Day Trips

The real Flags of Our Fathers rests in Harlingen

Flags of our fathers
Flags of our fathers (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen predates the famous Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, by several years. The 32-foot statue topped with a 78-foot flagpole was a powerful sight, even before the new Clint Eastwood-directed movie cast the spotlight on the events of Feb. 23, 1945, on a small island in the Pacific Ocean.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the picture, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, almost by accident as the six Marines were replacing a smaller flag with a larger one. He later said that if he had staged the photograph he would have done it much differently, and it would not have become one of defining images of World War II.

At the instant that he snapped the picture, Rosenthal could not have known that the men were as indicative of a cross section of American youth as he could have found on the Japanese island. Three of the six were killed on Iwo Jima. The fame that resulted from being in the photograph on the summit of Mount Suribachi resulted, or at least contributed to, the early death of one of the survivors. Only two lived to old age, which gave us the basis for the Eastwood movie.

Dr. Felix Weihs de Weldon, the Austrian-born sculptor of the statue, began working on a scale model within days of seeing the Rosenthal photograph. Using the three survivors and photographs of the three who died in action as models, de Weldon took nine years to create the 100-ton bronze statue that is on display outside of Washington, D.C. The Nov. 10, 1954, dedication of the monument was the last time the three survivors were photographed together.

What we have in South Texas is the original, full-sized plaster model created by de Weldon that was used for the bronze casting. After languishing in a warehouse in Upstate New York, in 1981 the artist donated it to the Marine Military Academy, a college preparatory school and summer camp for boys.

The size and detail of the statue in Harlingen, officially named the Iwo Jima Monument, are breathtaking. The 32-foot soldiers with 16-foot rifles overshadow the tanks and artillery guns that sit outside the military museum on the other side of a gravel parking lot. The larger-than-life faces of the Marines stare down at visitors with a steely resolve that was absent from the original photograph but that captures the spirit of the moment in a way that brings a cold chill to the tropical air. The three-dimensional rendering of the picture in such a large size is a powerful and moving experience.

A nearby headstone marks the final resting place of Harlon Block, one of the six Marines caught by Rosenthal's camera. Born in Yorktown, Block enlisted in the service right after graduating from Weslaco High School and landed on Iwo Jima five days before his famous trip up Mount Suribachi. He was killed by a mortar blast a week after the photograph was taken.

Originally, the government identified the soldier holding the base of the flagpole as Harry Hansen of Boston. When Block's mother saw the photograph she correctly identified her son even though his back is turned to the camera. Eighteen months later, a congressional investigation agreed and Harlon Block received his place of honor.

None of the soldiers in Rosenthal's iconic photograph saw themselves as heroes, but to a nation exhausted by the horrors of war, it was a moment of pride as the image flashed across the front pages. More than six decades later, the image still conveys the meaning of the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers and their families.

The Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen is at the entrance to the Marine Military Academy on the north side of Harlingen at Loop 499 and 25th Street (FM 507) near the airport. The military museum and gift shop are open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm and Sunday 1 to 4pm. For information, call 800/365-6006, or go to www.mma-tx.org.


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Iwo Jima Monument, Joe Rosenthal, Felix Weihs de Weldon

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