Monday, December 6, 2010

Spectacular Features Magazine 12 (1950) / Flags of Our Fathers

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Spectacular Features Magazine 012 Iwo Jima (1950-06.Fox) (Darwination).cbr
Get the full scan of this Fox comic here.

It's been a couple weeks since my last post, as I've been happily sidetracked by a book from a friend. I'd planned on wrapping up this series of World War II posts with the above comic on Iwo Jima. Dude (or Duder or The Dude, my grandfather I wrote about a couple of posts ago, a name I gave him as the first grandchild unable to pronounce granddad, but a fitting moniker nonetheless) was at Iwo Jima, so I felt it a fitting tribute, and the iconic flagraising on the cover is an image thoroughly seared into the American imagination and suitably patriotic for a series of scans in honor of our veterans. In the meantime, I received a gift from a friend of Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and have become much more intimate with the details surrounding the image. Here's the cover from my own copy which shows the flagraising (or the replacement flagraising, rather, but more on that in a bit) in black and white :

Bradley's book (which was made into a film by Clint Eastwood) focuses on the lives of the six marines (well, five marines and one Navy Corpsman, John Bradley, James' father) - their childhoods, their training, their experiences in the war and at Iwo Jima, and, for the three who managed to survive, the way their lives were affected by being in the the photograph which is the only photo to win the Pulitzer Prize in the year of its publication as well as being possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time. I'll get to the comic in a bit, but after finishing Bradley's book yesterday, I'm compelled to write a little about it, as I learned much about what my grandfather must have gone through on that itty bitty island that was the site of so much bloodshed and perhaps why he didn't really share much in the way of battle stories.

Bradley sets up the story of the flagraising by taking a look at the youth of the six flagraisers, all very different but all with depression era childhoods which he notes were probably more similar to the way children were brought up in the nineteenth century than the way their own children would be brought up. James' dad was one of five children coming up in a very Catholic family in Wisconsin. From a young age, he knew he wanted to be a funeral director and was very mature and straight-laced for his age. He joined the Navy to possibly avoid ground combat and wound up assigned as Corpsman with the Marines. By Iwo Jima, the Japanese were training their soldiers to target medics (one medic could save many other soldiers after all) to the point where Corpsmen avoided drawing attention and would not wear a red cross. Also in the flagraising picture are Harlon Block, a Texan from a Seventh-Day Adventist family and a star football player whose entire football team volunteered together, Ira Hayes, a quiet and distant Pima Indian who wrote proudly of his accomplishments in the Corps to his family back home on the reservation, Franklin Sousley, an outgoing and jovial boy from Kentucky known to keep his unit in stitches and who had helped his mother keep her farm together after his father passed when he was nine, Rene Gagnon, with the looks of a movie star and a French Canadian mama's boy from a single-parent family from the textile mills of Manchester, New Hampshire, and lastly Mike Strank, leader of his unit a Czech-born Pennsylvanian who was a born marine and leader of his unit who had seen combat at Pavuvu and Bougainville. Ira and Franklin idolized Strank, a man that led by example, looked after his men, and always ate only after his soldiers had been seen to.

Each of these guys lives follow such different paths but the war brings them all together for extreme training at Camp Pendleton in California. Under constant drill and supervision, the Marines were taught to depend and look after the guy next to each other in preparation for some unnamed battle for which the U.S. war machine is gearing up towards in long preparation. I recall my grandpa talking about some training in California, so he must have been there, too. I remember also my granddad describing shore leave in Honolulu the last stop after being stationed at Camp Tarawa on the big island of Hawaii which was the next staging area these Marines gathered at after Camp Pendleton. Soon, the Marines would head out in a naval convoy 70 miles long towards an "Island X," revealed two days out of Honolulu to the soldiers as Iwo Jima or "sulfur island" in Japanese.

I've seen at least a little debate about the strategic importance of Iwo Jima, but it is readily apparent, at least, that both sides viewed it a crucial piece of real estate. For the Japanese, this island was sacred ground and part of the Japanese homeland, part of of the original mythical creation that spawned the Japanese islands from an eruption of Mount Fuji. Emperor Hirohito personally chose General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, head of his palace guard, and a very able commander to lead the island's defense. For the Americans, F.D.R. himself asked Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith to lead the attack force at Iwo. For the Americans, Iwo represented a huge obstacle to the bombing of mainland Japan from recently acquired strips in the Marianas because it was halfway between Tinian and Saipan and the mainland and boasted two airstrips (construction had begun on a third) as well as a radar station that gave the mainland two hours warning of B-29 Superfortress attacks. Small Japanese fighters could launch from Iwo to attack these planes both coming and going causing unsustainable Air Force losses. Additionally, after the war, the Army Air Force concluded that Iwo-based planes had destroyed more B-29s on the ground in raids on Tinian and Saipan than were destroyed in all of the bombing efforts over Tokyo. In U.S. hands, the island would serve as a vital base for emergency landings of our bombers as well as a launch point for escort fighters.

