New Hampshire Marine Raised the Flag at Iwo Jima
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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Rene Gagnon was just 18, a high school dropout who worked in the textile mills of his native Manchester, New Hampshire, when he became a Marine in May 1943. Less than two years later, it was Rene, a month shy of 20, who carried the American flag — the second one to fly that day — up a battle-scarred volcano on the island of Iwo Jima and, along with five comrades, planted it in the rocks just as Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal snapped what became the most famous shot from World War II.
Only three of the six men in that photo made it off the island. After the war, Rene played himself in Sands of Iwo Jima, founded a travel agency, and made appearances as one of the flag raisers. He died in 1979.
Today in Concord, New Hampshire, as the Steven Spielberg/Clint Eastwood movie Flags of Our Fathers (based on the best-selling book) opens nationwide, Rene Gagnon’s son remembers a boyhood when a Manchester TV station signed off at night by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over images of the flag raising. “That was just a weird feeling,” Rene Gagnon Jr. says. “That’s my dad.”
Last spring, after Rene’s mother, Pauline, died, the family found a cache of letters and postcards Rene Sr. had written to her during the war. Rene Jr. never even knew they existed. “They gave me an insight into my father and a part of his life I wasn’t aware of,” he says. “When my father first started writing these letters, he was in boot camp, and you could tell he thought, We’re all tough Marines. The more I read, the more the romance went away, and I could see him getting hardened as he realized, I’m going to have to shoot people.”
The young Marine in the letters was a man in love at a time when it seemed the only thing between him and happiness was a war raging thousands of miles away.
Parris Island, S.C.
June 2, 1943
… I am now sitting under the shade of a tree across the field from our camp … I can see the river flowing by and the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears. (There’s a) cool breeze coming down from the north. Sometimes I wonder if maybe that same breeze has touched your cheek on its way down. Maybe you’ll think I’m silly and getting poetic, but it’s nothing like that. This is really the first time I’ve had to sit down and tell you what I’m thinking of … I’m a Marine. But even Marines get a lump in their throat and sometimes something gets in their eyes too, [but] they never admit it’s tears. They just call it dirt in their eyes, but we know what it really is. Even Marines have a heart. When I think of the mill and the swell times we’ve had together, I get one of them lumps … While I am writing this letter, you are probably working, unless you are loafing. Oh god; there goes that blasted dirt in my eyes …
Parris Island, S.C.
July 9, 1943
… We went out for bayonet practice, and believe me Kiddo it certainly gives you a funny feeling to know that in my hands I hold two means of killing a person: either stabbing him with the bayonet or shooting him with my rifle … I know that inside of six months I’ll be using my rifle and bayonet to kill, and kill until there’s no more Japs to threaten the girl I love back home … I guess when I was only a kid I never realized that I one day would actually kill a man — as a matter of fact, none of us really like the idea of killing, but if that’s the only language the Axis understand then that’s what it will have to be …
Love as ever and forever,
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