Monday, February 23, 2015

Tribute to an American Catholic Hero

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the most famous photograph in U.S. military history and one of the greatest photographs of all time. As is generally known, it was taken by Joseph Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, on February 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, a key turning point in World War II. The photo, which immediately drew widespread admiration and acclaim and won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, depicts six Marine soldiers erecting a large American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in the western Pacific. I have been familiar with this stirring image since childhood, but only recently have I come to grasp its full significance thanks to James Bradley's epic masterpiece Flags of Our Fathers.

Based on extensive interviews with dozens of war veterans and surviving relatives of the flag-raisers, this accurate and brilliantly written chronicle published by Bantam in 2000 (which was also made into a movie of the same name) places the famous photo in its proper context by telling the true stories of the young men who raised the flag and providing the essential background details that led up to that dramatic moment. And James Bradley is an amazingly gifted storyteller. Reading this engrossing book--which almost didn't get written, because the author's heroic father himself narrowly escaped death in battle and refused to discuss his wartime experiences with his family--has given me a whole new understanding of, and appreciation for, this unique photograph, which almost didn't get taken because someone else had already photographed the first flag-raising on the Suribachi summit two hours earlier and the press photographers, including Rosenthal, didn't know there was going to be a second flag-raising and had to scramble to document it.

I might never have read Flags of Our Fathers had I not stumbled across it on a bookshelf during a casual browse at my local Goodwill thrift store last summer. When I discovered it and saw what it was—a classic hardcover in good shape, with the instantly recognizable photo of the Stars and Stripes being raised gracing the elegant white, blue and gold dust jacket—I felt lucky. I had found a lost jewel, a discarded treasure. Fourteen years ago when it first came out, Flags of Our Fathers was a New York Times bestseller, and now here it was on a Goodwill bookshelf, unwanted and rejected, available for just two dollars. I wondered why someone had decided to get rid of it. Perhaps, for some reason or other, the previous owner no longer recognized its value. Maybe he (or she) no longer appreciated the heroic sacrifices of our men in uniform several generations ago on a distant island in the Western Pacific. Maybe the previous owner had lost interest in U.S. military history. Or perhaps he or she had died and left the book behind for someone else to treasure and enjoy. In any case, once I opened Flags of Our Fathers and began reading, it was hard to put down and stop thinking about. As a result of this serendipitous discovery and what I have learned from reading this remarkable book, I find myself in total agreement with G. K. Chesterton that "Everything has been saved from a wreck." (PLEASE NOTE: As can be expected with any frank discussion of U.S. military history, Flags of Our Fathers does contain graphic descriptions of war violence along with some language and anecdotes that are less than edifying. However, the latter amount to minor detractions from an otherwise magnificent work that I heartily recommend to adult readers.)

With its candidly detailed biographies of the six flag-raisers, its nostalgically vivid portrait of early to mid-twentieth-century America, and its gripping minute-by-minute account of the nearly impossible invasion and conquest of the most heavily fortified island in military history, Flags of Our Fathers is certainly a fitting tribute to the self-sacrificing heroism of our nation's Marines in World War II and to the religious and moral values that made America great. But in addition to that, it offers a compelling and beautiful witness to the power of our Catholic faith and its essential role in American life. The book reveals that the author's beloved father, John Henry Bradley (1923-1994)--the one flag-raiser whose profile is clearly visible in the center of the photograph and the only one who lived to see his grandchildren--was a lifelong, devout practicing Catholic whose entire military and civilian life was dedicated to the humble service of others. I was particularly edified to read of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which included praying the Rosary daily and calling on her assistance in times of need. 

As a husband, father of eight children, and funeral home director in his postwar years, John Bradley enjoyed an excellent reputation as a quiet and respectable family man both in and beyond his small Catholic hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin. He had never intended to join the Marines or end up in combat on a distant overseas island. As a young man during World War II, he initially trained and served as a Navy medic here in the States but was then unexpectedly transferred into Easy Company, the ironically named Marine contingent that sailed across the Pacific to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima under heavy Japanese fire in February 1945. American forces suffered more casualties in the one-month invasion and conquest of that tiny island than in any other battle of the entire War. During that fierce and grueling struggle, Navy corpsman John Bradley risked his life over and over again to tend wounded Marines. He was awarded a Navy Cross for his valor. In his humility--and also because of the tragic horrors he witnessed during the battle--he kept that prestigious award hidden in a box in his closet for the remainder of his life, turned down all interview requests from journalists, and never discussed his famous role in the flag-raising on Iwo Jima with his family members or anyone else in town. He adamantly refused to allow his subsequent civilian life to be defined by what he sincerely considered his undeserved status as a military celebrity.

Regardless of the accolades showered upon him by the U.S. government, media, and public throughout the forty-nine years of his life as a war veteran, John Bradley never thought of himself as a hero for helping five Marines to raise a large American flag on a makeshift pole on an island mountaintop in the Western Pacific. He had simply done it because it was his duty to pitch in and give his buddies a hand, unaware that this simple action would be immortalized in a chance photograph and that he would be at the center of that photograph. He felt that he did not deserve such fame because so many of his Marine buddies, who had served just as valiantly and faithfully as he on Iwo Jima, had made the ultimate sacrifice without ever receiving comparable recognition since their deaths on the island went largely unreported by the media in the weeks following the flag-raising. When his family pressed him to discuss the matter of the flag-raising, the most he ever said about it was that the real heroes of Iwo Jima were the guys who didn’t come back.

Yet it is precisely his profound humility and his constant deflection of attention away from himself that clearly identifies John Henry Bradley as a genuine American hero. Even if we agree with him in admitting that his celebrity status as a flag-raiser may have been somewhat exaggerated during his lifetime, his true heroism lay in his quiet, untiring, selfless, everyday dedication to the service of his country and his fellow men and women. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that, as a faithful Catholic throughout his life, John Bradley was--and is--a true hero of the Catholic Church and a role model for lay Catholics around the world. But despite his impeccable credentials as a candidate for sainthood, his life of heroic virtue has yet to receive any official acknowledgement from the Church. It is my sincere hope that this beautiful example of everyday holiness will not remain hidden under a bushel basket, or simply be ignored and forgotten like that magnificent book on a Goodwill shelf. With a number of John Bradley’s relatives and friends still alive today, I strongly believe that his cause for canonization should be introduced without further delay. And I hope and pray that his talented son James Bradley, who has been away from the Church for many years, will one day rediscover the priceless gift of the Catholic faith given to him by his saintly father.

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