“The names and fates of those who appeared in some of World War Two’s iconic photos eventually made it into the history books. Here are some of their stories.”
Among the shots submitted by veteran war photographer Joe Rosenthal was an eye-popping photo of six soldiers raising the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi, the 528-foot peak that commands the five-mile-long volcanic island.
Rosenthal, 33, followed the troops to the summit with motion picture cameraman Bill Genaust in hopes of surveying the battlefield from high up. Earlier in the day, some Marines had secured Suribachi and raised a small U.S. flag there. Military correspondent Lou Lowrey photographed the event. As Rosenthal looked for a place to set up his camera, a half-dozen soldiers attached an even larger flag to a discarded metal pole and made ready hoist it. Fearing he was missing a great photograph, Rosenthal quickly pointed his camera and, without even looking into the veiw-finder, pressed the shutter and hoped for the best. Later that day, he forwarded his film to Guam for processing entirely unaware if he’d even succeeded in getting the shot.
As soon as Bodkin saw the developed image, he knew instantly it was going to be a classic.
“Here’s one for all time!” he cried moments before Radiofaxing the image to AP’s New York headquarters. Within hours, copies were in the hands of newspaper editors throughout the United States. Before the day was out, millions of Americans were looking at the now-iconic picture.
Not only would the photo win Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, it would soon be appropriated by President Roosevelt for use in the last bond drive of the Second World War. Almost overnight, the public’s fascination with the image, one of the most famous of the 20th Century, transformed the men depicted in it into overnight celebrities. The Suribachi Six were soon ordered back to the states to headline a national PR campaign. Sadly, not all of them would live to enjoy their newfound fame.
Harlon Henry Block, a 20-year-old Marine corporal from Yorktown, Texas, was killed on March 1, 1945 by a Japanese mortar round. He died exactly one week after appearing in the photo. For years, Block’s role in the flag raising was incorrectly attributed to platoon-mate Henry Hansen, a 25-year-old sergeant from Boston. He too was killed in action on March 1.
Also killed on March 1 was Michael Strank, 25, a Czechoslovakian-born Marine Corps sergeant who also appeared in Rosenthal’s frame. It’s believed that a stray shell from an American warship ended his life.
Franklin Sousley of Hilltop, Kentucky was cut down by a sniper’s bullet on March 21, shortly before Iwo Jima was finally secured. The 19-year-old PFC was just days from being rotated home for his part in the famous photo.
The three surviving flag raisers returned to the United States as national heroes.
Ira Hayes, 22, of Arizona’s Pima Nation campaigned to have Harlon Block’s part in the famous photo officially recognized. Despite his notoriety, Hayes was unable to find steady employment after the war and battled alcoholism. He was found dead outside a shack on a Sacaton, Arizona native reservation on Jan. 24, 1955. Investigators said he froze to death while intoxicated. He was 32.
Navy corpsman John Henry Bradley, 21, became a mortician in his hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin. The future father of eight never considered himself a hero saying that he “just happened to be there” when the raising took place. He died in 1994 at the age of 70.
Incidentally, the entire story was the subject of the 2006 Oscar-nominated film by Clint Eastwood, Flags of our Fathers.
Of course, the names and fates of those who appeared in some of World War Two’s other iconic photos also made it into the history books. Here are some of their stories.
Inspired by the Iwo Jima shot, Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei set out to engineer an equally patriotic moment in the ruins of war-torn Berlin. With fighting still raging in the streets of the Nazi capital, the 28-year-old correspondent stitched together an impromptu Soviet flag out of a table cloth and scaled to the top of the Reichstag. An 18-year-old Ukrainian private named Alexei Kovalyov hoisted the banner for Khaldei. Abdulkhakim Ismailov, a 29-year-old Stalingrad veteran from Dagestan, can be seen in the lower right of frame steadying the young flag-bearer. Both men survived the war and lived in relative obscurity until documentary filmmakers revealed their identities in 1995.
Rallying the Troops
Another famous Soviet photo from World War Two shows a pistol-wielding political officer of the 220th Rifle Regiment named Alexey Gordeevich Yeremenko urging his comrades on near Luhansk, Ukraine. Yeremenko was killed on July 12, 1942, just minutes after the picture was snapped. The identity of the young commissar was unknown for 20 years until Yeremenko’s widow saw the photo in a 1965 commemorative World War Two issue of Soviet newspaper Pravda and stepped forward.
“Wait for Me, Daddy!”
Most Canadians, particularly those who were alive during World War Two, are familiar with the photo of a small boy reaching out to his father who is marching away with his regiment to be shipped overseas. The image, which was later entitled Wait for Me, Daddy, was captured on Oct. 1, 1940 by Claude P. Dettloff of The Vancouver Daily Province. The shot shows five-year-old Warren Bernard chasing his father Jack, a private in the British Columbia Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, as the unit paraded down the main street of New Westminster. “I wanted to go with Dad. I wanted to be with [him],” a 78-year-old Bernard told Canada’s national broadcaster in 2013. “I had it my mind that this was it.” Fortunately for young Warren, his dad Jack returned from the war unharmed. A sculpture of the scene now stands near the very spot where the scene played out more than seven decades previously.
Private Theodore J. Miller was just 19 years old in February of 1944 when his U.S. Marine regiment stormed Eniwetok in the Ebon Atoll. After days of heavy fighting on the tiny South Pacific island, Miller and his victorious comrades were withdrawn from action. This photo was snapped as the war-weary the teenager came aboard one of the troopships of the U.S. Navy taskforce. His haunting ‘thousand-yard stare’ made the image an instant classic. He was killed in action a month later.
