New Hampshire

The Tragedy of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising

A radio battery and a heavy water pipe put Rene Gagnon in one of the most famous photographs ever taken: the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.

Rene Gagnon

Rene Gagnon

Gagnon, in hindsight, may have preferred to stay out of the picture.

Rene Gagnon was born on March 7, 1925 in Manchester, N.H., the son of French-Canadian parents. He worked with his mother as a millhand and as a bicycle messenger.  Still a teenager, he was drafted to serve in World War II in 1943.

Gagnon joined a military police company of the Marines and ended up at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii to train for an assault on Iwo Jima. The five-week Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the fiercest and bloodiest of the War in the Pacific.

On Feb. 19, 1945 Rene Gagnon landed with the Marines on Green Beach. Four days later he participated in the most celebrated flag-raising in history.

Marines had already raised a small flag on Mount Suribachi, a sight so inspiring that some of the troops wept upon seeing it. The battalion adjutant ordered a bigger flag raised. He sent a patrol to raise the larger Stars and Stripes, but they had faulty radio communications. Gagnon received an order to take a radio battery to the men.

Rene Gagnon, Celebrity

When he arrived at the summit, he saw their difficulty in raising the flag. The problem was the pole: It was a heavy Japanese water pipe. The men then asked Gagnon to lend a hand.

“So I just got into it,” he said.

Gagnon’s right hand is the third from the left holding the flagpole. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag-raising made Gagnon famous. He and the two others who survived the battle – Marine corporal Ira Hayes and Navy corpsman John Bradley — were sent home to appear in war bond drives. Gagnon then appeared in two films and a Rose Bowl halftime event, though he didn’t enjoy the limelight. He was promoted to corporal and honorably discharged in 1946.

Raising the flag, from a color film by Bill Genaust.

Life after the war didn’t work out for him. Jobs promised never materialized. Rene Gagnon ended up working as a janitor in Manchester.

Like fellow flag raiser Ira Hayes, he became an embittered alcoholic. He died young on Oct. 12, 1979 at the age of 59.

Click here for a video of the flag raising:

To Top