When I was a teenager I read the book Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley. It’s a nonfiction work about the lives of the six men in one of the most iconic photos to emerge from World War II, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by photographer Joe Rosenthal. It of course includes the war years, but it also provides biographical information on each of the six men and describes the events that led to their taking part in that famous event. Unless you’ve read the book or are an avid history fiend, most people wouldn’t know that three of the six men died shortly after the photo was taken, never making it off the island of Iwo Jima, site of some of the most horrific fighting in all of the Pacific Theater during World War II. The three others survived the war and yet only one would live to be an old man. All three suffered deep emotional wounds from their war experiences and were haunted their entire lives, never understanding why they survived when thousands didn’t.
The figure whose story saddened me the most was Michael Strank, perhaps due to the Pennsylvania (my home state) connection. Strank was born in a small village in what is today Slovakia and immigrated with his family to the United States as a small child where they settled in Western Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Marines as a private in 1939 and by 1945 had risen to the rank of sergeant. Strank was the first of the six men in the photograph to die and it’s believed that he was killed by friendly artillery fire, the shell that killed him thought to have been fired offshore by an American ship. He was the oldest of the six and also the most experienced. Men in his squad, as well as those who served alongside him, idolized and respected him. He refused countless promotions during the war so that he could ensure his men made it home safe.
In 1949 Strank’s remains were re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery and when I visited there I sought out his grave, number 7179 in section 12. In the past when I’ve visited historic cemeteries, I’ve sought graves of famous individuals like Eva Peron in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta Cemetery. I had never before sought out the grave of a person who was by all accounts an average person. He became famous in death through a photograph he would never know would have the enormous effect it had around the world. When I located his grave, it looked like the dozens of others around him and yet knowing his story, I knew that his was different. Every soldier who is interred has a unique story.
Before I left, my dad and I stopped to visit the nearby Marine Corps Memorial which fittingly is based on the famous Iwo Jima photograph. The figures in the memorial are 32 feet tall and the flagpole 60 feet long. In 1961, President John Kennedy issued a proclamation that a flag of the United States should fly from the memorial 24 hours a day, one of the few official sites where this is required. The memorial honors all marines who were killed in action since 1775 when the Marine Corps was founded. Yet when you see the statue, that famous photograph and the unimaginable horrors that took place for that image to be captured will always be at the forefront of one’s mind.
There is much to see and honor in Arlington National Cemetery, but in addition to famous grave sites, I recommend taking time to pay your respects at a grave of just an average “warrior,” but one who still did his or her country a great service, whether it was last year or 237 years ago.