The truth is weird.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote a column summarizing the research of an Omahan and an Irishman who believed — and could show — that what the Marine Corps, history books, a New York Times best-seller and a hit movie had long told us about the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo simply wasn’t true.
Eric Krelle and Stephen Foley’s research was startling, especially to history nerds like yours truly. It appeared to show that John Bradley, the famed flag-raiser and the father of best-selling “Flags of Our Fathers” author James Bradley, wasn’t pictured in that iconic photo. It showed that a previously unknown man named Harold Schultz, a Marine grunt who became an anonymous Los Angeles postal employee, appeared to be standing in plain view in the most-reproduced photo in American history.
The truth is weird, because the story came out and the Iwo Jima experts, including the “Flags of Our Fathers” author himself, did ... nothing. The Marine Corps brushed the story off with a short statement. An esteemed historian told me he would rather go fishing than look at the research.
And James Bradley himself, after we traded cordial phone calls and e-mails for months, and after I sent him a link full of photos seeming to show that his father isn’t in the famous photo and other information, told me he had decided not to look at any of that research.
I believe he dismissed it, as did the other arbiters of Iwo Jima truth, in part because they could.
Eric Krelle and Stephen Foley aren’t Ivy League historians. Krelle is a 40-year-old product design supervisor for Oriental Trading Co. who at the time of my 2014 column spent some of his work time designing specialty rubber ducks. The Barack Obama rubber duck. The Elvis Presley rubber duck. Foley is a employee of a building supply company in Ireland who started doing research on the famous photo because he was laid up on his couch after a hernia operation.
The truth is weird, because Tuesday night, I sat and watched James Bradley on the NBC Nightly News, telling the country that he now believed what the rubber duck designer and the Irishman with a hernia were saying back in 2014 — that he now too doubted that his dad was in the famous photo.
James Bradley told the New York Times that he changed his mind, sometime last year, when he sat down and read my 2014 column. He told the Times that he had waited a year to examine that evidence because he was working on a new book and then became ill.
“It wasn’t top of mind,” Bradley said in a telephone interview, the Times reported. “It wasn’t a priority. ... Now there’s interest in this, and I’m talking about it. I didn’t have the energy to carry the water all by myself.”
That’s somewhat different than what he told the Associated Press on Monday. “This is unbelievable,” he said of the Marines’ investigation, a day before his New York Times interview. “I’m interested in facts and truths, so that’s fine, but I don’t know what’s happening.”
And that’s more than he ever told me. Bradley declined an interview request on Friday, and didn’t respond to an email I sent him on Tuesday after learning that he was citing my column in his change of heart.
Dustin Spence, a filmmaker and one of the few military historians I could find in 2014 willing to go on the record, told me Tuesday that he empathized with James Bradley’s plight. Bradley spent months and years interviewing contemporaries of his father, men who were on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, the fateful day when AP photographer Joe Rosenthal pointed his camera at six men struggling to put a flag into the ground atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. All those men believed that John Bradley was in the famous flag-raising photo.
“And that’s his dad!” Spence said. “I really do believe (James Bradley) wants to know why his father was silent on this event. And I hope he’s getting to that answer.”
And, to be fair, things have changed rapidly in the past few days. The U.S. Marine Corps has confirmed — first reported by The World-Herald on Friday — that it is doing an official inquiry into the famed photo, presumably to try to figure out who is actually raising the flag, and who isn’t. The Smithsonian announced Tuesday that it is working on a documentary on the photo, has sent all of its research to the U.S. Marine Corps and has “since been working closely with the service as experts review the information,” according to a Smithsonian Channel statement.
“Forensic evidence appears to reveal a case of mistaken identity” in the famous photo, the Smithsonian statement said.
And this little Omaha story, which first appeared in print in this newspaper on Nov. 23, 2014, went insanely national on Tuesday: NBC and CBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post, all fighting each other for a story that until recently was so easily ignorable.
And I’m sitting here at my desk, thinking about truth.
People like to talk about the fog of war, and there’s undoubtedly some of that here. But what about the fog of certainty? For seven decades now, John Bradley’s presence in the photo has been true, undeniably so, a 20th century bookend to Paul Revere’s ride or Abe Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. It was true because the military and our history books said it was. It was true because it had always been true, until maybe it wasn’t.
I think it took a couple of outsiders, an Omaha rubber duck designer and an Irishman with a hernia, because only outsiders were willing to challenge that unchallengeable truth. Only they were willing to risk veering dangerously close to tinfoil hat territory.
And because they did that, we have somehow gone from an Irishman on his couch, and an Omahan on his home computer late at night, to a Marine Corps investigation, a Smithsonian documentary and the “Flags Of Our Fathers” writer publicly doubting a foundational fact underlying his book.
Listen up: No matter what happens, John Bradley is an American hero. As a Navy corpsman, he saved countless lives during one of the most brutal battles in American military history. He was awarded the Navy Cross, that branch’s second-highest honor for extraordinary heroism.
But he’s not in the photo, says Dustin Spence, the historian who has done much flag-raising research. He’s probably not in the photo, says his son, James Bradley. And yeah, he’s not in the photo, and Harold Schultz is, Stephen Foley has known for a couple years now.
I reached Foley in Ireland on Tuesday night, and he told me he was excited but also cautious. “I do not wish for any person or persons to be blamed for anything,” he wrote. “They were doing their duty.”
Eric Krelle can’t talk to me, because he has signed a confidentiality agreement with a third party. Foley can’t talk much more to me — he and Spence are working on a book on both flag raisings that day atop Mount Suribachi.
The outsiders aren’t being ignored any longer. It’s like they whistled into the wind for years, and then the wind shifted, and someone handed them a microphone and an amp.
They have somehow become insiders, the new arbiters of Iwo Jima truth.
Like I said. Weird.
The full photographic evidence laid out by Eric Krelle in our original 2014 story on the photo.