Franklin Sousley and the Fight for Iwo Jima
By Ron Elliot
 

You've seen the picture. The image of the U. S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima may very well be the most famous photograph of all time. Did you ever wonder who those six men are or ponder that each was some American woman's baby boy?
Does it matter who they are? When Americans view Joe Rosenthal's photograph, what we see is American teamwork and victory. From that perspective, the names do not matter. There is, however, another point of view.

For the record, the six marines are: Harlon Block (Texas), Ira Hayes (Arizona), John Bradley (who was actually a Navy Corpsman.) (Wisconsin). Rene Gagnon (New Hampshire), Mike Strank (Pennsylvania) and Kentucky's Franklin Sousley.

Franklin Runyon Sousley was born at the Fleming County hamlet of Hilltop, Kentucky on September 19, 1925, the second son of Duke and Goldie (Mitchell) Sousley.

 

Franklin's early childhood was traumatic: when Franklin was three, his older brother, Malcolm, died of appendicitis; in 1933, another son, Julian, was born: the following year, when Duke Sousley died, Goldie had to bury her husband beside her oldest son.

This left Goldie and Franklin alone to do all the farm chores, raising crops, care for a baby, cook their meals and clean the tiny cabin. A close bond developed between mother and son as Goldie passed her sense of humor along. Franklin did his share of the work, with cheer, after spending his days at school, first at Elizaville Elementary then Fleming County High School.

Franklin was a country boy; not a part of the Flemingsburg crowd and as he had chores at home, he did not participate in much extracurricular activities. He did like to have fun, though. Like the Halloween that he and a pal fenced some cows on the porch of the general store and fed them a dose of Epsom Salts to ensure the result.

After Sousley graduated from high school in May 1943, he found work in Dayton, Ohio while he awaited the call to war that would surely come. Before he managed to send much of his earnings home, Uncle Sam's "Greetings" telegram arrived on January 5, 1944. That same day, rather than submit to the draft, Franklin Sousley volunteered for the Marines. He was soon on his way to the San Diego depot to become what his Parris Island counterparts call a "Hollywood Marine."

In training, the young men probably had little time to study the war news or ponder grand strategy. If they did, they would have known that in that same summer of '44 the older Marines were fighting and dying to take the Pacific islands in the Marianas as a part of the "island hopping" campaign.

After completion of boot camp, Soulsey went back to Kentucky for a short furlough. One of his friends reported that he stepped off the train at Maysville, "looking straight as a string." When he left, he told his mother that he would, "come back a hero."

Sousley reported for duty at Camp Pendleton, California, assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Company E (Easy Company,) 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment of the Fifth Marines. The training was tough, but Sousley, was still the fun-loving country boy. When some of his buddies noticed a strange odor in the barracks, they discovered that Sousley had brought a Kentucky tradition to the Corps -- he was making moonshine with raisins stolen from the mess while he was on KP.

On September 19th -- Franklin's 19th and his last, birthday -- the Marines left California bound for more specific training in Hawaii. At Camp Tarawa, the Marines would practice loading themselves into a landing craft, disembarking when they reached the beach of "Island X," and in the case of Easy Company, turn left to cut off a mountain. They practiced these maneuvers until, hopefully, the moves were second nature. In December, they packed up their gear and boarded a transport ship once again.

Before heading out to sea, though, Uncle Sam allowed these men ( mostly boys actually) one treat -- they stopped off for a few days of liberty at Honolulu! Sousley, promoted to Private First Class, had a Marine Corps globe and anchor tattooed on his arm before the men were loaded on the USS Missoula in January 1945 to become part of an armada headed for "Island X." A few days into the journey, the Marines learned that they would stop at Saipan for a rendezvous with additional ships before proceeding to their objective, Iwo Jima.

Arriving at Saipan on February 11th, the Marines may have seen the massive B-29 bombers as they took off for raids on Japan. The men wouldn't know it, but those planes were the reason they were going to Iwo Jima. Even a quick look at a map will reveal that Iwo Jima is mid-way, on a 1200 mile direct line, from Saipan, where the B-29's were based, to Tokyo. Thus the otherwise worthless chunk of volcanic rock -- Iwo Jima is uninhabitable as no fresh water exists -- was critical as two airstrips and a radar station were located there. Those assets allowed the Japanese to warn the homeland when the bombers were on the way and to harass the huge planes coming and going. Additionally, were Iwo Jima in American hands, damaged planes could land there, shorting the trip by 600 miles. Thus the Americans had to take Iwo Jima.

Knowing the Americans would come, the Japanese garrisoned the tiny island with 22,000 troops and built thousands of fortifications, mostly underground. The Japanese also knew that they could not fend off the American assault -- all they could do was make the price so high the Americans would think twice before invading Japan. Every Japanese soldier on the island knew he was to die; the commanders asked that he take 10 U. S. Marines with him As the troops and fortifications were underground, the American air corps daily bombings of Iwo Jima, begun in December and the naval shelling for three days prior to invasion did little other than rearrange the black volcanic sand.

