The story opens with the author, James Bradley, admitting that he had little knowledge about his father’s experience during World War II. John Bradley (the author’s father) didn’t divulge much regarding his experiences at Iwo Jima, the flag raising, and other events that followed suit. After his father died in 1994, James found a letter that his dad wrote to his grandparents while he was in Iwo Jima. The letter stated that John considered the flag raising as the happiest moment in his life. This triggered James to conduct a research; which eventually resulted to him writing the book.
Once his research reached completion, James personally visited Iwo Jima with his mother, Betty, and his three brothers, Steve, Mark, and Joe. They flew to Iwo Jima via Okinawa, accompanied by General Charles Krulak. Upon arriving, they toured around the island, including a visit to a beach where numerous American soldiers lost their lives. When their group arrives at Mount Suribachi, they install a commemorative plaque. James spoke about the flag raisers, which he knows a lot about thanks to his research. The family starts singing some of the favorite songs of John Bradley and leave the island.
Notes: James had a lot of questions after he read his father’s letter about Iwo Jima. His writing show a lot of tie-ups between the past and the present.
The author begins to introduce the flag raisers one by one. His own father, John Bradley, was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. James J. Bradley (the author’s grandfather) gave John the nickname “Cabbage” and was also a soldier himself, serving during World War I. Kathryn, John’s mother, was a devout Catholic and raised her son to be one as well. When John was ten years old, his sister, Mary Ellen, died after being badly burnt. John had decided to become a funeral director and enlisted to be in the Navy so he can avoid partaking in land battle.
Franklin Sousley was from Hilltop, Kentucky. He was the only member of his family aside from his mother, Goldie, after his brother Malcolm and father’s deaths. Those around him described him to be fun, daring, and silly. He was also said to be very handsome and was very popular with girls. Prior to being drafted in January 1944, he worked at a Frigidaire plant in Dayton, Ohio to support his mother.
The middle child amongst six children, Harlon Block lived in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas with his family. Belle, his mother, was not happy with where they live, as she was a city girl. However, she put up with their rural life because her husband, Ed, desired to be a farmer. His mother was very devoted to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and influenced Harlon to do the same as well. Once their family moved to Weslaco, Texas, Harlon didn’t return to his Seventh-Day Adventist school. He opted to join the Weslaco football team, where he became the star player despite his mother’s disappointment.
Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, was the eldest child amongst six. He grew up on the Gila River Indian Reservation with his siblings. Nancy, his mother, made sure that she always read the bible to them and also made it a point that they got a proper education at the Phoenix Indian School. All of the people that James Bradley interviewed about Hayes recalled him to be “quiet and uncompetitive”. Nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and was sent off to war with a traditional Pima ceremony.
Rene Gagnon was the only child of French-Canadian millworkers, Henry and Irene. He was raised in Manchester, New Hampshire. His parents divorced when Irene discovered Henry’s infidelity, leaving Rene to grow up without knowing his father. Rene was very handsome, albeit, had a non-descript personality. Irene brought over her son to work with her at the Amoskeag Mills, which once thrived but was already suffering once she started working there. Prior to leaving for the army, he promised Pauline Harnois that they would get married.
Like Rene Gagnon, Mike Strank also grew up in a town known for mining and milling. Strank was from Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania. He moved to the United States from Czechoslovakia with his mother Martha when he was a child; his father, Vasil, left three years before them and was sending them money from his job at the mines in Bethlehem Steel. During the time the Depression hit their mining town, Mike worked at the Civilian Conservation Corps until he was nineteen. He made a decision to join the Marines, but also had the option to avoid military service because of his Czech citizenship.
Notes: A great deal of religion and being raised by strong women has intense influence amongst the lives of the flag raisers. James characterized the men based on the interviews that he conducted during his research.