In preparation for the attack, the Army Air Force bombarded the island with strikes from the air for seventy-two days in a row, the longest consecutive bombardment in the Pacific Theater, some 5,800 tons of bombs from 2,700 sorties. Amazingly, this seemed to have almost no effect as the Japanese hunkered down under ground, and the land defenses continued to grow. Howlin Mad noted, "We thought it would blast any island off the military map, level every defense, no matter how strong, and wipe out the garrison. But nothing of the kind happened. Like the worm, which becomes stronger the more you cut it up, Iwo Jima thrived on our bombardment." Indeed, the underground network continued to grow during the bombardment. Nearly 23,000 Japanese soldiers, most veterans of the war in China, were entrenched on the island in pillboxes, caves, and an enormous system of tunnels and caverns. A cool aerial photo can be seen here and a most excellent large image of a contour map showing the myriad defensive installations on the island prepared by the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area is on display here. Only two miles of coastline were suitable for landing, and the Japanese had heavily mined these beaches and trained various weaponry on the landing areas with calculated patterns of crossfire. When James Bradley visited the island for his book, he could still see markings on the cave walls where Japanese mortar crews had written trajectory angles to hit certain spots on the beach. None of the Japanese soldiers expected to get off the island alive. Their duty was to fight valiantly and kill the assigned 10 Americans for every Japanese soldier.

So Bradley sets up the Battle scene beautifully, and I knew that a brutal description would follow, yet I still was not prepared for the account of the battle, and I'm not going to try and reproduce it here. I'll only say that I've read no more horrific description of war and that I am truly awed at the bravery our Marines showed in looking out for each other and that human beings should never have to commit or experience such horrors. The first attacking waves were almost completely wiped out. The first four days at Iwo Jima killed more Americans than at Normandy and more than in five months at Guadalcanal. In the entirety of World War 2, only 353 Americans were awarded Medals of Honor. Marines would receive 84 of these decorations with an amazing twenty-seven awarded for just one month's action on Iwo, a record not beaten by any other battle in U.S. history. Bradley writes of a number of situations that garnered these medals, each one an account of almost super human bravery and selfless action. Many of the winners would die in the action that earned them this highest honor.

The flagraising itself was something of an anti-climax, greatly misrepresented in the press. The New York Times would describe the ascension of Mount Suribachi as some sort of raging battle, but the truth is far more surreal. After four days of monumental losses and fierce fighting, two patrols were sent to scout a path to the top of the volcano. Almost inexplicably, the many Japanese still housed in the networks of tunnels under the mountain did not attack, as the patrolmen were in dire fear for their lives. As the patrol that was able to scout a path to the top hurriedly came back down the mountain, Colonel Chandler Johnson decided that he would risk a larger force and send a platoon of 40 men to the top. Just before the forty man patrol left to climb the mountain, Johnson handed the patrol leader, Lieutenant H. "George" Schrier, something from his map case, an American flag, measuring fifty-four by twenty-eight inches. The colonel told Schrier, "If you get to the top, put it up." The key word being "if," as every marine in that platoon felt truly exposed and suspected the Japanese had just been waiting for a larger force to try the ascent before opening up. As the unit snaked up the mountain, all eyes on the island and even on the boats at see took notice. Doc Bradley was one of the forty and he'd later say "Down at the base, there wasn't one out of forty of us who expected to make it. We all figured the Japanese would open up from the caves all the way up to the crater," and his main concern was how he, as Corpsman, was going to be able to get the casualties down the mountain. When the group reached the top after a tense but strangely serene forty minute climb to the top. In one of my favorite passages from the book, two Marines could not resist the impulse to take a piss down the crater, and one said, "I proclaim this volcano property of the United States of America" Then orders were made to find a pole for the flag. Sergeant Louis Lowery would record the event for posterity in a staged photograph that's been largely forgotten as the "real" flagraising.

