At first, the men hoisting one of the first American flags on Japanese soil were anonymous symbols of the war effort - backs turned, faces obscured in the Associated Press photograph that would win a Pulitzer, signal triumph amid massive causalities and help finance World War II.
“Our country needed a pick-me-up,” said Dustin Spence, a Sacramento filmmaker and historian who has studied the photo for years. “This flag raising picture did that.”
Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt said he wanted to bring the six Marines pictured to Washington, D.C.
“That’s when we kind of opened up this Pandora’s box,” Spence told The Washington Post.
It would take nearly 75 years to get the names right.
This month, the Marine Corps confirmed that it has long misidentified one of the men in Rosenthal’s iconic picture from the island of Iwo Jima, after Spence and other historians submitted a PowerPoint of evidence. It wasn’t the first error. Three years ago, the Marines acknowledged another mistake, and false IDs have plagued a second image from the Feb. 23, 1945 flag-raising on Japan’s Mount Suribachi, too.
Both the Marines and the FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory worked to confirm the latest “opportunity to expand on the historical record,” the Marine Corps told NBC News in a statement - the revelation that Cpl. Harold “Pie” Keller rather than Pfc. Rene Gagnon is pictured in Rosenthal’s shot.
“Regardless of who was in the photograph, each and every Marine who set foot on Iwo Jima, or supported the effort from the sea and air around the island is, and always will be, a part of our Corps’ cherished history,” the Marines said. “In the words of General David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, ‘they are all heroes.’”
The Marines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For Spence, the Marines’ admission capped a personal project that’s spanned half the 35-year-old’s life. Fascinated by World War II after growing up on his grandfather’s stories of piloting in the Pacific, Spence spent his college years interviewing veterans. One of those veterans told him a story about a flag-raising picture from Iwo Jima that all the books got wrong.
Two flag-raisings were memorialized on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23; U.S. forces swapped in a bigger flag before Rosenthal’s shot. Spence started scouting out misconceptions about the first, lesser-known photo before moving on to the Rosenthal image that plastered newspapers back in 1945. He teamed up with two other historians who had been scrutinizing the pictures, Stephen Foley and Brent Westemeyer.
In May of 2016, the Marine Corps announced it was revisiting the lore around the famous Associated Press photo, thanks to Spence and others’ digging. Within a month, a panel headed by a retired general had put its weight behind the historians’ findings.
Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley was, in fact, Marine private Harold Schultz. Bradley was actually part of the first, smaller flag-raising, the panel affirmed.
Westemeyer had a “hunch” that one man was still wrongly identified, Spence recalled. But they needed proof.
Those lingering questions sent Spence to Army archives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he sifted through other, little-known pictures from that day on Iwo Jima - snapped by photographers who never got Rosenthal’s fame. It was like a puzzle, he said: He would match a snippet of camouflage helmet from Rosenthal’s image to different picture, then trace another detail to yet another picture, until he found a clearly visible face.
The face he landed on seemed to belong to Harold Keller. Looking for more confirmation, Spence said, he tracked down Keller’s daughter, Kay Maurer.
Maurer showed him a trunk of keepsakes her parents saved from the war era, full of news clippings using words like “bloodbath” and “meat-grinder” to describe the brutal war being waged in the Pacific, Spence said. Among the papers: articles about the flag-raising.
Spence has spoken with many veterans over the years, he said, but Keller stood out: A Purple Heart winner and Marine Raider, Keller was what Spence calls “the Navy SEAL of World War II,” a man highly trained and prepared to survive behind enemy lines. Keller found out that he’d fought in major clashes like the Battle of Midway and lived through a bullet in the neck.
The only one of the six Marines in Rosenthal’s photo to have children, Keller would name his son after a friend mortally wounded at the bottom of Mount Suribachi, Spence said.
News that Keller was pictured in the famous photo has reportedly caught Keller’s family off guard.
“He never spoke about any of this when we were growing up,” 70-year-old daughter Maurer told NBC News. “We knew he fought in the war, we knew he was wounded in the shoulder at one point … But he didn’t tell us he helped raise the flag on Mount Suribachi.”
Hanging on the living room wall, though, was another Rosenthal picture, Maurer told the news station. It showed Marines in front of a flag.
An obituary indicates that Keller died in 1979.
Sometimes, Spence said, he’s asked why it matters who’s in Rosenthal’s image. After all, the second flag-raising shot seems composed to discourage identification.
“It’s not supposed to be named individuals,” Spence speculated. “You’re supposed to see Marines, or any type of person, coming together to raise something, raise a flag that symbolizes unity.”
But Spence says the moments captured on Feb. 23, 1945 matter a great deal to the veterans he’s encountered over years of sleuthing. Obituaries identify men as “Iwo Jim flag raisers.” One of Spence’s documentaries captures a veteran’s habit - years after participating atop Mount Suribachi - of putting a flag up each day outside his house.
Despite the Rosenthal photo’s track record, Spence believes the Marines finally have the right names.
“I feel the journey is over,” he said.
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