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Flags of our neighbors

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By MEGAN JAMES

CASTLETON — Every American knows that photo: six soldiers struggling to hoist a wind-twisted American flag over Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island Iwo Jima. 

But surprisingly few know the story behind it. 

One is Castleton resident Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy Award-winning co-author of the New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, a story of the six iconic men told through the eyes of one of their sons, James Bradley. The book was adapted for the big screen by director Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis, screenwriter of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, and will be released nationwide this Friday, with two special screenings at Castleton State College on Sunday.

Two more are Roy Wilkinson of East Middlebury and Ted Ketcham of Whiting, who served in the same Marine division at Iwo Jima, and saw the flag out of the corners of their eyes as it was raised.

“We’ve already forgot what a terrible war it was,” said Powers, a former Middlebury resident who hopes the movie will attract as many veterans and their families as possible. “What it teaches the audience, and what it teaches me as well, in a thousand different ways, is that people who haven’t been in battle don’t know what it means to be in battle.”

One of the bloodiest American battles in World War II, the fight for Iwo Jima lasted 36 days and claimed the lives of 21,000 Japanese and almost 7000 Americans. More Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded for the conflict on Iwo Jima than for any other battle of the war.

Powers said while writing the story, “One image of the battle never left my mind.” Japanese forces were tucked into the shores and already waiting to attack when the Marines got onto the beach. “Some kids were so scared they went into catatonic trance, dropped into the sand and assumed the fetal position,” he said.

James Bradley, co-author of the book, knew his father John was one of the men in the photograph. But until his father died, Bradley had no idea he had returned to the U.S. not just a hero, but a celebrity. Searching through closets for his father’s will, Bradley found the beginnings of the untold story when a Navy Cross, the second highest honor a sailor can receive, tumbled out of an old shoebox. Beneath it were photographs of his father at the White House, shaking hands with President Truman.

Bradley devoted the next three years of his life to the investigation of his father’s past. He tracked down Iwo Jima veterans across the country, urged them to open up about the battle and gradually pieced together an oral history. 

Powers helped Bradley transform his hundreds of pages of notes into a best-selling novel with one organizing principle: a son in search of his father.

“I didn’t want to focus on the pornography of battle,” Powers said. “I wanted it to be a quiet book, away from the war. I wanted to show these young men as boys. If we did it right, the reader would supply the anguish and emotion and horror.”

Only three of the six men from the famous photograph survived the war. When they returned to the United States, they were treated like rock stars, Powers said. President Roosevelt, who knew newspapers across the county were on to something as they printed and re-printed the photo, chose it as the symbol of a national tour in an effort to sell $14 billion of bonds to support the war effort.

Essentially, the U.S. government exploited the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima to meet that goal.   

“That photo galvanized the nation,” Powers said. The men shook hands with movie stars, signed autographs and waved from crowded parades.

But Powers and Bradley made the point in their book that the men didn’t believe they were heroes, did not want to be marketed as such, and struggled to deal with their new status. 

Local veteran Wilkinson, a former Marine war dog handler, remembered that feeling. “A hero is someone who does something above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “What we did was just part of the job. You just did what was in front of you.”

Ketcham, who was in the Marine rifle company, agreed.

“I still don’t feel like a hero, and I don’t want to,” Ketcham said. “The real heroes are the ones we left over there.”  

Both Wilkinson and Ketcham have read Powers’ book and plan to attend the screening of Flags of Our Fathers on Sunday. Powers will introduce the film and host a reception between the two screenings, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., for veterans and their families. He hopes the film will open up a too often tightly sealed dialogue about the many sides of war.

“I’ve always kept movies at arm’s length,” Powers said. “The book is what matters to me.”

But he thinks the screenplay is brilliant. “Haggis truly understands the psychology of the book,” he said.

Wilkinson is bringing eight children and grandchildren along with him on Sunday. His wife Beth is opting out, he said. “She doesn’t like blood and guts.” Smiling, he added, “I don’t either, really.”

But his grandson will make the trip to attend the screening from Lebanon, New Hampshire. He wants to be there to share the story with his grandfather. “It makes you feel you’ve done something right,” Wilkinson said.

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