It’s arguably the most iconic photograph of World War II: six faceless figures straining together to plant the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, high above the volcanic killing grounds of Iwo Jima.
The powerful image, taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal in the early afternoon of Feb. 23, 1945, was instantly recognized as an artistic masterpiece and widely disseminated as a symbol of American resolve and triumph. The composition was so perfect that some insisted the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was staged.
It wasn’t. The bloody reality is that three of the flag raisers — Sgt. Michael Strank, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, and Cpl. Harlon Block — later died during the five-week campaign to seize the Japanese-held island. Sgt. Bill Genaust, the cameraman who filmed the flag raising — more proof of its authenticity — also was killed.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, preparing to once again ask a weary nation to sacrifice part of their paychecks to help finance the war, recognized the photo’s potential public relations value. The survivors — officially determined to be PFC Ira Hayes, Cpl. Rene Gagnon, and Navy corpsman John Bradley — were whisked off the island and sent home to headline the 7th War Loan drive. The 58-city bond tour included a two-day stop in Detroit in May 1945. One thousand schoolchildren greeted the heroes at Michigan Central Station.
But over the last few years, comprehensive investigations by historians and the commandant of the Marine Corps have revealed that two of the feted flag raisers, Bradley and Gagnon, were erroneously identified as being in Rosenthal’s photo. Bradley’s removal from the famous tableaux was particularly surprising. He’d been the subject of a bestselling book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” later turned into a critically acclaimed film by Clint Eastwood.
As a result of the findings, a local Marine regained his place in history: Pfc. Harold Schultz, of Detroit, a quiet, amiable individual who would have been embarrassed by the attention the revelation brought.
“He never sought fame or glory,” his stepdaughter, Dezreen MacDowell, said recently.
Schultz on Iwo Jima
Schultz was born Jan. 28, 1925, and grew up at 235 Boyd St.in the Springwells-Fort Street neighborhood. His father worked in the foundry at Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge plant while his mother was a machine operator at a screw products plant. His older sister and only sibling, Emma, worked the counter at a candy store.
Schultz attended Southwestern High School. He was 18 when he enlisted in late 1943. According to his draft registration card, he was 5-foot-6, 150 pounds, with blue eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion.
Schultz was a member of the 5th Marine Division. On Iwo Jima, he had just been assigned to a mortar squad when he helped a cluster of Marines hoist a makeshift flagpole at the top of Mount Suribachi.
Attached to the 20-foot section of pipe was a 96-by-56-inch flag, which fluttered dramatically as Rosenthal hastily swung his Speed Graphic camera around and, without using his viewfinder, snapped the scene. It was all over in the blink of an eye.
Two weeks later, Schultz suffered shrapnel wounds on his left hand and stomach. He was discharged as a corporal in October 1945.
There actually were two flag raisings on Suribachi, spaced roughly two hours apart. Rosenthal had captured the second raising, in which a larger flag replaced the original. There was considerable confusion, as many Marines weren’t sure which flag-raising they had witnessed or participated in.
‘I was a Marine’
The lack of facial features in Rosenthal’s photo, and his failure at the time to get the participants’ names, hindered positive identification. Block, for example, was originally misidentified as Sgt. Henry Hansen, who had raised the first flag and later was killed on Iwo. That error wasn’t corrected until 1947.
Ivory, a native Detroiter who served with the Marines in Vietnam, has long been active in veterans affairs. From his Maryland home, where he’s working on a book about the battle, he shared the few biographical scraps he has been able to collect about the enigmatic Schultz.
“Schultz settled in Los Angeles after the war,” he says. “He’d met a girl from Glendale named Mary, who he corresponded with while overseas. But she died young of a brain tumor.”
Schultz found a job with the post office. Despite the warm, sunny clime, he routinely wore a flannel shirt.
“It’s like he never left Detroit,” Ivory said.
But he had left, and aside from a brief period following his discharge, he evidently never returned. Over the years, the infrequent phone calls to family in Detroit “would start off cordial, then grow angry and end abruptly,” Ivory said.
Clues included a broken helmet strap
Ivory speculates Schultz may have suffered some undiagnosed psychological damage. On Iwo, one of his best friends had been “blown to bits just a few feet away.” After the trauma of combat and the death of Mary, his fiancee, Schultz was content to quietly sort mail for 35 years.
Schultz didn’t drink, smoke or swear. He never had a driver’s license. His only known vices were Glenn Miller records, Hedy Lamarr movies, and the $2 window at local racetracks. He once attended a 5th Division reunion in San Francisco, where he met Rosenthal, but made no claims to fame.
In 1989, when he was 64, Schultz married a neighbor, Rita Reyes. According to MacDowell, he only mentioned the flag-raising once, a passing remark during dinner.
“My God, Harold, you were a hero,” his stepdaughter said.
“No, not really,” he said. “I was a Marine.”
“And then he didn’t want to speak any more of it,” MacDowell recalled. “He just felt like he was doing his duty to his country.”
On May 16, 1995, Schultz was found dead in bed, the victim of a heart attack. He was 70. His grave marker at Hollywood Forever Cemetery mentions his service and Purple Heart but not his role in history.
It was only in 2016, after archival forensic experts had used the latest technology to scrutinize piles of film, documents and photos, that the Marine Corps officially corrected the error. Clues to his identity were a broken helmet strap and the way he slung his rifle.
Schultz was not the only “mystery Marine.” In 2019, another high-level investigation determined that the figure long thought to be Gagnon actually was Cpl. Harold Keller, an Iowa native who died in 1979. Like Schultz, Keller was aware that he’d been in the photo but never publicly declared the fact.
“It’s just amazing that two men could be in the most famous photo in Marine Corps history and keep it a secret their entire lives,” Ivory said. In today’s fame-at-all-costs world, “that probably says more about us than it does about them.”
Source : Richard Bak, “Free Press Flashback: How fame found a humble Detroit Marine after Iwo Jima“, Detroit Free Press, May 27, 2022.