A photograph of a crying French citizen identified as Jerôme Barzetti is often wrongly linked to the fall of Paris in 1940. In reality, this famous shot was snapped in the southern French city of Marseilles in early 1941 as units of the national army were departing for North Africa. It first appeared in the March 3, 1941 issue of Life magazine.
This famous shot was captured during heavy fighting on Okinawa in May 1945. On the left, Davis Hargraves, 20, of the1st U.S. Marine Regiment lays down fire with a Thompson submachine gun while 19-year-old Gabriel Chavarria advances across the battlefield. It’s believed that both men survived the war. In fact, numerous sources indicate that Hargraves is still alive. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing, a copy of the photograph supposedly autographed by the aged veteran is up for sale on eBay.
Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division are seen here meeting with Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower just hours before parachuting into Normandy, on June 6, 1944. The soldier speaking directly to the general has been identified as First Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel of Saginaw, Michigan. Ironically, the two men weren’t discussing the upcoming invasion of France. Ike was reportedly making small talk with the junior officer about the best fishing spots in the Great Lakes State. Wallace, who was also celebrating his 22nd birthday that day, survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 77. He died in 1999.
Hitler’s Last Hero
Alfred Czech went down is history as the one of the youngest heroes of the Third Reich. In the final months of the war, the 12-year-old Hitler Youth volunteer drove a cart through a hail of Soviet gunfire near his home of Goldenau in Silesia to rescue wounded German soldiers. Weeks later, the youth was flown to what was left of Berlin to receive a personal commendation from Hitler himself on the occasion of the Fuhrer’s 56th (and final) birthday – April 20, 1945. The star-struck youngster was given a fresh uniform and paraded before newsreel cameras in the courtyard of the bombed out Reich Chancellery while the Nazi leader presented him with the Iron Cross. “[He] shook my hand, then he pinched my left cheek,” recalled Czech later in life. “He told me, ‘Keep it up!’ I certainly had the feeling that I had done something remarkable.” After a meal in Hitler’s infamous bunker, the child soldier was given a rifle and hustled off to the front to fight. Czech was wounded a days later and captured by the Red Army. After a two-year stint in a Soviet POW camp, he was released. As an adult, he worked as a miner in Poland. In 1964, he was granted permission by the communists to emigrate to West Germany. He settled in the Rhineland and raised a family of 10 children. In 2005, he was interviewed by the British newspaper The Independent.
Hands Across the Elbe
East met West in this famous snapshot taken as U.S. and Soviet forces linked up at Torgau on the River Elbe on April 25, 1945. Second from the left in the photo is Bernard E. Kirschenbaum* , a New York native who would go on to become an acclaimed sculptor and architect. He died in 2016 at the age of 91. Among the Soviet contingent is Chaim “Charley” Thau (fourth from the right), a 23-year-old anti-tank battery commander with the Soviet 58th Guards Division. Thau was born in Zablotow, Poland but fled his homeland in 1939 after the German invasion. He later joined the Red Army. After the war, Thau returned home only to discover that his family and friends had been killed during the Nazi occupation. He defected to the west in 1946 and eventually settled in Milwaukee where he ran a gas station for much of his life. He died in 1995 at the age of 73.
* For decades, a GI named Delbert “Del” Philpott of Omro, Wisconsin claimed to be the figure second from the left in the Elbe photo. The 21-year-old soldier, who was serving with the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division at the time, would study chemistry after the war and would eventually work on NASA’s lunar missions. Despite editing a book on the events at Torgau entitled Hands Across The Elbe, recent research has revealed that Bernard E. Kirschenbaum is really the individual appearing in the image, although many sources continue to claim Philpott is in the image. Special thanks to Jeff Thau, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who just happens to be the son of Chaim Thau for digging into the story.
For decades, the identity of the couple in this famous Life magazine photo taken in New York City’s Time Square on VJ Day was hotly disputed. Over the years, as many as 11 men and four women claimed to be the unknown smoochers. Yet a long-running forensic investigation concluded in 2012 that the interlocked subjects were in fact George Mendonsa, a 22-year-old crewman on leave from the destroyer the USS The Sullivans, and a Manhattan dental assistant named Greta Zimmer Friedman. The two had never met before their amorous encounter. Mendonsa was on a date with his future wife when news of Japan’s capitulation reached them in Radio City Music Hall. The couple followed revellers into the street when an admittedly intoxicated Mendonsa spied Friedman, 22, and staggered over to plant a kiss on the strange girl. Mendonsa’s spouse-to-be can supposedly be seen in the background of the famous picture, which was snapped by photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt.
The Warsaw Ghetto
While many of the Jewish deportees seen in this photo, taken in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 19, 1943, have been positively identified, the name of the frightened young boy in the foreground has remained a mystery for decades. Although several have come forward with theories, his identity has yet to be conclusively verified (it probably never will be). To this day, the child remains one of the untold thousands of nameless victims of Hitler’s ghastly Final Solution. On the other hand, the soldier on the right of the frame holding the submachine gun was indeed identified. Josef Blosche, 31, was an Austrian-born Nazi who joined the SS in 1940. He would go on to become a well-known and much feared member of the security forces that brutalized Warsaw’s Jewish population. Blosche was captured by the Red Army in 1945 and held in various work camps until 1947 after which point he settled in East Germany. Twenty years later, investigators uncovered the details of his war crimes. He was condemned to death in 1969 and shot in the back of the neck by East German authorities.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Oct. 19, 2015)