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John Bradley at the Battle of Iwo Jima

The second American flag raising on Mount Suribachi at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

One of the most iconic military photographs is the raising of the United States flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima.  John Bradley, from Antigo, Wisconsin, is one of the soldiers that helped put up the flag on the island.

John Henry Bradley grew up in the small town of Antigo, Wisconsin.  He enlisted into the United States Navy at the age of 19.  His father suggested him to join the Navy to avoid combat but John ended up being sent to Iwo Jima, which was the bloodiest flight in the Pacific.   John was a navy hospital corps man that was attached to a United States Marines Corp rifle company that arrived at the island on February 19, 1945.  Bradley was participating in the Battle of Iwo Jima until March 12 1945.

Iwo Jima is a 8.5 square mile island in the Pacific that contains the dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi.  The island has been called Sulfur Island, as there is an abundant amount of gas that seeps through the surface.  Japan used this island as integral part of their inner ring of defense. Japan’s Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who was the island commander, created a strong defense by building an underground system of tunnels.  Kuribayashi actually served in Japanese embassies that were located in Washington and Ottawa and gained information on the United States military, leading him to describe them as “the last country in the world that Japan should fight.”  (1, p. 1)  Kuribayashi knew what he was facing even before the battle had begun.  The United States had a very powerful navy and great industrial power.  In order to combat these strengths, he came up with a plan that would take a toll on the United States soldiers and their resources.  With his underground tunnel strategy, the Japanese troops were able to stay mostly hidden from United States fire.  This also lead to confusion, as the United States troop could not pinpoint where the enemy soldiers where coming from.

Before troops set foot on the island, the United States Navy and Army Corps had to weaken the Japanese army.  The Air Force had been attacking Iwo Jima with B-24s for over two months before the Navy began their three day bombardment.  Almost all of the island had been hit, but the Japanese underground tunnel system had kept most of the soldiers and their equipment safe.  Over a quarter million soldiers were prepared by the United States military to fight.  John Bradley was a part of the ninth wave of Marines deploying on the south side of the island on February 19.

The United States Marines prepared to land on the island in the early morning.  When the soldiers arrived at the landing zone, they had to struggle off of the beach layered in volcanic ash.  The beach made it difficult to get supplies moving with soldiers, and soon the beach became overcrowded with troops and equipment.  The troops then had to face a Japanese army of 21,000 that occupied the island.  While the American soldiers tried to get past the beach, the Japanese army began to ambush.  Bullets, mortar shells and other explosives started to rain down onto the coast.  The Marines finally were able to move off of the beach and start traveling towards the north side of the island.  The fighting continued on throughout the day, with the United States military making some progress across the island but at a huge cost.  Over two thousand Marines and Navy men were killed on the first day, with many more suffering wounds.  When night arrived, the Japanese did not completely halt their attack.  Mortars continued to hit the beach where United States soldiers slept, or attempted to, and enemy soldiers planned secret raids using grenades or knifes and swords.

By the start of the second day, the Marines started to realize that the Japanese had built the underground tunnel system.  Whenever the United States soldiers would push the enemy back, they would pop up with a flank to the left or right, or even behind.  The United States forces fought for five days until they had good positioning on the island.  This is when the two raising’s of the flag occurred on Mount Suribachi and the iconic photos were taken.  “We started up the mountain immediately after the naval barrage and plane strafing was over and we reached the top.” recalled Pharmacist’s Mate John Bradley, a corpsman on the patrol. “The reason we reached the top of Mount Suribachi without a single enemy shot being fired was because the Japs were still in their caves waiting for the bombardment to be lifted.  When we reached the top we formed our battle line and we all went over the top together and much to our surprise we didn’t find a Jap in sight.  If one Jap had been up there manning one of his guns I think he could have pretty well taken care of our 40-man patrol.”  (1, p. 1)  The attempt to raise the flag atop the hill was no easy task and could have turned disastrously.

