Uncovering the Secrets of the Flag Raisers of Iwo Jima
The raising of the flags in Iwo Jima is often considered as one of the most iconic moments of the Pacific campaign. Yet, the details of how the flags got there, as well as the identities of the men in the photo, have faded into history. Until now.
Eric Hammel’s new book, Two Flags Over Iwo Jima, explores this famed moment in American history. Below, he details his inspiration to write this unique and engaging book and provides an intriguing behind-the-scenes view of the challenges he faced in order to bring the story of the iconic flag raisers to world-wide attention.
At first I was only vaguely aware that a new Iwo Jima flag-raising brouhaha was taking place in 2014, but I deliberately ignored the proceedings for two years because I didn’t want to become mired in it myself. I made a good job of turning a blind eye, but the decision by an official panel of Marines to accept the mainly photographic findings of several amateur historians was, for me, like a bomb going off. Together, the amateurs proved the identities of everyone on both flag-raising teams and reignited the movement behind pushing for recognition of the nearly forgotten first-flag raisers to national—and even world-wide—renown. I felt I had nothing to offer the cause, but I did make an intense effort to get caught up on my reading of Internet-accessible articles and papers on the topic.
In November 2016—less than four months after the Marine Corps’ Huly Commission literally changed history by accepting new forensic data on both flag-raisings—a writer friend and I were discussing the takeaways from all the effort so many people had expended. At some point, my friend quietly suggested that I take a crack at writing a book on the narrow topic of both flag-raisings. No such narrative history had ever been written.
In that moment, I quietly felt my world change and experienced a powerful feeling of inevitability.
It turned out, as I asked historian friends whether I should actually write a book on the flag raisings, that there was almost universal agreement that I should. This support alone was so encouraging that I got down to working full bore on structuring the narrative I planned to produce. I started with reading articles about the gifted amateur historians who had undertaken the heavy lifting of getting the Marine Corps to act—what motivated them? Also, I had digitally scanned a huge number of official photographs several years earlier for a pictorial history on the fight for Iwo Jima. I found way more photos of flag raisers than I anticipated or really needed, but I quickly realized that nearly all of the participants and eyewitnesses had passed away by late Winter 2016. By the time I started piecing together the information I had, I knew of only one living player. I was a bit shaken by this news—nearly all of my narrative-driven military history books had relied heavily on my ability to ask questions of living participants, but seventy-three years had passed since the battle. I came down with serious concerns that my approach to writing books had become obsolete. I thought of quitting the project. But members of the Marine Corps military history community were inundating me with tapes, articles, more photos, etc., and I eventually came back to feeling that I was making progress while dealing with the new reality. (After all, no American Civil War soldier was alive in 2017, but plenty of Civil War narratives have been written without eyewitnesses who can answer questions.)
I had started piecing together the narrative on a positive note, but I came to loath the job when I began thinking I didn’t have the data to make it to book length—about 60,000 words. Then, by degrees, I came to love the book that inexorably continued to emerge from my improving sense of the story.
I knew that Two Flags Over Iwo Jima would be a thinnish book, or not even that, so I dug deeper and deeper into my expanding trove of data. At some point, now forgotten, I realized that I was going to get at least the thin book I had long seen as being doable. In the end, I chucked the idea of producing a proposal—a sales document—and just wrote the book.
At the time I closed in on completing the narrative history book, I was working with Casemate Publishers’ David Farnsworth on two unrelated book reprints. I had mentioned the flag-raising book to David and I was asked if I would submit it via the Casemate editorial department. I agreed, and the response was extremely enthusiastic. I decided to accept the offer (with a few alterations), and away we went.
I continued to receive help. Some of it, which I consider extremely important, arrived literally on the last day before my editors parted me from my task. That was in early February 2018, and the book was formally accepted—good to go—in March 2018.
I joined in on the editing process, selected, arranged, and captioned photos, helped with marketing issues, and generally helped out wherever I could. And now we are at the release of the book to the reading public.
To read the fascinating story of flag raisers, be sure to check out Two Flags Over Iwo Jima, due to be released in the UK in October, 2018.