'The Whole Family Is Impacted by This': Marine's Son Grapples with Iwo Jima Photo Change

Runners of the Marine Corps Marathon gather by the Iwo Jima raising of the flag memorial Arlington, Va., Oct. 28, 2018 (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Yuritzy Gomez)
Runners of the Marine Corps Marathon gather by the Iwo Jima raising of the flag memorial Arlington, Va., Oct. 28, 2018 (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Yuritzy Gomez)

Rene Gagnon Jr. said he doesn't know what to feel anymore when he looks at the iconic image of Marines raising a U.S. flag during one of World War II's most famous battles.

For his entire life, the 72-year-old, who is named after his Marine dad, thought his father was one of the six men photographed by Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945, raising that famous flag on Iwo Jima.

Every year around Veterans Day, Gagnon's grandkids bring posters to school, where they share with their classmates the story of their great grandpa raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. Gagnon's New Hampshire license plate says "Iwo Jima."

But this month, people started reaching out to him when NBC News ran a story during the evening broadcast that said the Marine on the backside of the flagpole in the famous image was actually Cpl. Harold P. Keller -- not Gagnon's father.

Related: Marine Corps Announces It Was Wrong -- Again -- on Iwo Jima Flag-Raising Photo

"We're in total culture shock," Gagnon told Military.com. "The whole family is impacted by this."

For decades, Gagnon said his immediate reaction whenever he saw Rosenthal's photo was, "That's my dad."

"My grandchildren, my wife, my kids -- they all look at it, and that's their response. That photograph is grandpa, it's dad, it's pépé," he said. "Now we're finding out he was part of the background of all that."

A group of historians recently presented evidence to the Marine Corps that led service officials to -- for the second time since 2016 -- change the record about who was lifting the flag in the famous photo. Rosenthal captured the second flag raising of the day. Marines had earlier raised a smaller flag, but it was taken down and replaced with the larger one seen in the famous photo.

Gagnon's father, a runner who'd been tasked with carrying the larger flag up the mountain and the smaller one back down for safekeeping, was originally labeled as one of the men in the photo. He was later tasked, along with the other men originally identified as the flag raisers who made it out of the brutal battle (including a sailor who, in 2016, was also discovered not to be in the second flag-raising photo), with touring the country to sell war bonds.

"I'm trying to get it through in my head, [because to me] dad was in that photo for 70 years," Gagnon said. "My father died at 54 back in 1979, so up until his death, was he withholding from me any truths?"

The Marine Corps announced the change in a news release the morning after the NBC News story ran.

The service's top general had tried to reach Gagnon by phone ahead of the announcement, but those attempts were not successful, said Maj. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman for Commandant Gen. David Berger.

"The updated findings mean no dishonor to anyone previously presumed to be [in] the flag raisings, photos or in the weeks-long battle," Flanagan said. "This latest development neither elevates nor diminishes what Marines and sailors accomplished on the Island of Iwo Jima."

Berger plans to call Gagnon soon, he added.

"Gen. Berger felt it was important to make contact with the families involved in the historical correction to discuss the significance the flag raising represents for every generation of Marines," Flanagan said. "Everyone on the island contributed to the battle, whether in the photo or not.

"They're all heroes."

'The Smoking Cigarette'

Dustin Spence has always been interested in World War II history.

His grandfather was a P-38 pilot in the Pacific. When Spence, who makes documentary films, began interviewing Iwo Jima veterans, some began raising the issue of the identities of the men named in Rosenthal's photo being inaccurate.

As Spence met more Iwo Jima Marines, they helped him track down additional photographers who were on Mount Suribachi that day in February 1945. He linked up with a couple of other historians who were also interested in the flag raisings, including Stephen Foley, and the team began uncovering new pictures.

One in particular offered up a big clue.

"I call it the smoking gun and the smoking cigarette," Spence said.

The picture shows Keller, a Marine Raider, smoking a cigarette. That same cigarette, Spence said, can be seen in the video Rosenthal captured of the second flag raising.

Once they noticed the matching detail, Spence and the other historians started comparing other photos of Keller to the Iwo flag-raising image. The helmets were important, Spence said, because it's unlikely that the camouflage patterns on two helmets would be identical.

They also spotted a wedding ring on the Marine in Rosenthal's image. Gagnon wasn't married at the time. The Marine in the image was also wearing an ammunition clip on his chest, something they didn't think a runner would be required to carry.

Spence met with retired Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, who was reviewing new findings about the flag-raising photo after the Marine Corps determined in 2016 that Navy Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class John Bradley was not in the Rosenthal image.

The corpsman is now believed to have been involved in the first flag raising hours earlier. Historians found the man long thought to be him in the famous photo was actually Marine Pfc. Harold Schultz.

Related: Corpsman Was Part of 1st Iwo Jima Flag-Raising, Marine Corps Finds

Now, Gagnon said he understands what Bradley's family must have been feeling when they found out the sailor wasn't actually in that photo as they had so long believed. He said he now wonders whether his father and Bradley had been ordered to do the war bond tours because the image had become so popular with the American public.

While Spence said he's glad to see the record corrected for the sake of historical accuracy, he stressed that the change doesn't diminish what Gagnon did on that hill.

The battle was still raging when the private first class was told to retrieve the first flag the men raised and bring it back down for preservation. It's now still on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps because of Gagnon, Spence said.

"He was still doing an important job," Spence said. "His duty was to retrieve that first flag, which I've said for years was really important to the Marines there. That was the flag that had that giant reaction of people cheering like they were in Times Square on New Year's Eve. To retrieve that flag was important."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Read more: The Incredible Story Behind the Iwo Jima Photo Discovery

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