View Full Version : A star-spangled mystery

06-14-06, 07:02 AM
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
North Jersey Dot Com

Eugene Foley says he doesn't want to pick a fight with the Marines.

But he might get one anyway.

The feisty 80-year-old from Hasbrouck Heights is taking on a Leatherneck icon -- the famous World War II photograph by Joe Rosenthal of five Marines and a Navy medical corpsman raising the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945.

Foley says the flag came from his vessel, the USS Eldorado, an amphibious force command ship and the flagship for Adm. Richmond K. Turner, who led the 500-ship invasion fleet.

The Marines disagree.

They say the flag came from LST 779, a tank-carrying transport ship that beached at the base of Suribachi.

The Navy's official account squares with the Marines', but the Coast Guard has its own version: The flag came from LST 758.

"It's amazing, all the controversy," said Robert Browning, a Coast Guard historian.

Browning interviewed Robert Resnick of Boca Raton, Fla., a Coast Guard quartermaster on LST 758, who said he gave the flag to Marine Pfc. Rene Gagnon and helped Gagnon find a 21-foot, 150-pound pipe for the flag.

Resnick, who died in 2004, said he watched Gagnon struggle to drag the pipe through the sand before other Marines helped him carry it to Suribachi's summit.

The Marines "could not find any holes" in Resnick's story, Browning said.

However, retired Marine Col. Dave Severance, 87, of La Jolla, Calif., found plenty of holes in the story.

"The Coast Guard had absolutely nothing to do with it," Severance said.

He commanded Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines on Iwo Jima. His men participated in the first flag-raising -- at 10:20 a.m. -- and the famous second flag-raising two hours later.

"The flag and the 20-foot pipe ... Gagnon didn't weigh 130 pounds!" Severance said. "Nobody dragged a pipe up that mountain."

Hollywood will enter the fray later this year with the release of Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers."

The movie is based on James Bradley's book. His father, John Bradley, was the Navy corpsman in the photo.

Severance worked on the book with Bradley, and has been debunking the myths and exposing flag-raising wannabes for years.

"You'd be surprised at some of these stories," he said. "I've got 50 cases in my file. ... All of them [claimed to have] raised the flag."

Foley said he isn't fazed by the competing official histories or the movie.

He stands by his story, and said Turner deserves credit for ordering the second, larger flag to be raised on Mount Suribachi.

"We do not have any fight with the Marines or anybody else," he said. "Everybody is amazed at what they did, the beating they took."

Three Marine divisions took part in the legendary battle, storming the pear-shaped, volcanic island on Feb. 19, 1945, to capture its three vital airfields.

"For the first two days, they had one hell of a time," Foley said of the Marines battling 22,000 Japanese soldiers who hid in caves and pillboxes.

The island wasn't declared secure until March 16 -- at a cost of 5,885 Marines killed and 17,232 wounded -- the bloodiest battle in corps' history. Navy casualties were 881 killed and 1,917 wounded.

"Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue," said Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet.

Foley said he was standing next to Turner when the three-star admiral ordered a larger flag to the island.

"He said specifically, 'Get a ship's flag and get it up over there. I want everyone to see the flag.' "

Frank Onda, 80, of Exeter, Pa., a yeoman on the Eldorado, said he escorted two Marines to the ship's "cage," where supplies were stored. They wanted a flag.

"A Marine said, 'You'll see this later on Mount Suribachi,' and that's what happened," Onda said. "They probably took it to the LST. It was our flag, I'd swear on that."

Severance is not happy that Navy Secretary James Forrestal's role on that fateful day isn't mentioned in the Marines' official account.

"My story is if the secretary of the Navy hadn't come ashore, there would have been no second flag, no picture by Rosenthal, no [Marine] statue, no annual Iwo Jima banquets," Severance said.

"The [Marine] commandant decided the veterans themselves will have to resolve this problem," he said. "That's exactly what we're trying to do."

Forrestal came ashore with Marine Gen. Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith and wanted the first flag as a souvenir.

Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, the 2nd Battalion's commander, fumed, "Hell, no! He can't have the flag. We put it up there; we're going to keep it!"

Johnson sent Lt. Albert "Ted" Tuttle to get another flag from a ship on the beach so he could keep the first flag.

"Ted Tuttle did tell me one time that the colonel called after him as he was leaving to "see if you can get a bigger one," Severance said.

Tuttle boarded LST 779, and was given a 4- by 8-foot flag by an Ensign Alan Wood and returned to the battalion command post.

Johnson gave the large flag to Gagnon to carry up the mountain.

The first flag -- 4 by 2 feet -- wound up in a battalion safe.

As part of his campaign, Foley has asked the Navy to convene a court of inquiry.

"I'm still going to pursue this," he said. "I can't let it go."

Meanwhile, the historic first and second flags are now stored in Quantico, Va., awaiting the opening of a new Marine Corps Museum.