The Flags (from the Column Up and Down Farish Street)
By Jim Rundles
Jackson Advocate Feature Historian
Copyright 2000. The Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Permission to reprint and post granted by Ms. Alice Tisdale, Associate Publisher.
EDITOR'S NOTES: This week we'll talk about the recent christening of the USS IWO JIMA down in Pacaguola two flags over the South taps said for two highly regarded Montford Point Marines and heroes we can't afford to forget. These and a glance at a few questions we hope to touch on in this session as we MOVE ON DOWN THE LINE!
There was an occasion of high history at Litton's Shipyard in Pascaguola, Mississippi on March 27, 2000. Gathering on the bustling grounds was an impressive array of somber-faced men who half a century ago had fought in the bloodiest battle of American history. More than 300 survivors of the Sands of Iwo Jima, one of the fieriest battles of World War II in the Pacific, were on hand.
Included in that number was 72 years old Jack Lucas of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Lucas who was only16 when he went ashore at Iwo, wore the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck. He had flung his body across a Japanese hand grenade that landed among his fellow marines. The mere fact that he survived was a miracle. In his remarks, Jack reasoned, "They did the right thing naming this ship for a place instead of a person." Those marines were trying to advance across what we call "Hell Beach," On the landing map it was named "Red Beach One." It was red! Red with the blood of Marines trying to get ashore to fight the 30,000 Japanese soldiers who had taken 40 years to building what they thought would be an impregnable fortress.
It was a day of remembrance and honor. The motivational speaker was James Bradley. His father, Pharmacists Mate Second Class John Bradley of Antigo, Wisconsin, a Navy medic, was one of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, the now famed 546 foot summit that the Japanese fought so hard to defend. Bradley told the hushed crowd that his father never spoke about his experiences on Iwo Jima, but when he died in 1994, the last of the six flag-raisers, James said he discovered a treasure of information about the battle from his dad's mementos.
Now, I mentioned two flags. One was the glorious raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, and two is the current flap about the Confederate flag that's sweeping the country. First the Iwo Jima flag raising. Joe Rosenthal, a squatty little guy who has been turned down by the armed services because of poor eyesight, climbed upon on some rocks, and took that rare thing. A news photograph that was also a work of art.
That picture was quickly woven into the national heritage as a symbol of all that is finest in American history. It joined two other examples of military art - Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and Archicald M. Williards's, "The Spirit of 76." Joe Rosenthal took that picture in black and white, but it was later rendered in color by Cecil C. Crosley, an artist who "did not change a single line of the original photograph." Over the years, it has been done in oils, ice, pastels, sandstone, and flowers (for the Rose Bowl Parade). It was used as a symbol for the seventh war loan drive, and 3.5 million copies were printed for display throughout the nation. It also appeared on a U. S. postage stamp.
World renowned sculptor Felix de Welcon, reconstructed the photograph in steel-enforced plaster that was cut into 108 pieces and cast in a bronze statue weighing 100 tons. It was dedicated in high ceremony on November 10, 1954, the 179 anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps, and stands near Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D. C. Mattie and I visited the site in 1975.
When Joe Rosenthal arrived back in the states, he was given a big raise and a bonus by the Associated Press. Then he was taken to Washington, D. C. to meet President Truman. He would in short order receive the Pulitzer Prize, the U. S. Camera Award of $1,000, and collect a few dozen watches, scrolls, plaques, and medals. Rosenthal summed the whole thing up when he said, "What difference does it make who took the picture. I took the picture but the Marines took Iwo Jima."
About now you're asking "What is the point of all this This is the old history man. Well, so is the bible. The point is, today's people are looking for something they can agree on, not an element of division. That's what all the current flap over the Confederate flag contributes. Even those who argue in favor of prominent display for the flag admit that the Civil War divided this nation battles like Iwo Jima saved the nation! Southerners who are worth their salt, readily admit that the late Alabama Governor wrapped himself in the Confederate flag when in 1964 he uttered those infamous words. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." He would later retract those words and beg Blacks across the land for his forgiveness.
Mississippi governor, the late Ross Barnett, was admittedly playing charades when in 1962, he walked on a football field in Jackson (halftime during an Ole Miss game) and vowed to keep James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi when he had agreed (in conversation with President Kennedy) to allow Meredith to enroll peacefully). He later apologized personally to me for that incident during re-opening ceremonies of the governor's mansion in 1975. I accepted his apology.
Those men who raised that flag over two Jima were a cross section of the great diversity that is America. The Civil War was the greatest mistake ever perpetrated in this nation. And, as Clarion Ledger associate editor Orley Hood said in his column Sunday, March 12, 2000, and I quote, "At the time Mississippi seceded from the Union, in 1861, and helped to form the Confederate States of America, it was one of the richer states in the Union. A giant in the production of cotton. By the end of the war, when cotton production had been reduced to nearly nothing, Mississippi was one of the poorer states in the U. S., an unfortunate situation that remains to this day." A bit deeper in this writing Hood opines, "The mystery to historians over the years is why in the world lower middle class whites have held the slave era and the Civil War years in such blind reverence. History and time have proven secession to have been a cataclysmic personal and national tragedy. "Keep the flag because of heritage " That's ridiculous! It's time we grew up. Well, there you have it. I agree with that editor Hood. The only flag we need to display fervently or any other way, is the one I fought for on Iwo Jima. That's the one that was raised so reverently by Private First Class Ira H. Hayes of Arizona; Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley of Kentucky; Sergeant Michael Strank of Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John Bradley of Antigo, Wisconsin, Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Corporal Harlon H. Block, of Weslaco, Texas.
As it happened, they represented a pretty good cross section of America. Hayes was a Pima Indian; Sousley, a Kentucky Mountain boy, who instantly became a man! Strank was the son of Czechoslovak immigrants; Bradley, a midwesterner, Gamon, a New Englander of French Canadian stock; and Block was a Texan.
Last Sunday morning as I walked into Office Depot out on I-55, it just happened I was wearing my gold Marine Corp globe and anchor in my lapel just above the bar of blue that noted the Presidential unit citation for Iwo Jima, and a young white man stopped me and said, "I just want to shake your hand sir, and thank you for what you did for us." I wasn't too surprised. It happens often. And you're welcome son. You're very welcome!
On another and far sadder note, Montford Point Marines, the earliest African-American Marines to be "allowed" to enlist in the Corps, join me in a sad salute to two of the most highly-regarded men to ever wear the globe and anchor together with the Marine green. Death claimed Sol Griffin and O'ther Lee Given, both of Chicago, in less than a week. Services were held for Sol on March 22, 2000; and for O'ther on March 26, 2000.
These were two of my closest Marine Corp buddies through the years. We exchanged ideas on how to keep alive the service and sacrifices given in the line of duty of Black Americans, some of whom died on Iwo Jima, since we are on that theme today. Sol visited in Jackson last year, 1999, and we had a grand reunion. He was one of the "first" Marines of color, having served from 1943 to 1946. He was born September 25, 1925, in Freeman Spur, Ill.
O'ther was a native of Lexington, Mississippi, born there in 1921. He was moved to Chicago in 1924 by his grandmother, Mrs. Lucy Mines, during the great migration. He reported for active with the Marines at Montford Point in June 1942. I will give a full story on both these men, including their contributions both in and outside the service in next week's edition. Please stay tuned!