The island is roughly triangular with Mt. Suribachi, a 550 foot tall extinct volcano at the southern tip of the triangle. The only feasible landing areas, on the east side of the island, were divided into five zones. Easy Company was assigned to the southernmost beach and tasked to turn left after landing and wrest Mt. Suribachi from Japanese control. On the adjacent beach to the north, Able Company (also of the 28th ) was assigned to race straight across the narrow neck, cutting off Suribachi. Thus Able Company and Easy company were each to be involved in a separate fight from the other 33,000 Americans on the island. Early on February 19th the Marines moved into the landing craft ready to assault Iwo Jima.

 

The Americans had learned some lessons from previous island invasions and did not repeat past mistakes. But, the Japanese had learned, too. This time, the Japanese did not contest the initial landings, preferring to wait until the beach was clogged with men and machines before opening a murderous fire on the Americans. About 30 minutes after the Marines walked ashore, the slaughter began. From positions the Marines could not even see, the Japanese poured rifle and machine gun fire, mortars and large caliber artillery onto the beach positions.

Despite the horrendous conditions, discipline somehow held. The months of training paid off as the Marines performed just as they had practiced so many times. Before the day was over, Able Company had driven across the neck of the island, cutting off Suribachi. Easy Company had moved about half the 400 yard distance to the base of the mountain. Other Marines had made slight progress moving north from the landing zones. Those gains had a high price: when darkness fell, 556 American boys who had feasted on steak and eggs that morning were dead and 1755 more were wounded. The price for this scrap of rock would go even higher. The remaining 200 yards between Easy Company and the base of the mountain, barren of any cover, would prove to be the greatest killing ground Americans had crossed since Gettysburg.

After a sleepless night of shells bursting and flares revealing ominous shadows, some of which actually were Japanese infiltrators, the American awoke in a cold rain on February 20.

 

Easy Company was in reserve all day, so Sousley and his friends relaxed as best they could while awaiting a call to action. As the situation evolved, they were not needed but probably spent an uneasy day anyway.

Rain continued the next day, but the respite did not. Early in the morning, the men heard the command to move forward.. As the Americans advanced, after they passed, Japanese snipers would pop out of a hole, fire at their backs and then disappear back into the earth. The ground was taken inch by inch. Easy accomplished their objective; by nightfall, they were at the base of the mountain. Again, the cost was brutal. Thirty percent of the Company's original strength lay dead behind them. Overall, three days fighting had cost the Americans 644 killed, 4168 wounded and 560 unaccounted for.

On the 22nd, rain continued to fall as Easy Company regrouped at the base of Mt. Suribachi, gathering their strength for the assault everyone knew would be coming. Sometime during the day, Franklin Sousley walked by where his buddy Ira Hayes was patting up little burial mounds in the dirt. Hayes made a show of playing Taps for Sousley, "just in case I ain't around when you get it."

Mid-morning on February 23rd the weather finally cleared . The brass ordered a four man patrol up the mountain just as the rain ceased. Those four men soon returned to report that, incredibly, they had been all the way to the top and encountered no resistance. Although that news seemed too good to be true, the Colonel ordered a larger force -- 40 men -- up the mountain. Almost as an afterthought, the Colonel handed one of the men a small (54" x 28") flag, saying, "If you get to the top, put this up." The Marine who took it remembered that the Colonel did not say "when, he said, 'if.'" That patrol also gained the top of the mountain. A Marine Corps photographer who accompanied them recorded the raising of the first American flag to fly over Japanese soil. Immediately after the flag went up, "all hell broke loose" as the enemy started popping out of holes and shooting. This was the first time many of the Marines had actually seen a Japanese soldier. They were able to see plenty then. For reason known only to the them , the Japanese rushed the Marines in one of their suicide charges. The Marines accommodated.

Elsewhere on the island every American cheered when they saw the flag flying atop the mountain. Infantrymen stopped firing, laborers on the beach stopped loading and even the ships in the bay sounded their horns. At this point, fate took a hand in arranging a sequence of events that immortalized six men and one photographer.

On one of those ships, Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, turned to a Marine General and expressed a desire to have that flag he saw waving atop Mt. Suribachi. "Hell with that," thought the General, feeling that the flag belonged to the Marines. Turning to a Colonel, he ordered the flag replaced so that it could be preserved.

About the same time, someone decided that the detachment atop the mountain needed a wired telephone set-up.

Accordingly, Easy Company was ordered to string a wire up the mountain. That assignment fell to the 2nd platoon which included Sousley, Hayes, Strank and Block.

Those men arrived at headquarters to pick up the wire at the same time a runner, Rene Gagnon, arrived with a new, and larger (96" x 56") flag. That flag, incidentally, was a Pearl Harbor survivor. "Let's go!" shouted platoon leader Mike Strank.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, in company with two other photographers decided to climb the mountain. About halfway up, they met the man who had photographed the previous flag raising. He advised that although they had missed the big event, the view of the harbor from up there was worth the effort to gain the top.

