John Henry Bradley was born in Antigo, Wisconsin on July 10, 1923 to James and Kathryn Bradley and was the second of five children. He had an interest of joining the funeral business, but only completed his apprenticeship before entering the military. He enlisted into the United States Navy at the age of 19 as a way to avoid ground combat. After his completion of Navy boot camp, he was qualified to attend the navy’s hospital corpsman schools in March of 1943. He was transferred to the Department of the Navy’s Fleet Marine Force and assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps but soon transferred into an infantry division where he was attached as a combat corpsman.
Battle of Iwo Jima
The Battle of Iwo Jima originated from the need for a naval base and landing strip for B-17 emergency landings and repairs. Following massive air and naval bombardment of nearly 6,800 tons of bombs and 22,000 shells, three marine divisions landed on the beaches on Iwo Jima. The island was defended by approximately 23,000 Japanese who fought from an elaborate network of underground caves and tunnels. The bombardment proved unsuccessful as the tunnels proved to protect the Japanese from any damage often stated as merely, “rearranging the sand.” Totaling eight square miles, Iwo Jima had no front lines; all areas were exposed. The marines would push from the beach and obtain a sizable amount of land, only to be confronted with Japanese from the rear and sides emerging from crevices that went unnoticed.
On February 19, 1945, John landed at Iwo Jima assigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. Every night John would reorganize his Unit 3, a corpsman’s pouch, and memorize the location of every item so he could reach for it in the chaos of battle and find it without fail. On February 21, an unidentified marine was shot down by Japanese machine gun and mortar fire. John was pinned down but braved the intense enemy fire and traversed over thirty yards to the injured marine to administer plasma. While the plasma was dripping into the marine, John laid his body across the marine to protect him from enemy fire. After the plasma was depleted, John then carried the marine back to friendly territory, an action which awarded him the Navy Cross, which is the second highest award for valor. February 23, John Bradley along with Michael Strank, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley and Rene Gagnon, helped to raise a flag on Mount Suribachi. The photo of this event soon became a symbol for the Pacific Theater and possibly the entirety of World War II. Bradley wrote a letter home after the flag raising. He stated that, “I had a little to do with raising the American flag and it was the happiest moment of my life.” He also stated, “I didn’t know I could go without food, without water, or sleep for three days, but now I know it can be done.” He was very religious and was quoted by Father Paul Bradley (no relation), “He (John Bradley) knew all the Latin responses… He was very faithful attending the daily Masses.” John Bradley and his wife, Betty, made a ritual of saying their prayers together. John would often add, “Blessed Mother, please help us so everything turns out all right.” John said it’s something he said while he was on Iwo Jima.
On March 12, Bradley and three other marines received shrapnel wounds from an enemy mortar round explosion. Ignoring his own wounds, John helped another wounded marine to the aid station. Upon arriving at the aid station, doctors noticed Bradley’s damaged legs. Despite Bradley’s attempts to remain with his unit, he was evacuated to an aid station on Guam. He was transferred to Hawaii and finally Oakland Naval Hospital in California, receiving a Purple Heart soon after. The month-long Battle of Iwo Jima caused the deaths of roughly 21,00 Japanese and 6,821 Americans, including three of the six flag raisers, Michael Strank, Harlon Block, and Franklin Sousley. Ira Hayes died in 1955 and Rene Gagnon in 1979. Of the 3,400 that came ashore with the 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division, around 600 were standing when the battle finally came to an end.
After he was released from Oakland Naval Hospital, John returned to Antigo, WI and married his high school sweetheart Elizabeth (Betty) Van Grop eventually having six sons and two daughters. Bradley is widely considered the only flag raiser to reassemble and lead a normal life. He flourished as the owner of a local family business, Bradley Funeral Home, and gave much of his time and money to local causes. He was married for 47 years and passed away at the age of 70 on January 11, 1994 at Langlade Memorial Hospital from a stroke. His hometown newspaper put it perfectly, “John Bradley will be forever memorialized for a few moments action at the top of a remote Pacific mountain. We prefer to remember him for his life. If the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima symbolized American patriotism and valor, Bradley’s quiet, modest nature and philanthropic efforts shine as an example of the best of small town American values.”
John rarely spoke of the flag raising, stating once that he, “just happened to be there.” Whenever he was told that he was a war hero, John responded with, “It took everyone on that island and the men on the ships offshore to get the flag up on Suribachi.” John refused to participate in the fame associated with raising the flag. Patrick Bradley, one of John’s sons, told me stories of his childhood and the memories of John. He said, “My father never considered himself a hero. He always emphasized that the heroes were those that died on the island.” I talked to Patrick for a while, and he told me many personal memories of his father, many of which I will respect and not publicly write. John only gave one interview in his life, in which he said, “People refer to us as heroes–I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there–and we certainly weren’t heroes–and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.”
Continuing The Family Name
James Bradley, another of John’s sons, is an author specializing in historical nonfiction and wrote Flags of Our Fathers. At the 55th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima Marine Corps War Memorial, James Bradley was invited to speak about his father and his experiences in the military. He begins by saying that while his father was alive, John rarely mentioned Iwo Jima and would be quick to dismiss the subject if it arose. Soon after his death, James asked his mother to tell him everything that she ever heard about John’s experience on the island. She responded by saying, “That won’t take long, because he only talked about it once — on our first date. For seven or eight disinterested minutes and then never again in a 47 year marriage did he say the words, Iwo Jima.” While searching for John’s will, they stumbled upon two large boxes that he secretly saved memories of being a flag raiser. The very next day, John’s captain on Iwo Jima called Elizabeth and asked if she knew John was awarded the Navy Cross for valor two days before the raising of the flag, to which she responded no.
When John was presented as a war hero, he unfailingly responded with, “The real heroes were the men who gave their lives for their country.” Ira Hayes was quoted as saying, “How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?” Summarizing a quote from MASH, “War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse… There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chalk full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
- Bradley, James, and Ron Powers. (2000) Flags of Our Fathers
- Bradley, Patrick. Personal Interview.
- Bos, Carole. (2013). “John Henry (“Doc”) Bradley, Navy Medic.” from awesomestories.com.
- Native Village. “The Boys of Iwo Jima.” from nativevillage.org.
- Spence, Dustin. “Iwo Jima.” from iwojima.com.
- USMC. “America’s Battle.” from military.com.
- O’Brien, Cyril. “Iwo Jima Retrospective.” from military.com.
- The New York Times. “John Bradley.” from nytimes.com.
- Cowley, Robert & Parker, Geoffrey. “Battle of Iwo Jima.” from history.com.
For Further Reading
- Rawson, Andrew. Battle Story: Iwo Jima 1945.
- Shively, John. The Last Lieutenant: A Foxhole View of the Epic Battle for Iwo Jima.