Very few photos of me exist, as an adult, when I am cooperatively posing for a camera.
I have been fortunate to visit some far-off places, but there are no selfies of me gazing at the blue and green Aurora Borealis dancing in the Icelandic night sky, standing atop Peru’s Huayna Picchu as the fog cleared reveling Machu Picchu below, meditating in Japan’s temples of Kyoto, or watching the Morrocan snake charmers in Marrakesh’s Jama El f’na Market.
No events in my personal life need to be permanently captured and certainly not shared on social media.
Memories of sights, sounds, smells, touches, people, foods, music, art and assorted weirdness are enough for me.
So, I was quite surprised when I found myself handing my work cellphone to Tribune-Democrat photographer Thomas Slusser and mumbling, “Here, take my picture” during a recent visit to the Washington, D.C., area.
We were inside the National Museum of the Marine Corps by a display of the American flag that was raised on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, which started 75 years ago on Feb. 19, 1945.
In retrospect, I chalk up the out-of-character request as having been deeply inspired by the subject matter we were covering.
The flag raising was captured in one of the most iconic photos ever taken.
And now, a picture exists of me standing in front of possibly the most well-known American flag ever made, looking like a 46-year-old on a school field trip with a backpack across my shoulders.
The moment was part of a whirlwind three days Slusser and I spent learning about the battle, the flag, the photo and even visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to cover MLK Day, coincidentally arriving there minutes before President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Our interest in Iwo Jima grew out of the Johnstown region’s connection – Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Strank, one of the flag raisers, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia before emigrating to Franklin Borough as a child.
We visited Strank’s grave on a cool winter morning under a clear azure sky at Arlington National Cemetery. There were five pennies on top of his white headstone, numbered 7179 in Section 12.
“To us, it’s really just a meaning that ‘I took time to visit.’ … It means whatever it means to the person that placed it,” Arlington National Cemetery historian Timothy Frank explained when asked about the coins.
Strank’s niece, along with her daughter and granddaughter, met us for an interview at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia.
His face is not visible in the historic photo.
But, at the memorial, visitors can walk around the statute to get a three-dimensional look that includes Strank.
“It’s wonderful to be able to see his face and know that he was a person and he existed,” Strank’s grandniece Susan Murray told us. “It brings life to him. It’s nice to be able to walk around the sculpture and see his depiction of who he was.”
Our trip included an interview with Shayne Jarosz, director of the Iwo Jima Association of America, which, among its contributions, takes veterans of the battle back to island every year, leading me to immediately begin formulating ideas about how to convince The Tribune-Democrat that it would be a good decision to spend $6,000 so I could cover the 2021 trip. (See previous comment about interest in “far-off places.”)
We were greeted with hospitality at the museum, association, memorial and cemetery – along with being provided a wealth of information.
National Museum of the Marine Corps public affairs chief Gwenn Adams and Keil Gentry, Marine Corps University’s vice president for business affairs, spent hours educating us about Iwo Jima and the Marines.
U.S. Rep. John Joyce, retired three-star Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, “Flags of Our Fathers” author James Bradley and Kay (Keller) Maurer, the daughter of flag-raiser Harold Keller, all graciously shared their thoughts, too, in interviews conducted outside of D.C. either in person or on the telephone.
They all helped provide a richer context and better understanding of the Battle of Iwo Jima, which I had been writing about tangentially for years through articles about Strank.
But my most memorable conversation for this project came when speaking on the phone with Hershel “Woody” Williams, one of only two World War II Medal of Honor recipients still living. He earned the honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty on Iwo Jima.
Williams was a flamethrower, meaning his job was to burn the Japanese soldiers out of their pillboxes. I tried to imagine the heat, the charred smell, the screams of terror. And then I just stopped. It was too incomprehensible.
Now 96, Williams has spent his post-war life assisting and paying tribute to veterans and their families.
An article about him will appear in The Tribune-Democrat during the second installment of this series on Sunday. Also, on that day, the 75th anniversary of the flag raising, the package will include an story about Strank, along with photos and videos from Slusser.
The project started Sunday with an overview article about the battle and its historic significance, and a piece about the flag raisers’ identifications, Slusser’s photos and videos, with special informational full-page graphics created by the Tribune’s Caroline Feightner.
Plus, there is this column … and a photo of me by the Iwo Jima flag.