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Man in iconic Iwo Jima photograph was misidentified, Marine Corps acknowledges

Researchers say the Marine first from the right in the rear (mostly obscured) does not match the characteristics of Rene Gagnon.Associated Press/File/Associated Press

Private First Class Rene Gagnon of Manchester, N.H., has been celebrated for nearly 75 years as one of six Marines photographed raising the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi during the ferocious Battle of Iwo Jima.

After the fighting, Gagnon would point to a Marine in the iconic image of that moment, an infantryman largely obscured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of courage, esprit de corps, and love of country.

Gagnon told the world he was that Marine.

This week, the Marine Corps said he was not. A painstaking investigation conducted by the Marines and the FBI has concluded that Corporal Harold “Pie” Keller of Iowa, not Gagnon, had helped raise the flag on the Japanese island in the last, desperate months of World War II.


Rene Gagnon Jr., the Marine’s son, told the Concord Monitor on Thursday that he was “feeling somewhat betrayed by this.”

His father, who died in 1979 at age 54, undoubtedly knew the truth, Gagnon told the New Hampshire newspaper. “In my 20s or 30s, he could have sat me down and told me,” Gagnon said.

Instead, he added, “I got the choke in my throat” after hearing the news.

Gagnon, 72, said he will remain skeptical that the Marines got it right until he sees the digital evidence. Gagnon could not be reached by the Globe.

The error — the second involving the identity of the six Marines — was discovered by a trio of civilian researchers who became fascinated by the famous 1945 photograph by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.

Three years ago, an earlier Marine inquiry found that Private First Class Harold Schultz and not Navy corpsman John Bradley had helped raise the flag. Bradley’s son, James Bradley, wrote the best-selling book “Flag of Our Fathers,” which later became a movie, before the mistake about his father’s involvement had been rectified.


The Gagnon researchers used film and other photographs from the flag-raising to validate what had been a years-long suspicion that the New Hampshire veteran was not in the picture, said Brent Westemeyer, an Iowa man who has long been drawn to stories of World War II.

Rene Gagnon has been dead for 40 years.US Marine Corps/DOD/USMC via AP

“My grandfather served in World War I; my father in the Korean conflict. It’s just always been very interesting to me,” Westemeyer said.

Westemeyer said he noticed that Gagnon, 19, was more slightly built than the Marine in the photograph — the first from the right in the rear. The researchers also noted that the camouflage and creases in the Marine’s helmet did not match those in a photograph of Gagnon exchanging a larger flag for a smaller flag that had been raised there before.

The evidence from Keller’s helmet did match, as did his huskier body type. A reflection from a ring even was discovered, and Keller was married. Gagnon was not.

Westemeyer furthered his investigation by contacting Keller’s daughter, Kay Maurer, several years ago. The more he saw, the more he became convinced. In July 2018, the Marines were contacted with the findings.

A couple of months ago, Maurer received a call from the Marine Corps confirming what Westemeyer and the others had suspected. Her father — a telephone lineman who fought at Midway, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Iwo Jima — had been a hidden part of American lore for decades.


“I’m proud, and I’m excited, and I’m a little overwhelmed right now,” Maurer said Thursday.

Keller never mentioned his role on Mount Suribachi, where he became the second Marine to reach the summit, Maurer said. He almost never spoke to her about the war, either.

“If I brought up the war, he would get up and walk out of the room,” Maurer said. “When you think about how many friends and how many comrades that he saw get killed, it would be difficult to talk about.”

Of 40 men in Keller’s platoon, only three walked off Iwo Jima.

Gagnon and Bradley were pulled from the battlefield after the flag-raising and dispatched to the United States for a war-bond drive as two of the three Marines in the photograph who had survived the battle. They toured with Ira Hayes, a Native American who did help lift the Stars and Stripes in a month-long battle that killed nearly 7,000 Americans.

Through it all, Gagnon remained publicly silent about his true role at Mount Suribachi. In 1965, he wrote a three-part series for the Globe about his return to Iwo Jima for the 20th anniversary of the battle.

Used as a runner, Gagnon had climbed Mount Suribachi with the flag photographed by Rosenthal to replace the smaller flag, the Marine inquiry found. But he was not in the AP picture.

The news has puzzled veterans and others who ask how such an error could have passed for fact for so long.


“I haven’t completely processed this,” said John MacGillvray, 72, a Marine veteran who organizes an annual Iwo Jima commemoration at the Massachusetts State House. “For so many years, I thought it was Rene Gagnon.

“It’s a little surprising to me because if I were Rene Gagnon or Bradley, there’s part of me that would have known if I raised that flag,” MacGillvray said.

In announcing the correction, the Marine Corps praised Gagnon for his service on Iwo Jima.

“Private First Class Gagnon played a significant role in the flag raising on Mount Suribachi and his role will never be diminished,” the Marines said in a statement.

“He was directly responsible for getting the larger second flag to the top and returning the first flag for safekeeping. Without his efforts, this historical event might not have been captured, let alone even occurred.”

MacGillvray said Gagnon might have been pulled into an effort to boost homeland support for a war that had not yet been won. As far as the survivors of Iwo Jima knew, an invasion of the Japanese mainland was not far away.

“I don’t think there would have been any attempt to be deceptive,” MacGillvray said. “If the Marine Corps tells you, ‘You raised the flag, and you’re going on a bond tour,’ you’re going.”

To MacGillvray, the photograph is not about individuals. It’s about the Corps.

“These guys went in and defeated a very tenacious enemy,” MacGillvray said. “It doesn’t really matter who raised the flag. The fact is it was six Marines who raised the flag.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.