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As this shot was taken, a rumble of shouts and whistles rose from all the men on the island and the ships at shore. This was one of the more striking moments in the book for me, because I faintly recall that my grandfather once told me that he was one of those voices and that he saw the flag go up.

Bradley writes, "Thousands of Marine and Navy Personnel had been watching the patrol as they climbed to the volcano's rim. When the small swatch of color fluttered, Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Infantrymen cheered, whistled, waved their helmets. Ships offshore opened up their deep, honking whistles. Here was the symbol of an impossible dream fulfilled. Here was the manifestation of Suribachi's conquest. Here was the first invader's flag ever planted in four millenia on the territorial soil of Japan". Great prose, just a sample of the great language that brings the story to life.

Just moments after the flag went up, the mountain came to life, and Japanese snipers began to pop out of their holes. The photographer would tumble down the crater of Suribachi in the fight and break his camera, but thankfully the film made it. As the platoon worked for the next hour with flamethrowers and grenades to take control of the summit, the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was coming ashore to witness the final stage in the fight for the mountain. He was so struck by the moment that he dcided he wanted the Suribachi flag as a souvenir. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with Chandler Johnson who quickly decided that he would take the flag as a piece of battalion history and put together a group of soldiers just returned from a patrol to take up a much larger replacement flag (which happened to have been rescued from a sinking ship from the battle of Pearl Harbor). Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, and Franklin Sousey made up the group sent to the top and were joined by Rene Gagnon who was a runner for Captain Dave Severance, leader of Easy Company from which all the flagraisers (replacement flagraisers, that is) would come. They were followed up the mountain by a pair of Marine photographers as well as a wire-service photographer named Joe Rosenthal. They met Lowery on his way down who informed them he had already taken pictures and almost turned around but kept on up when told of the amazing view. The photographers got to the top just in time to find Strank's group looking around for a replacement pole which turned out to be a long section of pipe weighing 100 pounds. The soldiers wanted to put the new flag up right as the old flag was taken down by the original flagraisers. The flagraisers of the replacement flag struggled to find a good spot and the other boys hopped in to help them. It happened so fast that the photographers almost missed, and indeed Rosenthal's famous photo was a stroke of luck. He and another photographer were politely trying to stay out of each other's way, and by the time he realized the flag was being raised, he reeled around his camera for split-second shot, not even able to check the frame through his viewfinder. So it's a small miracle that we even have this image, what Bradley comes to term The Photograph:

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To the guys in the photo, and indeed to to all the Marines on the island, this moment meant nothing. It was just a replacement flag being put up, after all. Rosenthal gathered the Marines together afterward for a posed shot (versus The Photograph which was often dismissed as a pose though being whole spontaneous) which, having read about a lot of the guys in the picture, I like even more than the iconic image:

or this one from one of the other photographers which captures Rosenthal in the action of taking the previous picture.

When The Picture made it back to the states, it became instantly popular. Special editions were printed, color printings, frame-able printings - the public loved it as a symbol of victory and the indomitable American spirit. The reality being, however, that after 4 days of fighting, the struggle on Iwo Jima was far from over. Three of the flagraisers in the iconic photo would not make it off the island, and Bradley pulls no punches in describing the fighting that would go on for a month and pushing our soldiers beyond their limits. Easy Company of which the flagraisers were part would suffer 84% casualties. In all, America would suffer 26,000 casualties and all but 100 of the Japanese defenders would never leave the island (many of which killed themselves by holding grenades to their stomachs). A slaughter which would leave behind the Pacific's largest graveyards. To think that my granddad was there and that he would later also get through Okinawa indeed makes me feel so, so lucky that he survived and that my own father, myself,and, in turn, my own children even exist.

The later part of the book describes the travails of the surviving flagraisers, hailed as heroes and recruited into a huge bond sales campaign, would suffer as their fame threaten to eclipse their rest of their lives. Each of those guys knew that the raising of that flag meant nothing compared to the other happenings on Iwo and there was no reason beyond dumb luck that they were still around while so many of their buddies were not. They'd seen the worst that war had to offer, and back then there was no such diagnosis as PTSD. Largely, that generation kept it all bottled up, heroic and tragic at the same time. The story of each of the survivors is different and masterfully told.

Anyways, I give the book my highest recommendation and think it belongs on bookshelves and classrooms the nation over. I've ordered a copy for my pops for X-mas (the copy I received as a gift stays with me), and I hope he'll like it as much as I did. Vital and touching History, bravo, Mr. Bradley and eternal thanks to all those young Americans who served and serve their country.

