Inside a hall in Jarabina, a little Slovak Republic village of about 900 residents, there is a mural of Marines planting a United States flag on inhospitable rocky ground, while comrades raise their guns and arms in celebration.
The painting pays tribute to a hometown hero, born by the name of Mychal Strenk – to parents Vasil and Martha – on Nov. 10, 1919, in what was then Czechoslovakia.
He spent only about three years in the little town before the family emigrated and came to Franklin Borough, then a booming steel community, located just outside of Johnstown, where Michael Strank, as he became known, spent his childhood.
After time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, he joined the Marines in 1939, when jobs were difficult to find during the Great Depression.
Then, on Feb. 23, 1945, Strank transformed from a native of Jarabina and product of Franklin into a national icon. He and five other Marines planted a flag on the volcanic hellscape of Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The event was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal in what became one of the most recognized pictures ever taken. It provided a renewed spirit to a war-weary nation, although Strank never knew how he impacted America because he died a few days later, on March 1, 1945, still fighting on Iwo Jima.
Now, on the 100th anniversary of his birthday, the communities of Jarabina, Franklin and Johnstown – along with the Marine Corps and his family – are remembering Strank.
“It might be one of the strongest, most powerful and iconic symbols of America, the courage of our soldiers – even though it was the Marine Corps, and a tribune to the Greatest Generation that we have in this country,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, who narrated a documentary about Strank called “Our Flag Still Waves.”
"It's remarkable that this young man from Johnstown lives forever. The message of his service is now a historic message that resonates forever.”
'His message to us'
In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, families all across the nation had pictures of sons, brothers and uncles who died in World War II on display in their homes.
As did the Stranks.
Kathy (Strank) Kasper, a Cambria County native, remembers visiting the home of her grandmother – Mike's mother – and seeing a picture of the flag-raising and a portrait of him.
But, one day, around age 10, she realized the photos of her Uncle Mike were different than others. During a visit to Arlington County, Virginia, she saw the statue of the flag-raising at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. Her father pointed out his brother. At that moment, as a young child, she realized “that the world knew who he was and what he did.”
Decades later, on this Sunday, about 70 family members, including Kasper and her sisters Karen (Strank) Costlow and Carol (Strank) Bauer, along with special guests, plan to gather for a private Byzantine Catholic birthday remembrance service at the Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel, located at the Marine Corps Heritage Center in Triangle, Virginia. The event is scheduled to include the participation of Ivan Bulík, the cantor from the church in Jarabina where Strank was baptized.
“I want his family there,” Kasper said. “I want his faith there. And I want who he served with there, his fellow Marines surrounding him.”
While Kasper never met her uncle, he was an important part of the family even years after his death.
“It was very meaningful to our family to know that my uncle had served – fighting for his country and dying for his country,” Kasper said. “My dad – as most men who served during World War II – when he came home, did not talk much about the war. He loved his older brother and admired his older brother, but was devastated when he found out his brother was killed.”
And Michael Strank's inspiration to the family lives on today.
“My sister Karen said, 'Mike talks to us every single day, and says, "Do not forget me and don't forget the others who have died for our country," ' ” Kasper said. “It's his message to us. That's why that picture was taken.”
'One of their countrymen'
Vincent Obsitnik was born in Slovakia.
Like Strank, his family then settled in Cambria County, where he spent the early years of his childhood living in Nanty Glo.
Obsitnik became Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Slovak Republic, serving under President George W. Bush. During his tenure, Obsitnik visited Jarabina, taking two Marines with him, where he presented the mayor with a Certificate of Citizenship for Strank – who never received nationalization papers. Obsitnik stopped at the family's home and saw the town's Iwo Jima mural.
“That just shows you how much they really appreciate and respect the fact that Michael Strank is one of their countrymen who was born there, whose family was born there,” Obsitnik said. “It was very nice how they respect his heritage and his history. That is a honor they give to him, and, as a result, our country as well.”
Strank is still remembered in Slovakia in many ways, including the mural, through stories told by survivors of World War II and, most recently, as an image on an official national postage stamp.
“Clearly, he is a Slovak hero and someone we think a lot of,” said Cecilia Rokusek, president and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Iowa. “I think he represents, really, the ideal immigrant. He was an immigrant to the United States, but he fought for our country.”
Ivan Korčok, Slovakia's current ambassador to the United States, described Strank as part of a wave of Slovaks and Czechs who “came here and built your society, the United States. And we're so glad that he is one of them that basically played such an outstanding role in the United States' history.”
