The backstory of how the Marine Corps was able to correct the identity of a Marine in this iconic Iwo Jima photo
"They stayed two days and opened every drawer and took pictures. If Dick were still alive, he'd say 'what a bunch of excitement.'"
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Nov. 3, 2019.
The researchers were seeking evidence to identify service members in the iconic flag-raising photo taken Feb. 23, 1945, by Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal at the summit of Mount Suribachi during World War II. That photo of six men was used as the model for the bronze Marine's memorial statue in Arlington Ridge, Virginia. There was another flag raising earlier that day with a smaller flag.
The names of those in the Rosenthal photo caption have been corrected twice before.
“They stayed two days and opened every drawer and took pictures. If Dick were still alive, he'd say 'what a bunch of excitement,' ” Wheeler Mattox said. “My brother was such a humble man.”
Wheeler had audio tapes of Cpl. Harold P. Keller, the latest person correctly identified by the Marine Corps in the photo. Wheeler's tapes were digitized and are now part of the archives in the Marine Corps History Division's Oral History collection.
Keller had recorded himself and sent the tapes to Wheeler for his book research. Wheeler, a Marine Corps veteran who was severely injured, served alongside Keller as a member of Company E's 3rd Platoon, 28th Marine Regiment. Wheeler was medically evacuated two days before the flag raising. Wheeler wrote “The Bloody Battle for Suribachi” and “Iwo,” among 18 military books and one book of poetry he penned, his sister said. He was 86 when he died on Oct. 22, 2008.
Wheeler Mattox welcomed retired Col. Keil Gentry and retired Master Sgt. Stacy Patzman from the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, and Dr. Breanne Robertson, of the Marine Corps History Division, into her 205 S. Tulpehocken St. home she shared with her brother so they could gather evidence in September 2018.
Three boards have been tasked to verify the accuracy of the pictured service members' identities: the del Valle Board in 1947, the Huly Board in 2016 and the Bowers Board in 2019. Robertson and Gentry had served on both the Huly and Bowers teams.
If looking at the Rosenthal photo, from the base of the pole on the right to left, the six members have been identified as: Cpl. Harlon H. Block; Cpl. Harold P. Keller, in place of Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon; Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley, in place of Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John Bradley; Sgt. Michael Strank; Pfc. Harold H. Schultz, in place of where Sousley was first thought to be; and Pfc. Ira Hayes.
All service members are heroes, whether they were in the second photo or not, the researchers stressed.
Gentry said Wheeler Mattox allowed them to look through her brother's personal effects. In Wheeler's basement study, they found cassette tapes from the 1970s, he said. Although there was no audio of Keller describing his part in the flag raising, he did describe other details.
“He starts his narrative as they're leaving Suribachi. Although there was no smoking gun, it helped put everything into context,” Gentry said.
Wheeler did a good job of taking notes, and his books — “Iwo” was written in 1980 and “The Bloody Battle For Suribachi” in 1965 and updated in 2007 — were extremely useful, according to Gentry.
Wheeler was one of the first authors to write about both flag raisings, according to Robertson.
“I'd just like to emphasize that although Richard Wheeler wasn't present on Mount Suribachi to witness the flag raisings (he was wounded a few days earlier), he was assigned to the 3rd Platoon whose members formed the heart of 1st Lt. Harold G. Schrier's flag-raising patrol,” Robertson wrote in an email Thursday. “He fought alongside these Marines; he knew them personally and wanted to tell their story. As a result, he became one of the first authors to publish an account of both flag raisings.”
Wheeler's books were an important source of information during the 2016 Huly Board proceedings, Robertson said, and she, Gentry and Patzman “felt extremely fortunate when the opportunity arose to consult his research notes,” noting Wheeler Mattox's generosity. “The collection of photographs, letters and audiocassette recordings added significantly to our understanding of the battle, including the combat experiences of Corporal Harold P. Keller.”
Robertson is the contributing editor for a new book released through the Marine Corps History Division called “Investigating Iwo, The Flag Raisings in Myth, Memory & Esprit de Corps.” Gentry writes a chapter in Robertson's book called “In Fairness to All Parties,” and includes information about Wheeler Mattox's assistance and their Pine Grove investigation. Gentry had called Keller's daughter, Kay Keller Maurer, and she recalled her father recording a cassette tape for Wheeler, and that's what led them to Schuylkill County.
Wheeler Mattox said she was surprised when the researchers contacted her last summer.
“I said, 'How'd you find me?' They found out from my book, on Amazon. … It's amazing how life turns out,” she said, referencing “A Lifetime of Illusions.”
Meanwhile, in his book chapter, Gentry wrote of his Wheeler investigation: “Wheeler's veteran status and personal connections gave him unparalleled access and insight into the actions taken by Company E on 23 February 1945. His research files included audiocassette tapes, interview transcripts and letters from the men who fought with him on Iwo Jima. Due to the potential treasure trove of information to be found among his personal effects, Master Sgt. Patzman and I gladly took Mattox up on her offer and made a two-day research trip to Pennsylvania.
“With the assistance of Mattox and her neighbor, Louise Miller, we spent the first afternoon reviewing and cataloguing the large volume of material in the house … Robertson joined us the following day to photograph and collect material related to the Battle of Iwo Jima, including a stack of audiocassette tapes for analysis and eventual accession into the Marine Corps History Division's Oral History collection.”
Wheeler Mattox, 94, said due to her age, she decided to sell several of her brother's items to private collectors. Items she still has and treasures are her brother's journal, a book of prose returned to him from Iwo Jima two years after his return home, and a framed letter from Louis R. Lowery sent to her brother on July 20, 1961.
Lowery, who also documented the flag raising for Leatherneck, a Marine Corps publication, sent Wheeler negatives and photos, and gave him permission to use the images in his books.
“I have made a selection from my negatives and printed the enclosed pics. You have full permission to use any of them in your book,” wrote Lowery, who was living in Springfield, Virginia, at the time. He did not cash the checks Wheeler had sent to him for the photos and they were framed with the letter.
There are real hurdles in trying to reconstruct events so long after they occurred, Robertson said.
“The materials that Wheeler had collected from his fellow Marines gave us access to eyewitness accounts of the battle that we would not have had otherwise,” she said. “Even more valuable is the fact that these letters and tapes were addressed from one Marine to another, so there is a candidness that allows an unvarnished look at the fighting on the ground.”
©2019 the Republican & Herald (Pottsville, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.