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Flag raising wasn’t what made Rene Gagnon a hero of Iwo Jima

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. (Joe Rosenthal/Released)

All his life, Rene Gagnon has told his children and grandchildren about their proud family heritage: His father and namesake, Rene Gagnon Sr., was one of the U.S. Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in what has become an iconic image of American triumph.

A few days ago, Gagnon learned that his father was not one of those men. “New evidence and modern technology” has determined the man in the photograph actually was Corp. Harold P. Keller, the Marine Corps announced in a news release on Thursday.

After a lifetime of having his father celebrated as one of those famous Marines, Gagnon said, “This was just a kick in the teeth.”

Gagnon, who lives in Franklin, said he suddenly found himself questioning everything he thought he knew about his dad’s war experience.

“It was just a big thing to absorb,” he said. “Something that I’ve told my wife, my kids, my grandchildren; that was history.”

His father, with his movie-star good looks, was often asked to speak at different functions and the family would travel with him, Gagnon said. A photo of father and son was in Life magazine. His dad appeared on the popular television shows “To Tell the Truth” and “What’s My Line.”

Looking back, he remembers his father “sort of avoided a lot of the conversations,” he said. “There might have been something that I was unaware of, but I’ve never heard anything like this.”

An iconic image

The flag-raising was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. It quickly became the stuff of legend, memorialized in books and film.

Three of the men identified in the photo died on Iwo Jima. Three others became celebrities, traveling the country to sell war bonds in support of the war effort. Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley also had cameo roles in the 1949 Oscar-nominated film, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” starring John Wayne.

They posed for sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, more commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, outside Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. They and their families attended the dedication of the memorial in 1954.

The famous photo actually depicts the second flag-raising on the island of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi that day. The first flag was small and the Marines wanted a bigger flag so the sailors and Marines far below could see it. And that’s where Gagnon, a runner, came in, according to the Marine Corps.

It was Gagnon who ran down the hill and obtained the larger flag that would appear in the iconic photograph, according to the Marine Corps. And it was Gagnon who brought the smaller flag back down the hill.

Both flags are displayed on a rotating basis at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia.

In its Oct. 17 news release, the Marines stated that Gagnon “played a significant role in the flag raising on Mount Suribachi and his role will never be diminished.”

“He was directly responsible for getting the larger second flag to the top and returning the first flag for safe keeping. Without his efforts, this historical event might not have been captured, let alone even occurred,” it said.

It’s not the first time the Marines have corrected the identities of the men who raised the flag during the battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

John Bradley’s son, James, wrote a best-selling book about the events of that day, “Flags of Our Fathers,” which was made into a 2006 film directed by Clint Eastwood. But in 2016, the Marine Corps announced that it was actually Marine Corps Private First Class Harold Schultz from Detroit, Michigan, in the famous photograph. Bradley, a Navy Pharmacist’s Mate, had been involved in the initial flag-raising “hours before,” the Marines said then.

Gagnon remembers wondering how James Bradley felt in 2016 when he learned that his father was not one of the flag-raisers in the photo, that the account in his book was not accurate. “And now I find myself in that same predicament: ‘Dad, you brought the flag up, somebody raised it and somebody took a picture of it. You did not lift that flag off the ground; you brought it up. Why didn’t you tell me?’”

Unraveling the stories

In a 2016 interview in the New York Times, Bradley said his father participated in the first flag-raising on Iwo Jima and must have believed that was the moment Rosenthal captured in his photo.

But Gagnon has a different take on what happened back then. When military officials in Washington, D.C., saw the Rosenthal photo, they saw an opportunity, he said.

“They were trying to raise money for war bonds to complete the war,” he said. “So word got back, let’s start with Rene Gagnon because he brought the flag back up to the mountain.”

His father, Bradley and Hayes all ended up in Washington and were enlisted to promote war bonds as the surviving Iwo Jima flag-raisers, Gagnon said. “So they did what they wanted,” he said. “They were Marines. That’s what they were told to do.

“So they toured the country, and every city was running that photograph in the paper. They’d show up at different venues … and people would donate money to the cause.”

There were hard times on the road, Gagnon said. Ira Hayes was a Native American, and some towns the three men visited on the war bond tour refused to permit the American hero in restaurant dining rooms. His comrades tried to object, Gagnon said: “‘He was one of us,’ they’d say. ‘What do you mean he can’t come down?’”

But, he said, “That was the facts of life back in the ‘40s.”

“So they would slap Ira with a couple bottles of whiskey, leave him in his room and say, ‘In this town, you have to stay up here.’”

But Hayes sometimes went into town and got into trouble with police, Gagnon said. “They’d lock him up overnight, release him in the morning, and they’d go on to the next town,” he said.

Gagnon has been to Arlington National Cemetery with his family, visiting his parents’ graves there and posing for pictures in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial. He can’t help but wonder why his father never told them the truth. But he thinks he understands.

“Basically, you could tell a wife or a kid and somebody’s going to slip up and say something,” he said. “This is the image of the Marine Corps. That’s what it’s got to be; let it go.”

“And nobody knew,” he said.

Setting the record straight

David Kenney, a retired Navy commander who is chairman of the New Hampshire State Veterans Advisory Committee, said last week’s announcement does not diminish Gagnon’s legacy at all.

“If anything, this is important for the Marine Corps to clarify the pivotal aspect of Rene Gagnon’s role in that second flag-raising, and thereby the iconic photo that Rosenthal took,” he said Friday.

“It was extremely windy up on the summit that day,” Kenney said. “It was no small feat for him to go back down to the beach and grab a larger flag.”

This was actually the third time the Marine Corps has had to adjust the names of those in the famous photograph. In Gagnon’s recollection, it was Hayes who told the family of Hayes’ late friend, 19-year-old Harlon Block of Texas, that it was Block in the photo, not another man. After a Congressional inquiry, the Marines admitted the mistake.

But the identities of the others remained the same for decades.

Rene Gagnon Sr. was born and raised in Manchester. After Iwo Jima, he served in China for a year, then went to Baltimore. His sweetheart, Pauline, joined him there and the two were married. They moved back to New Hampshire, raising Rene Jr., their only child, in Hooksett.

Gagnon Sr. worked for the airline industry for a time, then he and his wife ran their own travel agency. He also did odd jobs, including work as a building manager at an apartment complex. He died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 54 in the basement of that complex, and it was Rene Jr. who was called to identify his body.

Gagnon said he now has “mixed feelings” when he looks at the famous Iwo Jima photograph.

“For 70 years, I’ve told everybody that was my dad in that photograph. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not in that photograph. And nobody has a picture of him running the flag up and down the hill. So now how do I fit this into perspective, of what the hell was going on?”

Kenney said the significance of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima can’t be overstated.

“Anybody that was there that day, in my opinion, was a hero, regardless of whether they were on the summit or not,” he said. “But the summit and what happened there that day represented a key victory in a long and hard-fought battle at Iwo Jima.

“It was a very dangerous operation, and unfortunately it took a lot of lives, both Marine Corps and Navy,” he said. “In the heat of battle, when you’re pushing so hard for an objective, and all of sudden you see your nation’s flag auspiciously put up on top of a hill that you just fought and died for, well, I’d have to say that the feeling and the sense of the troops … would have been one of elation, to say the least.”

Gagnon said he’s coming to terms with the truth of his dad’s role in that historic event.

“He had a good part,” he said. “He survived, and he went on the war bond (tour). And he was following orders.”

And here’s how he’ll think about that photograph from now on: “That’s a picture of the flag my father fought his way up that mountain to bring up there so that somebody could raise it.”


© 2019 The New Hampshire Union Leader