History Gets Personal for KHS Staff Member
By Greg Hardison, participatory arts and programs administrator
(Editor’s Note: On Feb. 23, 1945, Marines raised a U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, signaling the take-over of that Pacific island from Japan by U.S. forces.)
Picture it! Six soldiers, high atop a volcanic mountain, surrounded by wartime rubble, working together to raise a makeshift flagpole. I’m sure you’ve seen the photo taken by Joe Rosenthal on Iwo Jima during World War II. It’s iconic! Perhaps you also know that one of those men is Franklin Sousley from Flemingsburg, Kentucky. The image generated an emotional response from U.S. citizens towards the end of the war, and it still resonates with us today. A huge statue of these men now stands in Arlington Cemetery. Books and movies have told the story many times. However, an amateur historian recently noticed something about the image that has changed history – again.
As the story goes, amateur historians Eric Krelle and Stephen Foley became personally invested in the photo and publically theorized that Sousley wasn’t standing where he was thought to be in the image. In fact, another man, John Bradley wasn’t even in the photo. Krelle and Foley suggested that Harold Schultz was standing where Sousley was thought to be, and Sousley was standing where Bradley was thought to be.
Unfortunately, John’s son, James Bradley, wrote “Flags of our Fathers,” the bestselling book that became a popular movie and likely brought attention back to the original photo. It turns out that the identities of the men in the photo had been in question many times throughout history. History had been challenged and corrected several times, and it was about to change again. The news of this most recent change hit me hard, because it was personal.
In late 2005, I was tasked with developing a short play about Sousley to accompany an exhibit that the Kentucky Historical Society was producing on Kentucky flags. Over a period of months I visited Fleming County where Sousley grew up. I held some of his personal belongings in my hands. I read his most private thoughts and pleas to his mother in letters he sent home. I discovered his family farm and snapped photos from my car window. Later, when playwright Lynn Hungerford had crafted the script, I made his words my own while wearing a uniform fitting a Marine. I performed the piece hundreds of times for young children and families, for veterans at the National Museum of the Marine Corps – and even once on his high school stage for his aunt, Florine. I knew Sousley inside and out.
During the scriptwriting process, fellow KHS historian Russell Harris was challenged by what he saw in the image. He was convinced something was wrong. Letters from Sousley proved that he should have been carrying a different weapon, a Browning automatic rifle. Now, I realize that he was right, but then the accepted authority on the matter, the Marine Corps, believed it had unquestionable identification. Harris’s words haunted me for a decade, but the decades-long assumption of fact went unchallenged for a decade, until recently when the time was right, and when enough people were ready to listen.
So here’s the point to all of this, history is an active thing. History is not an accepted truth, but is instead a perpetual pursuit. History should be challenged. It isn’t stagnant. It shouldn’t rest. Our understanding of who we “know” the men in the photo to be has changed many times since 1945. It is possible it will change again, when someone questions the status quo.