Rene Gagnon was just 18, a high school dropout who worked in the textile mills of his native Manchester, New Hampshire, when he became a Marine in May 1943. Less than two years later, it was Rene, a month shy of 20, who carried the American flag — the second one to fly that day — up a battle-scarred volcano on the island of Iwo Jima and, along with five comrades, planted it in the rocks just as Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal snapped what became the most famous shot from World War II.
Only three of the six men in that photo made it off the island. After the war, Rene played himself in Sands of Iwo Jima, founded a travel agency, and made appearances as one of the flag raisers. He died in 1979.
Today in Concord, New Hampshire, as the Steven Spielberg/Clint Eastwood movie Flags of Our Fathers (based on the best-selling book) opens nationwide, Rene Gagnon’s son remembers a boyhood when a Manchester TV station signed off at night by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over images of the flag raising. “That was just a weird feeling,” Rene Gagnon Jr. says. “That’s my dad.”
Last spring, after Rene’s mother, Pauline, died, the family found a cache of letters and postcards Rene Sr. had written to her during the war. Rene Jr. never even knew they existed. “They gave me an insight into my father and a part of his life I wasn’t aware of,” he says. “When my father first started writing these letters, he was in boot camp, and you could tell he thought, We’re all tough Marines. The more I read, the more the romance went away, and I could see him getting hardened as he realized, I’m going to have to shoot people.“
The young Marine in the letters was a man in love at a time when it seemed the only thing between him and happiness was a war raging thousands of miles away.
Parris Island, S.C.
June 2, 1943
… I am now sitting under the shade of a tree across the field from our camp … I can see the river flowing by and the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears. (There’s a) cool breeze coming down from the north. Sometimes I wonder if maybe that same breeze has touched your cheek on its way down. Maybe you’ll think I’m silly and getting poetic, but it’s nothing like that. This is really the first time I’ve had to sit down and tell you what I’m thinking of … I’m a Marine. But even Marines get a lump in their throat and sometimes something gets in their eyes too, [but] they never admit it’s tears. They just call it dirt in their eyes, but we know what it really is. Even Marines have a heart. When I think of the mill and the swell times we’ve had together, I get one of them lumps … While I am writing this letter, you are probably working, unless you are loafing. Oh god; there goes that blasted dirt in my eyes …
Parris Island, S.C.
July 9, 1943
… We went out for bayonet practice, and believe me Kiddo it certainly gives you a funny feeling to know that in my hands I hold two means of killing a person: either stabbing him with the bayonet or shooting him with my rifle … I know that inside of six months I’ll be using my rifle and bayonet to kill, and kill until there’s no more Japs to threaten the girl I love back home … I guess when I was only a kid I never realized that I one day would actually kill a man — as a matter of fact, none of us really like the idea of killing, but if that’s the only language the Axis understand then that’s what it will have to be …
Love as ever and forever,
Feb. 23, 1944
… Outside, the birds are singing just like you hear them up north in the springtime … When you look outside on a day like this, you can’t possibly imagine there’s a war going on. It just doesn’t seem logical — why do people want to fight when there’s such places as this to live in peace in? Then I heard the sound of airplanes, [and] that sorta broke my daydreaming up … It was a bomber … Only 3,000 miles across the ocean, there are no more swell little forests like this; all there is left over there are ruins of buildings, bridges, and roads. And as it is now, lots of husbands and boyfriends are not coming back. I keep telling myself that can’t happen to us, and I don’t think it will — there always be swell little cottages with green shutters, and boys dating girls. By the way, I’ve got a date for life with you after the war, and I never break dates …
Love as ever,
The war irresistibly drew Rene toward combat. In September 1944, his division embarked for Hawaii to receive more specialized training. In January 1945, Rene left Hawaii aboard the troopship USS Missoula for a destination he knew only as “Island X.” Throughout it all, Rene continued writing home to New Hampshire.
On February 24, 1945, Rene wrote a hurried etter to Pauline from Iwo Jima. It was the day after the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the extinct volcano that overlooked the island from its southern tip — an event he apparently did not consider important enough to mention.
24 Feb., 1945
Here’s a line to let you know I’m all right, and I hope to hear the same from you … Now I can tell you why I didn’t write: We were in action on Iwo Jima. You’ve probably read about it in the papers as it was a pretty tough battle — outside of being muddy, dirty, and needing a shave pretty bad, as we’ve been here quite a while. I’m all right, so I guess you’ll forgive me for not writing … I got your pictures with the evening gown aboard ship, so I put them in my helmet and [they] arrived there with me. I still got them and they’re not banged up too much. You still look beautiful, darling.
Love as ever,
P.S. Tell your dad I’ll send him a Jap rifle for a souvenir.
Rene Jr. and his 23-year-old son, Joshua, are now working together to create a book, even possibly a stage show, based on Rene Sr.’s wartime letters. “I want the truth about my father to be told,” Rene says.