By George Morris
Recently, the U.S. Marine Corps acknowledged it is investigating one of the most iconic images of World War II — Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s image of six men raising an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. For 71 years, that group has been thought to include Navy Corpsman John Bradley. Now, historians are calling that into question.
No one, however, questions the presence of Marine Pfc. Rene Gagnon. After that image hit the front page of just about every American newspaper, Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes and Bradley were pulled out of the war zone and taken stateside as celebrity spokesmen for war bond drives. The other three Marines — Cpl. Harlon Block, Sgt. Michael Strank and Pfc. Franklin Sousley — were killed in action on Iwo Jima.
A central Louisiana 19-year-old during World War II, Alyne Swayze Gray, had seen the photo. And, on May 30, 1945, she got to meet Gagnon.
She had been doing her part for the war effort by working at Camp Livingston and attending USO functions in Alexandria. USOs provided servicemen far from home a place to socialize.
“You’d meet some who were so wonderful, well-educated, and then some poor souls … but you had to treat them all alike, which I did,” she said.
That attitude may have been why she was chosen to serve as Gagnon’s escort when the war bond drive came to Alexandria on May 30, 1945.
“I got a call from the USO. I was very active in it, and the lady who was in charge of it called me and said, ‘Guess what? We’re having dignitaries to come in town for a bond rally. She said who and ‘I’d like for you to accompany Rene,’ ” she recalled.
The woman didn’t have to ask twice.
“It seems like they picked us up in an official Army car and we met them at the USO, and from there we went up Third Street in Alexandria, and they had bleachers set up. This is where they had the bond rally,” Gray said.
The rally featured Gagnon, Bradley, another Iwo Jima soldier not involved in the flag-raising and local dignitaries, all urging citizens to buy war bonds to support the effort. Those in attendance bought $80,175 in bonds, the Alexandria Daily Town Talk reported the next day.
All three soldiers spoke, and Gagnon and Bradley re-created the moment that had made them famous, planting the same flag that had flown at Suribachi — now scarred with bullet holes and frayed from high wind — at the rally while a band played the national anthem.
(This, of course, raises questions about Bradley’s participation in such events. Rosenthal’s photo was of the second and larger flag to be raised that day. Bradley participated in the first flag-raising. It is possible he did not realize the photo was of a different flag, or that he helped raise both flags.)
When interviewed 59 years later, Gray remembered few other details except that after the date was over, she found an envelope in her purse. In it was a signed note from Gagnon that read, “To a beautiful girl I’d like to know better.” She kept it as a souvenir.
Neither, however, contacted the other. Her future husband, Bataan Death March survivor J.S. Gray, was in a Japanese POW camp.
A Jonesville native, she moved to Alexandria and lived with a family friend who had arranged a civilian job for her with the Camp Livingston quartermaster. The USO was open on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Gray calls these times the “best days of my life.”
“It was wonderful,” she said. “They encouraged the servicemen to come there. We danced a lot. They had refreshments for them at all times, sandwiches and drinks, but you were not allowed to meet one there and leave. You were well chaperoned.
“I was very musical at the time and still love it. I played the piano by ear. If they hummed it, I could play it. I stayed at the piano most of the time, and they loved to get around the piano and sing. I like to dance. They had different stars would come and speak to the boys. It was kind of like a home away from home.”
When the war ended that summer, she returned home to Jonesville. Her fiancé returned after being liberated in September, and they married on June 14, 1946.
Appropriately enough, that was Flag Day. More about that in a later story about J.S. Gray.