was hit by a mortar, his heart ripped out. Nicknamed the "old man," he was 24.
Cpl. Harlon Block, 21, Strank's second in command, kneels closest to the base of the pole. A few hours after taking over for Strank, Block was hit by a mortar shell. James Bradley, a flag raiser's son wrote in his book "Flag of Our Fathers" that he screamed: "They killed me" and died with his intestinesin his hands.
• • •
The three survivors fought personal battles. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered them home to help raise money for the 32-city Seventh Bond Tour, which used the Iwo Jima image as its theme. They raised $24 billion, and the tour made the three instant celebrities — heroes for putting up a flag.
Navy Corpsman John H. Bradley, married, raised eight children and opened a prosperous funeral home. He rarely talked about Iwo Jima, even to his family. Not until after he died in 1994 did they find out he had won the Navy Cross.
Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon, like the others, did not call himself a hero. Unlike the other two, though, he reveled in the media attention: speeches, free drinks and trips to the White House. He died of a heart attack at age 53.
The best known flag raiser was Cpl. Ira H. Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona. On the Iwo Jima Memorial, his is the rear figure, his hands just out of reach of the pole. His celebrity baffled him. Quiet and guilt ridden, Hayes believed the real heroes were "my buddies" who died on Iwo Jima. He drank heavily and was jailed 54 times for disorderly conduct.
Hayes attended the memorial's dedication in 1954. Ten weeks later, at age 32, he died from alcohol and exposure, lying face down in a ditch. His funeral was the largest in Arizona history. Hayes' life was the subject of two movies and a song, Peter La Farge's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," recorded by Johnny Cash and later Bob Dylan.
Hayes is one of three flag raisers buried at Arlington Cemetery. His gravestone is in section 34, plot 479A. Strank is in Section 12, plot 7179. Gagnon's grave is in section 51, plot 543, the closest of the three to the memorial. His is the only tablet with an inscription and a brass bas-relief of the famous picture on the back.
• • •
Beyond what it represents, the work invites comment. Doug Lewis, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art, gravely acknowledges the carnage of a such a battle. He applauds the memorial's scale, saying its distanced public placement and the image give it a civic scale. He leaves it at that.
"It is not an original work of art," Mr. Lewis says. "It's a rendering in three dimensions of a photograph."
The photo itself aroused controversy. Mr. Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo. But almost immediately after it was published, he was accused of posing the flag raisers.
"It, too, is not an original work of art," Mr. Lewis says. "The U.S. public fondly believes it is. Most folks, even people who know it's not an original, believe this is an action photo of five Marines and one Navy man.
"Joe Rosenthal's brain had a sense of choreography and a sense of theatre. He used prime raw material in the creation of an image that was ex post facto staged."
Mr. Miller disagrees. Three days a week he drops by the memorial to talk to school groups, "since it keeps me young," he says. Wearing khakis, a crushed tan hat and sunglasses, Mr. Miller is out to correct "myths" about the statue. He says a grainy color movie of the flag raising confirms that the image was not posed.
"There is so much evidence to the contrary" of such accusations, he says, "I almost can't tolerate people saying that anymore."
He fingers several copies of his self-published pamphlet, "The Iwo Jima Memorial and the Myth of the 13th Hand." An urban legend has it that the statue includes not 12 hands but 13 — a count impossible to verify by sight, since so many hands are jammed together. One myth about the 13th hand, Mr. Miller says, is that sculptor de Weldon added an extremity as the "hand of God raising the flag." Rubbish, he says.
Even so, Mr. Miller says, some people insist they have spotted 13 hands, and some tour guides will even tell their charges to look for the extra hand.
Sometimes controversy over the memorial gets more serious. In 1992, the Air Force Memorial Foundation chose a two-acre site 200 yards from the Iwo Jima Memorial for its memorial. The 50-foot sculpture, made of gray aluminum, was to rise from a star-shaped granite base. The Marines accused the Air Force of encroaching on their front lawn and mounted an assault on the proposal in court, in Congress and through the media.
"It's a special thing to them," Mr. Virta says chuckling. "The Air Force was getting the Marines up in arms, trying to take their hill."
A compromise was reached in November. Not wanting to argue over a memorial during a war, the Air Force volunteered to move its site to the Navy Annex, which overlooks the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery. You just don't mess with the Marines' hallowed ground.


R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952-72
Gunny G's Old Salt Marines Tavern
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