The iconic photo of the six men raising the flag was taken by Joe Rosenthal.  Rosenthal’s photo was on almost all of the American newspapers front pages.  The photo was reproduced so many times in the Allied nations that it is commonly the image that is viewed with World War II.  John Bradley was one of the men to raise the flag, pictured as the second man from right. He will always be remembered as a symbol of the United States victory in World War II.  Bradley has been quoted in interviews, newspaper articles, and even his son’s book Flags of our Fathers that would be published decades after the war, that he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

John Bradley was more than just a flag raiser that happened to be in the right place at the right time.  He fought courageously with the other men in his unit day after day.  On the third day of land fighting, Bradley came under heavy Japanese fire to rescue a fellow Marine that had been wounded.  He risked his own life to save another, and for this he was awarded the Navy Cross.  The fighting on Iwo Jima did not end when the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi.  This was only the beginning, as the United States had only ascended across a third of the island.   There was still a little under a month of war left to go.

Over the course of the next week, the United States Marines started to encircle the Japanese army near the north side of the island.  The Japanese had enemies to their west and east. Not able to retreat any farther and without a reliable escape, the Japanese now had to fight to the death.  Now the United States face their hardest challenge of the battle since trying to land on the shores.  Because the Marines had been fighting for weeks at this point, many of the original troops positions were filled with replacements.  A significant portion of the United States troops consisted of inexperienced men that came straight from boot camp.  Many of the new soldiers were learning on the go, trying to gain as much information as they could while also struggling to stay alive and fight the Japanese.

Two weeks into the battle, casualties were very high.  The United States have lost 3000, with another 13000 wounded.  The Japanese now have only 7000 troops of the 21000 they started with.  (1, p. 1)  The Japanese soldiers that were left were injured or in bad shape.  One of Japan’s officers planned a last-hope ambush on one of the United States airfields.  A group of 1500 Japanese soldiers charged the airfields with machine guns or swords, hoping to find little resistance and take over control of the new airfield.  Their plan backfired as two lines of Marines had been position in the way.  Over half of the Japanese attackers died in fight, while the Marines lost just a few members.  At this point, United States victory was almost in reach.

John Bradley and the other first invasion day soldiers had been fighting for three weeks.  The Battle of Iwo Jima was coming closer to the end.  One final challenge awaited the Marines, the task of taking over what came to be known as “Death Valley”.  Approximately 1,500 Japanese troops remained, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi being one of them.  The fight in Death Valley would be a bloody one, where over a thousand United States causalities took place.  John Bradley was one of the men wounded, suffering shrapnel wounds from a mortal shell in the lower body.  He would later receive a Purple Heart.   Two weeks after Bradley’s evacuation from the island, the United States would win the battle on Iwo Jima.  Taking over the island would come at a cost, as over 6,000 were killed and another 25,000 were injured.  (5, p. 1)  In the end, John Bradley wanted him and his fellow soldiers to be remembered for more than just the flag raising and victory at Iwo Jima.  Bradley wanted the men that were not able to leave the island alive to be remembered most, and the courage and patriotism that all of the United States soldiers showed.

“Your teacher said something about heroes… I want you to always remember something. The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.” (2, p. 343)

Primary Sources:

  1. Elson, Mary. “Iwo Jima Heroes Can’t Escape Past: For Iwo Jima Heroes, There Is No Escape from the past.Chicago Tribune 21 Oct. 1979.
  2. Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam, 2000. 284. Print.
  3. 2,050 Marines Killed at Iwo, Forrestal Says.Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): 1. Mar 06 1945.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Murphy, Brian John. “Iwo Jima: cheating death on Sulfur Island.” America in WWII Feb. 2010: 26+.
  2. “U.S. MARINES: Commandant Joins Family of Iwo Jima Hero on Visit to Famous Island.” M2 Presswire: 1. Apr 27 1998.
  3. Richardson, Herb. “Iwo Jima.” Leatherneck (pre-1998) 02 1980: 12,15,18-21,60-61.
  4. Bradley, James, and Ron Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam, 2000.
  5. Alexander, Joseph. “Battle of Iwo Jima.” History Net Where History Comes Alive World US History Online.

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