Atop the mountain, Strank ordered Hayes and Sousley to find a pole. While they were searching, the photographers, informed that a new flag was going up, looked for likely vantage points. Feeling that a explanation was necessary Strank told the officer in charge that the General wanted a flag "big enough so that every son of a bitch on this cruddy island can see it."

Hayes and Sousley found a length of pipe that had been part of a Japanese system for catching rain water. They drug the 100 pound tube to where Block was stacking rocks on the ground as a base for the flagpole. Strank tied the flag to the pole, gathered the cloth in his hands and placed the pole over his shoulder. Hayes, Sousley and Gagnon also grasped the pole while Block, squatting by his pile of rocks prepared to jam the end into the ground when the shaft became vertical. Jack Bradley, the Navy corpsman who happened to be standing near by, jumped in to add his bulk to the effort.

As the men started to move forward, Joe Rosenthal, a small man, was standing atop some rocks he had gathered. One of the other photographers, very close to Rosenthal, said, "Am I in your way, Joe?"

 

"No," answered Rosenthal. Then seeing the movement, he shouted, "There she goes!" As the pole came up, Strank released his grasp on the cloth and the tube left Ira Hayes' grip. The wind, from behind the men, caused the flag to billow away from them. Raising his Speed Graphic camera, Rosenthal, with no time to peer through the view finder, pressed the shutter. One one-four-hundredth of a second later, the image was on film. The time was about noon, February 23, 1945.

Long before the days of digital images, Rosenthal's film went to Guam by plane for developing. There, an AP photo editor was the first to see the image of the "replacement" flag going up. With a quick "Wow!" he transmitted it to Associated Press headquarters in New York via radiophoto signal. That process took two days, so The Photograph appeared on page one of nearly every American newspaper on Sunday morning, February 25.

 

Back on Iwo Jima, while the battle raged on in the north, the men atop the mountain were allowed a few days rest. Franklin -- unaware, like everyone on the island, that the image even existed --wrote his mother on the 27th:

          "Dearest Mother,

          As you probably already know we hit Iwo Jima February 19th just a week ago today. My regiment took the

          hill with our company on the front line. The hill was hard and I sure never expected war to be like it was

          those first four days. I got some (bullets) through my clothing and I sure am happy that I am still OK.

          The island is practically secure."

Sadly, Sousley was very wrong with that assessment. Another 29 days would pass and thousands more would die before the island was officially declared secure.

As soon as the picture appeared in newspapers, the American public demanded to know who the men were. Many American women thought that, like Arlington Cemetery' "Unknown Soldier," one of the pictured men might be "my boy." Additionally, the men were officially desired to be withdrawn from combat to sponsor a war bond drive.

Meanwhile, the battle for Iwo Jima raged on. After four days rest, Easy Company turned north to join the other Marines in clearing the remainder of the island. By the time the men in the picture were identified, Block and Strank were dead and Bradley was wounded. Although Sousley and Hayes were alive, the Marine Corps felt that it would be safer to leave them were they were than to try to withdraw them, so the two men stayed in the lines. Of the six flag raisers, only Hayes, Bradley and Gagnon were to leave the island alive.

By March 21, the invading force on Iwo Jima had been in fierce combat for 31 consecutive days, the island had been declared "mostly secure," and some Marines were already loading on evacuation transports. About 21,000 Japanese were dead, many having committed suicide rather than be captured and the Marines had suffered more than 26,000 casualties for their "security."

About 2:30 that March afternoon, Franklin Sousley wandered into a road in an area where Japanese snipers were active. A shot came from behind. While the men around him dove to the ground, Franklin absently swatted at his back as if brushing off a fly. "How ya doin'?" somebody asked.

"Not bad." Sousley answered, sprawled on the earth. "I don't feel nothin'." Those were his last words.

 

PFC Franklin R. Sousley was buried in a make-shift cemetery on Iwo Jima. At the insistence of his mother, his body was transported back to Kentucky and re-interred in the cemetery at Elizaville (Fleming County) in an elaborate ceremony on March 22, 1948.

Today, a monument depicting the flag-raising with the Sousley figure highlighted and a glass vial of black Iwo Jima sand mark his final resting place. On one side of his grave is his fathers. Franklin's little brother, Julian, who was killed in a car accident in Maysville in 1951, lies on the other side.

 

When news of Sousley's death reached Hilltop, Goldie Price (she had remarried) had no telephone in her home, so someone had to come from the general store to tell her that her son was dead. The neighbors report that they could hear her screaming all through that night. The neighbors lived a quarter-mile away.

So, does it matter who the men in the picture were?

It mattered to Goldie.

 

 

Ron Elliot, extoller of country wisdom, Kentucky history, and general jocularity, is also author of Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, The Silent Brigade: The True Story of How One Woman Outwitted the Night Riders, and Assassination at the State House: The Unsolved Mystery of Kentucky's Governor Goebel.
 
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