It’s one of the most iconic images of the Second World War, and arguably one of the most famous in U.S. history. In a captivating image of patriotism and grit, six U.S. servicemen are shown struggling to raise the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during a heated battle with Japanese troops on the island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. The Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal wasn’t able to get the soldiers’ names after capturing the image, but they were later identified as Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Franklin Sousley (all Marines) along with Navy corpsman John Bradley. Earlier this week, more than 70 years after the Battle of Iwo Jima, the U.S. Marine Corps announced it had begun investigating claims that some of the servicemen in Rosenthal’s photo had been misidentified, based on questions originally raised by a pair of amateur history buffs.

More than 70,000 U.S. servicemen took part in the battle for Iwo Jima, a tiny island some 660 miles south of Tokyo that served as a base for Japanese fighter planes during World War II. Beginning on February 19, 1945, the battle lasted for 66 grueling days, as U.S. troops advanced across terrain defended by some 18,000 Japanese soldiers. Their progress was slow, grueling and bloody, with the defenders waging a determined struggle from a hidden network of caves, tunnels and other crevices.

The photo of the six U.S. servicemen raising an American flag at the top of Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States soon after it was taken. As a depiction of the sacrifices made by American troops and a symbol of hope in a distant, costly conflict, the image was widely celebrated, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to urge the military to identify the men in the photo. Three of those ultimately identified, U.S. Marines Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Franklin Sousley, were killed in the fighting at Iwo Jima. The others identified in the image were Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes, also Marines, and the Navy corpsman John Bradley.

Photographer Joe Rosenthal poses with his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.  (Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Photographer Joe Rosenthal poses with his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. (Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, which the U.S. government later used as part of an effort to sell war bonds in the closing months of World War II; it would also appear on a postage stamp. James Bradley, John’s son, interviewed Rosenthal and the surviving Marines for his bestselling 2000 book “Flags of Our Fathers,” about the flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. In 2006, Clint Eastwood adapted Bradley’s book into an acclaimed movie of the same name.

Flash-forward to 2014, when the Omaha World-Herald published an extensive report detailing claims made by amateur historians Eric Krelle, of Omaha, Nebraska, and Stephen Foley of Wexford, Ireland, that Bradley had been misidentified in Rosenthal’s famous photo. After noticing some discrepancies in the flag-raising photo, Foley contacted Krelle, an Omaha-based World War II buff who maintains a website about the Marines’ 5th Division. The two men compiled every available photo taken on Mount Surabachi in the hours before and after Rosenthal (who died in 2006) snapped his famous shot, and painstakingly examined the flag-raising photo alongside the other pictures taken that day.

Krelle and Foley identified significant differences between the pants, headgear and cartridge belt worn by the serviceman identified as Bradley in the photo and those worn by Bradley in other photos taken on Mount Surabachi that same day. Based on their research, they concluded that the man identified as Bradley was actually Sousley, who was previously thought to have been standing behind Bradley in the photo. They also concluded that another Marine named Harold Schultz was the serviceman long identified as Sousley.

According to Matthew Hansen, a metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald and author of the 2014 article, Krelle identified Schultz after searching exhaustively for a Marine on Mount Suribachi that day wearing a helmet with an unusual small strap hanging off the left side of his helmet. As Hansen explained: “[Krelle] looked at hundreds of photos and watched film footage of the flag raising again and again and could find only one Marine with that strap hanging off his helmet. Schultz.”

Hansen’s research turned up relatively little about Harold Schultz, except that he was wounded at Iwo Jima and received the Purple Heart, was honorably discharged from the Marines and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He died in 1995.

The U.S. flag is raised over the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia on February 23, 2009 during an event honoring veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima. (Credit: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.S. flag is raised over the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia on February 23, 2009 during an event honoring veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima. (Credit: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

At the time the World-Herald article was published, the U.S. Marine Corps said it stood by the original identification, and James Bradley also discounted the new research. Since then, a team from Smithsonian Channel reportedly began researching the flag-raising photo for a planned documentary, and ended up sharing what they found with the Marine Corps. This week’s announcement that the Corps had begun looking into the possible misidentification was the first public report that Krelle and Foley’s research had led to an investigation.

“Our history is important to us, and even today, this iconic image still represents the fighting spirit of Marines and is a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our corps,” the Marine Corps said in a statement. “As such, with the information and research provided by the Smithsonian Channel, who used advanced digital technology to examine battle footage, the Marine Corps decided to review their photo enhancements, film analysis and findings.” For their part, Krelle and Foley declined to comment on the investigation, citing confidentiality agreements.

James Bradley initially claimed he was shocked to hear of the Marine Corps’ investigation, but later admitted he did have doubts that his father was the one in Rosenthal’s famous photo. According to him, John Bradley participated in an earlier flag-raising on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, but was not in fact present for the one Rosenthal captured on film. James Bradley told the New York Times that he didn’t examine the evidence presented in the Omaha World-Herald article for more than a year, as he was working on a new book and then became ill. Now, however, Bradley believes his father, who died in 1994, was mistaken in his belief that the flag-raising he participated in was the one Rosenthal photographed.