Morgan County Correspondent

Memory and honor are essential




Joe Rosenthal captured this iconic photo of U.S. soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima during World War II. But another, smaller flag preceded it before military commanders ordered a larger, more visible version be raised. (Courtesy photo)

One of the most memorable books I’ve read in the last several years is “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley. You may remember Clint Eastwood’s movie of the same title. The flags in the title are the two American flags — yes, two — raised on Iwo Jima in the closing months of World War II. 

The first squad who planted a smaller flag on Mt. Suribachi was soon forgotten, overshadowed by a second squad dispatched to raise a larger, more visible flag. It was this latter group that was forever memorialized in the American consciousness by the famed Joe Rosenthal photograph, which later became the model for the Marine Corps memorial in Arlington, Va. 

Bradley’s title pays homage to all the flag raisers, including his father who later research determined had been misidentified as one of the group. That, however, in no way diminishes or discredits the author’s worthy effort to remind us of the kind of men who sacrificed so much for our country. 

They aren’t here to tell us, of course, but my guess is that none of them would want any special praise for what they did. They were just soldiers, kids, doing what they were told, not thinking about a camera nearby. They didn’t have an agent making sure their picture was splashed all over the newspapers of the time, though it soon was. In fact, that’s the reason the identity of the flag raisers was ever questioned at all. 

I paid much closer attention to the book when I learned that one of the men, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, was from Fleming County, Ky., only a few counties east of my home. He was just another private among the 70,000-strong invading force when he happened to be one of those called on to get a decently large flag to the top of the mountain. 

Franklin Sousley became one of the most memorialized Marines ever, but he never knew it. A month later, President Roosevelt ordered the flag raisers to Washington for public morale and to lend their newfound fame to a much-needed war bond effort. However, two of the group were killed just a few days after the flag raising, and a couple of weeks later, Pfc. Sousley was shot in the back and killed by a Japanese sniper.

For several years since reading about my fellow Kentuckian, I had intended to visit his grave in northeastern Kentucky. But since it’s more than a little off the beaten path, I didn’t get around to it until just a few days ago. 

His gravesite isn’t hard to find if, that is, you manage to find the little town of Elizaville. The large headstone honoring him and the Marine Corps is quite prominent in an otherwise ordinary country cemetery as common as thousands of others. 

Pfc. Sousley, like thousands and millions of other ordinary, unknown young men, answered the call to serve and fight, never imagining anyone would ever drive for hours on narrow, winding Kentucky roads just to stand for a moment at the grave of someone who died 80 years ago. 

Only a chance photograph made me aware of him, but it gave me a chance to connect, however distantly, with someone not much different than me, and to reflect and ask, would I be willing to do the same if called on?

Every December since 1992, Morrill Worcester, owner of one of the world’s largest holiday wreath companies, has transported a truckload of wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery. He and many volunteers spend a day laying wreaths on soldiers’ graves as part of the Wreaths Across America program. (www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/About/OurMission)

Worcester started the program when one of his warehouses informed him that they had a production overrun of several thousand wreaths. He arranged with Arlington to place them in one of the older cemetery sections that no longer received many visitors. 

I think about that older, forgotten section of the cemetery and out-of-the-way, forgotten cemeteries across the country where lie forgotten and unknown young men and women, whose gravestones are far more understated than Sousley’s — the only marker perhaps a fading, overgrown military plaque at the foot of the grave. 

Maybe you and I don’t have a truckload of wreaths handy, but sometime in the next few days around Memorial Day, we could probably come up with some flowers, a memento, or an American flag to place on an undecorated veteran’s grave in a nearby cemetery.

Even better, take a drive in the country to find one that looks a little neglected and lonesome, and just stand for a moment and say thank you to those who didn’t just happen to be in a famous picture when it was time to plant the flag, but instead, died with their face planted in Iwo’s black sand or a hundred bloody battlefields just like it.

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