Nicholasville author Donald R. Curtis never met Franklin Sousley, but he says he feels a strong kinship for the Iwo Jima flag raiser after writing a book about him.
"I went to bed with him and got up with him for about four years researching the book," Curtis said. "I feel like I know him pretty well.
"He was just a country boy who grew up on a farm like me. But he will live forever because he ended up in the middle of the most famous photograph of World War II."
That indelible picture shows Fleming Countian Sousley and five of his buddies, straining to raise an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.
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It might be the most reproduced photograph in history. It has graced the covers of numerous books and appears in virtually every documentary film and history of the war. The image also provided the design for the sculpture at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., a must-see stop for almost every visitor to Washington, D.C.
Curtis' book, Uncommon Valor ... Uncommon Virtue: The Franklin R. Sousley Story, offers a simple and direct account of Sousley's brief life. Produced by Bearhead Publishing in Brandenburg, it is Curtis' second book.
Sousley spent his early childhood in a house without electricity or running water. He lost his father at about age 8, and went off to war as a 19-year-old Marine promising to become a hero. He was immortalized in a single, 400th-of-a-second camera exposure.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was distracted and almost missed the shot, only clicking the shutter of his bulky Speed Graphic camera at the last instant. Whether by fate or good luck, the picture was perfect.
The six flag raisers were Marines Ira Hayes and Sousley, U.S. Navy Corpsman John Bradley and Marine Harlon Block, shown in front in the famous photo. Behind them in the picture were Marines Michael Strank and Rene Gagnon. None of their faces is clearly visible.
Sousley never saw the famous photograph. He was killed by a sniper's bullet on Iwo Jima just days later. Strank and Block also didn't make it home.
Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon survived, returning to America as national heroes. But Hayes and Gagnon struggled with demons that followed them home. Only Bradley "came back OK," Curtis said.
That's just one of the ironies, myths and controversies that Curtis explores in his short book.
There was, for example, the debate over the photograph, which some critics accused Rosenthal of staging.
"He didn't do that," Curtis said. "But he had to keep defending himself, probably for the rest of his life."
Then, there was the confusion over who actually was in the picture.
Marine officials initially listed Henry Hansen as one of the flag raisers. Not until 1947 did they confirm that Harlon Block had been misidentified as Hansen.
More than 18,000 Japanese died on Iwo Jima, and 6,800 Americans were killed. Some critics later argued that capturing the island was unnecessary and not worth the cost.
Post-traumatic stress disorder was unknown in 1945. But Curtis said he's convinced the Iwo flag raisers probably suffered from it.
"I think many of them struggled with the aftereffects," he said. "You go through what they went through, and it would have to be with you for the rest of your life."
In his final letter home, Sousley told his mother, Goldie Sousley Price, to watch for his picture in the news because he had "helped put up the flag." Goldie Price never recovered from the news of her son's death, Curtis said.
Curtis, 70, is retired from the granite business. He grew up in Nicholas County about 30 miles from Sousley's Fleming County home. Curtis heard stories about Sousley as a child, and once visited Sousley's grave.
Only later did he fully appreciate the country boy's sacrifice. Curtis decided to write a book because the 70th anniversary of the Iwo Jima flag raising was coming up this year.
Uncommon Valor ... Common Virtue is available for about $15 at Joseph Beth. It can also be ordered through Amazon.
Curtis said he thinks it's fitting that none of the flag raisers' faces can be seen in Rosenthal's photograph, leaving them both known and anonymous.
"Ira Hayes always said that any six guys who were on that mountain could have been in the picture. It just happened to be them," Curtis said. "They're just six soldiers, really, representing everybody who was in that battle."