Franklin Sousley and the Fight for Iwo Jima
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
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
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
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
"Not bad." Sousley answered, sprawled on the
earth. "I don't feel nothin'." Those were his last words.
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
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
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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