Korčok plans to read a letter, written by Slovak Republic President Zuzana Čaputová, at the Strank family service on Sunday, which also marks the anniversary of when the Marine Corps was founded – on Nov. 10, 1775
“This is a very emotional moment,” Korčok said. “I'll be honored to share the letter of our president and I'll be stressing the fact that it is the historic ties that are the foundation of our close relationship that reaches out to present times where Slovakia and the United States have such a close relationship.
"It is more than coincidence that it will be on the very day when there is the 244th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Marine Corps and he was part of them fighting in the Pacific during the Second World War and then finally when he raised the flag on Iwo Jima.”
In another tribute, Slovak filmmaker Dušan Hudec made “The Oath” – a documentary about Strank – a few years ago. He visited the Johnstown area to shoot footage and conduct interviews, including with Strank's sister, Mary Pero.
Hudec called his movie the story of “almost a 'forgotten hero' who nowadays seems to be nothing more than a sculpted symbol of courage and bravery.”
“Americans automatically associate Strank's name with the photo in which he and five other Marines raised the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima,” Hudec said. “Strank's story evokes a feeling of patriotic pride. He embodies their idea of a real soldier who sacrificed his life for the noblest of causes with which many Americans identify: freedom and independence.”
'Best picture ever'
Strank trained at Parris Island, helped with a landing operation at Pavuvu in the Russell Islands and battled at Bougainville.
Then came Iwo Jima.
From Feb. 19 until March 26, 1945, American forces fought to gain control of the island from the entrenched Japanese – airstrikes, flamethrowers, hand-to-hand combat. The battle resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including almost 7,000 dead. All but about 200 of the original 22,000 Japanese defenders were killed.
During the fight, the United States captured Mount Suribachi and planted a flag atop the dormant volcano. But it was small and difficult to see. So an order was given to plant a larger flag.
Strank, along with Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, Cpl. Harold Keller and Pfc. Harold Schultz, raised the flag, using a pipe they found on the island. Rosenthal snapped what became a Pulitzer Prize-winning picture, freezing in time the men moving collectively as a unit, almost indistinguishable as individuals.
“They have always said that that picture was probably the worst picture ever in that you cannot see the faces,” Kasper said. “You cannot see the faces of any of those men. And that's why it was difficult to identify them. But that, for the Marines, made it the best picture ever, because they were all one. They were all working together as one unit. You were not an individual at any time when you were a Marine.”
The image stirred the nation, appearing in more than a million public locations, including retail stores, movie theaters, factories, banks and railroad stations.
It was “the 1945 version of 'going viral,' ” Breanne Robertson, a Marine Corps History Division historian, said.
The picture also encapsulated the spirit of the Marines, the historian said.
“The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, of which Michael Strank took part, serves as a reminder of what military service means to the Marine Corps – honor, courage, commitment and a willingness to sacrifice oneself in defense of the nation,” Robertson said. “It's for this reason that the flag-raising was selected as the design for the Marine Corps War Memorial. The monument honors not only those Marines who perished during the battle of Iwo Jima, but all Marines who have died in combat operations since the founding of the Marine Corps in 1775.”
'Mike: the protector'
The image was used as the focal point of the 7th Bond Drive that raised $26 billion for the war effort. The tour featured Hayes and two individuals – Pfc. Rene Gagnon and Navy Corpsman John Bradley – who, until recent years, were incorrectly identified as flag-raisers.
Bradley's mis-identification was revealed in 2016, which led to a full investigation into the flag-raising. Then, just a few weeks ago, a report was released that determined Gagnon was not in the picture. Schultz was identified in 2016, Keller in 2019.
Strank's role was confirmed by comparing the historic photo to other pictures and video taken around the same time.
The report, “Investigating Iwo: The Flag Raisings in Myth, Memory, and Esprit de Corps” states: “Strank’s participation in the second flag raising has long been rooted in the eyewitness statements of Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John H. Bradley and Privates First Class Rene A. Gagnon and Ira H. Hayes. The primary challenge of identifying the Marine in position 4 is that he is mostly hidden from view in both Rosenthal’s flag-raising and flagpole-steadying photographs. Although some of the individual’s face is visible in Sergeant William H. Genaust’s film, the low resolution does not allow for a positive identification.
“The motion picture footage does reveal that the person is wearing a soft cap with a distinct curve to the bill, however. For the Bowers Board, the key to identifying the individual was the atypical way he is wearing his utility coat over his field jacket. Other identifying features included a watch on his left wrist, the absence of a ring on his left hand, and discoloration on his trousers. Strank can be seen exhibiting these particularities of uniform and appearance in the Gung Ho photographs, although the presence of a wristwatch cannot be confirmed due to his sleeve length. The sergeant’s presence in the Rosenthal photograph is consistent with his role as the squad leader of the patrol whose other members included Corporal Block and Privates First Class Hayes and Sousley.”
