Death Masks from Iwo Jima and Beyond
23 February 1945: US troops have raised the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima four days after landing on the Japanese-held volcanic island. The 28th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division took Mount Suribachi at 1030 local time. The extinct volcano offers a strategic vantage point for the ongoing battle for control of the island.
They called me Jew-boy, despite my crucifix,
wanted the Pulitzer taken back—claimed
I'd staged it all. The shot? A lucky one,
my f-stop in a flirt with 8 to 16.
No time to focus—still, I fixed six youths
in black and white. Days later, another shot,
a mortar round, would blast the sergeant's heart
to bits. I thought of his folks and hoped they saw
how I caught his hand helping a younger guy's
heft the pole. Communion—that's the soul
of the moment, if you have the eye for it.
They'll say a mortar blew my heart clean out.
No. It bloomed out like those platter-flowers
I hoped to see on R & R and write
the folks about. Dream curtain. Passing through
sprouts words from seeds, so eloquent the shift
from sudden pain to this insight, petal drift.
If I'd known back then I was always meant for blossom,
I'd have opened slow and turned more to the sun
to sing my stamen. Uprooted as a Czech.
Transplanted young to Pennsylvania soil.
Flowered in the national pastime. Why, that day
I slugged one over the Points Stadium fence,
they hollered "Hero!" How that ball's arc spread!
Like pollen. Now I'm pollen, spreading, arced.
In that first caption, they mistook my son
for another. Didn't want the squirm it took
to right their wrong and left us little else
to honor him. 'Told them I'd changed enough
diapers on that butt to know my boy.
It took the Indian kid to hunt us up
after he was ordered to keep still
about their error. Down the dirt road on foot
he came to spit their lie in Texas dust.
Ira Hayes dwells in my heart and prayers
for giving Belle's boy Harlon back his name.
At headquarters, they grilled me on the photo.
I wouldn't tell the Indian's name at first.
He said he'd kill me if I ever did—
something in that redskin hated fame.
Orders is orders, so I had to tag
him when commanded. Ruined his life, they say.
I'll tell you ruin! Once I played myself
in a flick starring The Duke. They promised me
the moon but gave me moonshine and small change.
I was the only Navy man. I tried
to explain I just jumped in to lend a hand.
The flag was heavy—its lesson heavy, too:
the only heroes are the ones who don't
come back. My buddy Iggy—what was done
to him—his eyes, tongue, fingernails torn out.
After that, quick bullets held no fear.
I came back honed to run a funeral home.
War taught me how to honor broken bits
in death. I never asked to be an idol
in black and white. When I was well and gone,
then my kids learned about the Navy Cross.
I never left the Res before.
Not until an elder told me joining up
would bring home honor to the Pimas.
Honor? Once the photo learned my name,
it set me to hawking war bonds.
This brings no peace to those who took your place in death.
You can hide from shame in a bottle
and learn from it how to turn liquid and spill away.
Find a couple inches of ditch water.
Open your lungs like the wings of the hawk
who has nothing to do with sell.
The flag loft at Mare Island shipyard.
They say I'm the one who made it there.
Was it my fingers worked the silk—or
just my name took to plunk woman's face
on war? Well, this much I know: Mabel—
not some Kilroy—was here. Remember.