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On an unexpected letter

The subject of this post is not about art, but I thought it would be interesting to readers of this blog nevertheless. In a way, the story starts with a photographic work of art—the iconic picture of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal in February 1945.
The Iwo Jima Memorial, based on the photo, in Washington, DC

I have a job two days a week doing general editorial work at The Elks Magazine, which is the in-house publication for the well-known American service organization. About half of the magazine consists of news from the lodges, with details of fundraising lunches held, local charities donated to, veterans visited in hospitals, and so on—all very valuable to the local communities in which they work, I hasten to point out to any metropolitan art snobs out there. But the other half of the magazine consists of feature articles, on topics of interest to the Elks readership, and my job is to help edit these feature articles, write sidebars, research suitable photos, and arrange for the purchase of these photos from photo agencies (Getty, Corbis, AP, etc.)

A few months ago, I worked on an article about the US invasion of Iwo Jima which was published shortly after the 65th anniversary this year. For the sidebar, I wrote a couple of hundred words about ‘That Photo’: the story of how the big flag raised by the five marines and one navy corpsman was actually the second flag-raising that day; how Joe Rosenthal almost missed the shot, and swung his camera around and took the picture without looking through the viewfinder; how three of the men in the photo were killed in the savage fighting on Iwo Jima; and how two of the three men to survive the war led difficult lives (I didn’t mention this in the magazine, but one of the men, Ira Hayes, basically drank himself to death).

We chose two photos for this sidebar: the famous AP photo of the second flag-raising, and a headshot of PFC Rene Gagnon, who was ordered to take the larger, more visible flag up to the top of Mount Suribachi. Yesterday I got a copy of a letter that was sent to The Elks Magazine. It’s from an Elks member who read the article and showed it to a friend whose surname is Gagnon, asking if they were related. It turns out this other fellow’s father was Rene Gagnon’s cousin, and while Rene Gagnon died in 1979, his cousin is still alive. He is 93 years old, and he also fought in the Pacific during World War II. The son of this elderly cousin of the famous Gagnon presented him with some copies of the magazine article on Father’s Day a few weeks ago.

I also received a hand-written letter from an Elks member in Texas, in which he wrote that he was “an Iwo Jima survivor” who served in the 1st Battalion, 27th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division. He said he was severely wounded by gunfire, but that he was able to “take out a bunker” before he went down. He also wrote that 252 out of 265 men in his Company were either killed or wounded during the battle.   

It pleased me that we did a sufficiently good job on the article that these men were moved to write a response. In doing the research for the article, I was staggered by the descriptions of the brutality of the fighting, and the appalling rate of casualties, and I was moved by the way in which men and women from all over the US, from all walks of life, joined the armed forces and bit by bit, through many months of trial and error, battlefield mistakes, and the utmost psychological stress and physical horror, turned themselves into an army capable of overcoming the resistance of determined defenders. But I was moved with a sense of wonder to think that even though we imagine the battle of Iwo Jima through the words of historians and the images of war photographers now, there are still a few men and women living among us who were actually there.

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