Tribute to an American Catholic Hero

Iwo-Jima-3cThis past Monday marked 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 flagraisers, this accurate and classic historical work (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 flagraising two hours earlier and the press photographers, including Rosenthal, didn’t know there was going to be a second and had to scramble to document it. And I might never have read the book had I not discovered it on a bookshelf during a casual browse at my local Goodwill thrift store last summer. I felt lucky. It was like finding a lost treasure. I wondered why anybody would get rid of a book like this. Once I opened it and began reading, it was hard to put down and stop thinking about. As a result of discovering and reading this 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 some language and anecdotes that are less than edifying. However, these are detractions from an otherwise magnificent work that I heartily recommend to adult readers.)

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 author’s father, John Henry Bradley (1923—1994), the flagraiser in the middle of the photograph and the only one who lived to see his grandchildren, was a lifelong devout Catholic whose entire life was dedicated to the humble service of others. He never intended to be a Marine. He was a Navy medic who got transferred into Easy Company, the ironically named Marine contingent that stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima under heavy Japanese fire in February 1945. Americans suffered more casualties in the invasion and conquest of that tiny island than in any other battle of the entire war. During that fierce and difficult battle, 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, he kept that prestigious award hidden in a box in his closet for the remainder of his life and refused all interview requests from journalists. John Bradley was more than just an American hero. He was–and is–a true hero of the Catholic Church and a role model for lay Catholics of every race and nation. Because of that, I strongly believe that his cause for canonization should be opened. And I hope and pray that his talented son, James Bradley, who has been away from the Church for many years, will rediscover the priceless gift of the Catholic faith given to him by his saintly father.

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