An order to carry a radio battery and a flag up a hill involved Rene Gagnon in one of the most famous photographs ever taken: the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.
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 the bigger flag and the 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.
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.
Life after the war didn’t work out for him. Jobs promised never materialized. He opened a travel agency and did some accounting, but 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. (Johnny Cash tells the story.)
According to Flags of Our Fathers, he kept an inventory of promises unkept.
“I’m pretty well known in Manchester,” he told a reporter. “When someone who doesn’t know me is introduced to me, they say ‘That was you in The Photograph?’ What the hell are you doing working here? If I were you, I’d have a good job and lots of money’.”
The U.S. Marine Corps subsequently conducted several investigations to confirm the identities of the flag raisers. Gagnon was thought to be third from the left, with his right hand visible holding the flag. In 2019, the Marine Corps determined Cpl. Harold Keller, not Rene Gagnon, appeared in the photo.
Gagnon, though, did participate in the lowering of the first flag, and he returned the first one for safekeeping.
His body now lies in Arlington National Cemetery. A monument to him in Manchester’s Victory Park includes something else he said:
Do not glorify war. There’s nothing glorious about it.
Click here for a video of the flag raising: http://bit.ly/1hzTXgV. Image of the lowering of the flag, By USMC Archives from Quantico, USAPhotograph by PFC Robert Campbell, credited in Leatherneck magazine, August 2016, page 31 – Moments after the second flag raising, February 1945, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83922564. This story was updated in 2022.