But back to the comic I scanned for this post. I almost feel a little silly having a comic share space with such a classic as Flags of Our Fathers, but comics and pulps and other popular pubs are the prism I choose to view history through here on my blog and are not given their just due, so I don't know why I am even adding to the trend with such an apology. I don't blog too much on comics here on Darwination Scans mainly because comics are so well represented on scan sites and in the blogosphere compared to pulps and magazines. Still, I promise I have an equal love for the four color form and their value as texts for study and appreciation. The war comics of the golden age were often written by men had been there, and it's not fair at all to dismiss them as fluff or merely kid's stuff. The war comics of this period have taught me about battles of which I did not know and often have moments of pathos that could only come from artists and writers who saw the horrors of war firsthand. Great war comics like EC's Two-Fisted Tales or Frontline Combat or Warren's Blazing Combat (or even modern titles like Garth Ennis' War Stories or Jason Aaron's The Other Side) are not hollow endorsements of the glory of war but show war for what it is - brutal, senseless, sacrificial.

The frontispiece for today's issue from Fox, not a top-tier publisher from the golden age, though I do find many of their comics charming. I got this issue from a seller in the Philippines in an order with a couple of other much more scarce and pricey scanning-grade comics at a great price with the downside that they'd been bound into a four ring binder type of setup and were yet very dingy. The binding holes were pretty much right on the edge of the spine-side columns, so the issue required a lot of repair, but I'm pretty happy with the end result for what I started with. The pink inside front covers on the Fox titles is a nice touch that adds character to their comics:

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Ah, much deserved shore leave for the battle weary. In Europe, there was London and Paris, and in the Pacific, if a soldier was lucky, there was Honolulu or Australia, or maybe even a quick trip home. I like the writers use of the word "fattened," a little bit of leave before being thrown into the oven. This issue has an extended story (clumsily broken up by a short and out of place text feature on Robert Louis Stevenson and "Jarhead" a rather poor comedic piece) on a veteran's experience leading up to and during the battle of Iwo Jima. Like many seasoned Marines at Iwo Jima or Okinawa, our protagonist must adapt to the loss of a commanding officer and the tension between fresh recruits and those who had already faced the tests of battle:

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This relationship between the new officer and the veteran protagonist makes up the heart of the story, though the cover promises romance which arrives after this leave is granted. The hero, Rod, is a tough nut to crack, but Janet here knows how to play a Marine - call him out against those Army punks:

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Can love blossom in a time of war? Is this dame, such an obvious operator, for real or just looking for a good time? Love will have to wait because, before the two lovers can come to any conclusion, Rod is off to war. Island X revealed! The Navy, like the Air Force before it, thinks there will be nothing left for the Marines with all that ordinance they've launched onto that small island:

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But the going is indeed rough. One fresh recruit cracks up, and this new Captain Langly doesn't seem to be able to take it, either. Why, it's insubordination!!!

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Can the Captain pull it together? And what about love?! All questions answered in this issue of Spectacular Features. The story is a bit clumsy, but I did enjoy it, and, in its way, the comic addresses some of the themes of the Bradley book.

And before I leave the topic of WWII, a few more quick links. First, here is a very cool little publication, The Battle of the Aleutians - A Graphic History 1942-1943, I stumbled upon while looking up a bit of info on the net on the often overlooked war in Alaska, an illustrated pamphlet put out by Army Intelligence and penned by Private First Class Dashiell Hammett. No doubt, my crime fiction readers are familiar with Hammett (I've got a great Hammett-related scan I'll get up one of these days), and I was delighted discover the existence of this booklet. A little more info on the publication and Hammett's experience in the war is here. The scan comes from here. Many thanks to the gentleman who donated the publication and to the gentleman who scanned it and has hosted it, a real gem.

And another quick link. This comes from a friend whose father was also at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Bunker Hill. Here scans are available of many issues of the ship newspaper, The Monument. With features on sailors, war news, cartoons, fiction, and more, this is a very neat scanning project they've done which offers an intimate view of life on that vessel. Kudos!

Well, this ends my series on WWII scans, and I've enjoyed typing about my grandfather and the war very much, but I'm going to take a much needed detour into some lighter material over the next week or few before I get back to my series on editing scans, the nature of pulp, and finally my long-promised series on the birth of the girlie pulp. In response to the many emails I've received requesting more posts on 1950s and 60s wrestling, get ready to rumble...

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