Forgotten flag of Iwo Jima
Chicago Sun-Times, Feb 23, 2002 by Janet Rausa Fuller
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One man wrote letters to his sweetheart back in Chicago, telling her how he crawled up the mountain on his stomach to avoid the bullets and bombs.
The other never talked about that day, at least not in front of his wife.
Jim Michels and John Jablonski--both Marines and Chicago boys-- were on Mt. Suribachi when first one flag, then a second, went up Feb. 23, 1945, on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
The second flag is forever etched in America's memory, the image of six Marines made famous in a photograph by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.
The scene has been reproduced on postage stamps and cast in bronze. It is an icon, many say, of patriotism.
But nearly six decades later, the widows of the two Chicago men find themselves attached to more obscure--some say forgotten--images from one of the costliest battles in history.
In one, the first flag is raised, and Michels is seen cradling a rifle.
The other image is of Jablonski, standing amid a jubilant crowd of Marines and in front of the second flag.
The men's widows, Harriet Jablonski of Elk Grove and Victoria Michels of Riverside, will be at Daley Center Plaza today for a ceremony marking the 57th anniversary of the raising of the flags at Iwo Jima.
"He knew he went there to do a job, and he was determined to get it right," Harriet Jablonski said of her husband, who died in 1991 of brain cancer.
Betty McMahon, 43, the youngest of Michels' four daughters, will speak at the event. Rosenthal's world famous photo of the second flag is "a great picture," McMahon said. "I just don't want history to be forgotten."
"Forgotten," or at least grossly overshadowed, sums up the fate of the first Iwo Jima flag-raising, captured by Marine photographer Lou Lowery. Michels is perched prominently in the foreground of Lowery's picture.
A blue-eyed Bridgeport native, Michels was one of six Marines of the Fifth Division who scrambled up Mt. Suribachi on the morning of Feb. 23.
The island was not yet secure, and the atmosphere was tense. But the men--Michels, Harold Schrier, Ernest Thomas, Henry Hansen, Louis Charlo and Charles Lindberg--were on a mission to take the mountain.
" 'Around every corner, we'd lose somebody else,' " Victoria Michels, 79, said her husband wrote.
At 10:20 a.m., the men made it to the top and hoisted a raggedy flag measuring 28 by 54 inches, on an iron pipe.
American soldiers cheered, and passing ships tooted their horns at the sight.
Lowery, a staff photographer for the Marine Corps' Leatherneck magazine, took the picture seconds before Japanese soldiers, still hiding in caves, launched a grenade attack.
The men, however, managed to secure the summit and descend.
About three hours later, orders came from the battalion officer to replace the flag with a larger one, according to Lindberg, who at 81 is the only surviving member of both flag-raising groups.
A second group of six--Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, Michael Strank, John Bradley and Harlon Block--was dispatched.
Following them, but not aware that the flag was to be replaced, were Marine photographer Robert Campbell, Marine videographer Bill Genaust and Rosenthal, the AP photographer.
Rosenthal had heard about the first flag, and on the way up Suribachi, he had passed Lowery and the others.
"We almost decided not to go on, but I made up my mind to shoot a picture of it anyway," Rosenthal wrote in a magazine article in 1955.
At the top, Campbell got the shot of the first flag coming down and the second going up. Genaust got movie footage of the switch (he was killed nine days later).
Though he would not know it until his film was developed several days later and military officials had wired it back to the States, Rosenthal got the shot seen around the world.
Jim Michels was awarded a Purple Heart and returned to Chicago in 1946.
He and Victoria married the next year. He drove a truck for the Crane Co. and Columbia Pipe and Supply.
A regular "jokester," Jim Michels wasn't one to hold a grudge, even as the fame of Rosenthal's photo eclipsed Lowery's photo, his family says.
Still, depression became his enemy after the war. He was admitted several times to the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Maywood. In 1982, at age 63, he died of a heart attack.
Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the famous flag-raising shot, snapped other photos that day, including the posed group shot that Harriet Jablonski keeps pressed, neatly, under a wooden frame.
John Jablonski, who also was awarded a Purple Heart, returned to his old haunts around Western and Ashland in 1946 and married Harriet three years later.
Of the two, she was the talker. That much never changed.
Harriet Jablonski only began revisiting the subject two years ago, after a friend of John and fellow Marine from Chicago contacted her.
She has pulled out her husband's dusty files and notes but still does not know his exact role that day or how long he remained on the summit.
"The most important thing is that he came back, you know," she said. "I'm proud of him and thankful that he came back."
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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