Memorial Day was established to honor those who have died in American wars. There are many images that people look to when remembering those who served, but few images are more iconic than the Marine Corps War Memorial that depicts the flag raising at Iwo Jima in 1945. For many years it was thought an Antigo native was part of that photo, but was he?
John Bradley was born in 1923 in the town of Antigo. He began his schooling in Antigo, but when he was nine his family relocated to Appleton. After graduating from Appleton High School in 1941 Bradley began an 18-month apprenticeship with a local funeral director.
In 1943, Bradley enlisted in the U.S. Navy and completed training as a Hospital Corpsman. In 1944, he was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force and received combat medical training to serve with a Marine Corps unit. After training, Bradley joined the 5th Marine Division and was assigned to Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment of the division. The 5th division saw its first combat at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Early on February 19, 1945, the first wave of Marines landed on the beach at Iwo Jima. Wave after wave followed. Bradley was with the ninth wave that landed. The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Pacific War's island-hopping campaign, and no one who was there escaped unscathed. Five days into the battle, the Marines fought their way to the top of Mount Suribachi. John Bradley was among them, and he was one of the soldiers who planted the first flag atop Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima. Lou Lowery of Leatherneck Magazine snapped a photo of him and others clutching the flagpole.
This is where the story takes an odd twist. The commanders below wanted the flag saved for posterity, plus they wanted a bigger flag up there that would be easier to see. A second flag was sent up, and a couple hours later this flag was raised. This time Joe Rosenthal of the American Press snapped the photo. This is the photo that hit the wire services, won a Pulitzer prize, and became the basis of the Iwo Jima Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington.
Seventeen days after the flag raising, John Bradley took a blast of shrapnel in his legs. He was evacuated and sent to Hawaii for recovery. During this time, the Rosenthal photo had become famous. No one had bothered to write down names when the photo was taken, and the Marines were scrambling to identify the men in the image. While recuperating in the hospital, the Marines approached Bradley and asked him if he had helped raise the flag on Mount Suribachi. He helped raise the first flag, so his honest answer was yes. He was publicized as one of the famous flag raisers and for the next seventy years was identified as one of the figures on the iconic image.
Except it was not him. The man thought to be Bradley was correctly identified in 2016 as Private Harold Schultz of Detroit. Schultz survived the war, lived until 1995, and only once privately admitted being one of the flag raisers.
Bradley moved to Antigo after the war, married, and raised a family. He disliked talking about Iwo Jima. Regardless of the misidentification in the famous photo, he was a flag raiser and earned a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross for his heroism. He died of a stroke in 1994.