Robertson added: “As part of that investigation, we did review all of the positions of the flag-raising to try and make this the last correction as far as we are able with current technology and evidence. Through that process, the Marine Corps confirmed Michael Strank's participation.”
Although little is seen physically of Strank in the photo, his spirit is clearly present.
“Mike Strank's right hand tells me everything I need to know,” wrote James Bradley, son of John Bradley, in the New York Times bestselling book “Flags of Our Fathers."
“He is behind and to the left of Franklin. His right shoulder is pressed against Franklin's left. Their torsos are conjoined; their arms are reaching upward. Each boy has his left hand on the flagpole, and Franklin has his right hand on it as well. But the key to the image, at least for me, is Mike's right hand closing on Franklin's wrist. It is an image of almost unbearable delicacy and gentleness. That is Mike: the protector.”
'Responded to the call'
Rosenthal's picture captured 1/400th of a second from the 26 years of Strank's life.
But family members, friends and fellow Marines stress he was much more than just a person captured in time in a fleeting – albeit historic – instance. He was a Franklin Borough High School graduate, who according to his yearbook wanted to become president of the United States, devout Byzantine Catholic, proud Carpatho-Rusyn and accomplished musician.
And much of that identity was shaped by his childhood in Franklin.
“As the Strank family began to gain a foothold in the borough, Michael Strank’s personal transformation from a boy to a young man was unfolding,” according to strank.org, a website dedicated to Strank. “Already with a rigid sense of discipline and duty, Strank approached all things with passion and resolve. He was as fervent about the Catholic faith as he was eager to learn the English language and customs. When he began first grade, he knew no English but became fluent in it within the year. He quickly learned to play the French horn and even hit a home run out of Johnstown’s Point Stadium. He saved his brother John from a nearly fatal mining accident and calmed his younger brothers during the Johnstown Flood of 1936. He was a tutor, mentor, brother and friend. That was Mike.”
Strank was also a warrior and a protector.
“He fought hard, but he always had the best interest of those who served with him,” Kasper said. “They always described him as a 'Marine's Marine.' He was someone that cared deeply about you. He always said, 'I just want to bring you boys home to your mothers, to your families.' ”
Strank, who reached the rank of sergeant, was also like millions of men from small towns and major cities across the United States who served during World War II – and in previous generations – without expecting any special recognition, as Ridge explained.
“This is a young man from a town in Pennsylvania, like hundreds of thousands and millions of young men, in small- and medium-sized towns, any towns across this country, who, throughout the history, when called upon by their country at a time of need, responded to the call,” Ridge said.
“This picture is more than just about Michael. Michael represents hundreds of thousands – from the Revolutionary War days until the present time – who responded to the call of their country. He's in an iconic photograph and an incredible monument here in Washington. But, if you look beyond the flag and look at those individuals who raised it, that was the strength of America. It always was, it is and always will be. Volunteers who serve in the time of need – a rather remarkable story.”
'Great image for this area'
Strank is one of 861 Cambria County residents who died during World War II.
He is one of only 56 members enshrined in the Cambria County Military Hall of Fame where he is recognized alongside Medal of Honor recipients, congressmen, and historic figures, including Lt. Col. Boyd David "Buzz" Wagner, a WWII fighter ace, and Admiral Robert Peary, the first person to lead a successful expedition to the North Pole.
He was inducted as part of the inaugural 2006 class.
“We, in Cambria County, are extremely lucky to have someone of the stature of Michael Strank,” said Marty Kuhar, chairman of the Cambria County War Memorial Authority's Veterans Committee. “Not only is it because he's one of the flag-raisers. That in itself would be a reason to be all excited. But, in general, he is the squad leader. He is the person who coordinated the flag-raising. In the military, things don't happen unless the squad leader makes it happen. That's the key.”
Strank is honored – in many ways – as one of the region's most well-known and historically significant individuals who served in the military. Tom Caulfield, director of Veterans Community Initiatives, called it “the fervor of the town that continues 75 years after Michael Strank performed his heroic actions.”
His picture hangs prominently inside the 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial lobby.
In Franklin, a park was re-dedicated to him on Saturday with a new metal silhouette cutout of the flag-raising on display. A stone – depicting the image of the flag-raising – is across from City Hall in downtown Johnstown.
Several events were planned for this weekend, including a free screening of “Our Flag Still Waves” at Westwood Plaza Theatre on Sunday at 1 p.m.
“This young man is, I think, maybe the most famous person ever to come from Cambria County,” said Dale Wicks, whose company, Wix Pix, made “Our Flag Still Waves.” “It's just that we don't know it. The picture that he is in is the most reproduced photograph in the history of the world. And the image of that picture is the most recognized image in the history of the world. … What a great image for this area to have.”