It was only a replacement flag, but became the flag in the most famous photograph in history. Flags of Our Fathers begins in 1998, when James Bradley, son of one of the flag-raisers, travels to Iwo Jima to post a memorial to his father, John Bradley.
But where the story truly begins is on a cold February day in 1945. Two days after the Marines landed on Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, five Marines and one Navy Corpsman placed a replacement flag on top of Mt. Suribachi.
The photographer, Joe Rosenthal, wasn't even sure he got the photograph. He wouldn't know for weeks because the film would need to be air-lifted to Hawaii for processing before it was sent back to the States.
The photo itself was only of the replacement flag anyway. The commander of the Marine force had ordered the original flag replaced because the Secretary of the Navy wanted it. The commander felt it belonged to the Marines.
What happened next would stun the flag-raisers who survived. Days later the photo would circulate the globe, announcing that the Marines had taken Iwo Jima even though the battle had barely begun.
For a nation tired of war, this didn't matter. The photo gave them hope, a hope they desperately needed to continue the war.
Only three of the flagraisers would survive the battle; three died within days of raising the new flag.
The book breaks down as follows: In Chapter One, Bradley tells us about his extraordinary trip to Iwo Jima to place a memorial to his father, John Bradley, the Navy Corpsman in the photo. In Chapter Two, he tells us briefly about the six men involved in raising the flag. Chapters Three through Fourteen cover the events leading up to that fateful day, beginning with these six men deciding to join the military.
Readers are given a taste of the horrors of war as these men struggle to deal with what they see and experience as they take one Pacific island after another in an effort to defeat Japan. John Bradley, the corpsman everyone called "Doc", tries desperately to save these marines as they fought these bloody battles.
The rest of the chapters cover the three survivors returning home to do a bond tour to raise money for the war, as well as what happened to them up until the time of their deaths.
Although this book is a book about great events, it's also a very human story. It's a very personal story of how human beings learn to cope with the most horrific events imaginable. While one of these men seeks further fame for his role in the picture, the two remaining survivors struggle to return to "life as normal". Doc Bradley chooses to become a funeral director, to raise a family, and to try to create as normal a life as possible.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn't a term these survivors knew. They struggled in silence to deal with horrors they couldn't understand.
Doc Bradley was the last of the survivors to die, in 1994. James Bradley uncovered the story of his father's heroism by accident when going through his papers. He discovered his father had won the Navy Cross, the Navy's second-highest honor for gallantry and bravery for his actions during World War II.
This sent James Bradley on a four-year trek to discover the truth behind his father's actions. His journey ended when he placed the memorial on Iwo Jima.
Ultimately, this is a story of truth, not media coverage. It can best be summed up by a quote from the book as these marines prepare to go overseas to fight at Iwo Jima:
"Behind them, in safe America, Bing Crosby sang of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know. Ahead lay a hot island of black sand, where many of them would ensure a long future of Christmases in America by laying down their lives".
What most Americans will never understand is that no one hates war more than the military service member. It is he/she, after all, who must die to protect the freedom we so richly enjoy.
The book explains why such sacrifice is often necessary, and is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why freedom has such a high price. For everyone else, it's a compelling read about men who considered themselves ordinary and only wanted to do their jobs the best way they knew how.