John Bradley kept to himself regarding his memories of Iwo Jima, the flag raising, and what followed. As a result, in order to write this book, his son, James, set out to research the lives of his own father, from Appleton, Wisconsin; Rene Gagnon, from Manchester, New Hampshire; Harlon Block, from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; Franklin Sousley, from Hilltop, Kentucky; Mike Strank, a Czech immigrant raised in Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania; and Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from a reservation near Phoenix, Arizona.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America's attitude toward the war changed; now Americans were involved in a "two-ocean war." American citizens jumped at the chance to make sacrifices for their country. Mike Strank enlisted in the Marines before America entered the war. Ira Hayes surprised his Pima tribe by enlisting in the Marines, since the Pima were a peaceful people, and became a USMC Paratrooper. Harlon Block enlisted with his entire Weslaco High football team, much to the chagrin of his mother, Belle, a Seventh-Day Adventist. Jack Bradley decided to enlist in the Navy, in hopes of avoiding battle. Rene Gagnon enlisted at the age of seventeen in May 1943. As members of the Raiders outfit in the Pacific, Mike Strank, Ira Hayes, and Harlon Block fight at Bougainville. After a stunning victory at Tarawa, "Howlin' Mad" Smith gains confidence in the valor of the Marines and focuses on planning amphibious assaults.
The six flag raisers train at Camp Pendleton, a huge Marine training camp between Los Angeles and San Diego, where they are assigned to the 3rd Platoon of the 28th Regiment, nicknamed Easy Company. Doc Bradley meets Ralph Ignatowski, or Iggy, who had forged his urine sample to enlist, and who became his "buddy" to keep track of in combat. The six flag raisers are transported to "Island X" on the USS Missoula, along with 1,500 troops, including all of Easy Company. It is imperative for the Americans to take Iwo Jima, since the Japanese military stationed there is shooting down the American planes on their way to bomb the Japanese mainland. Lieutenant General Kuribayashi and 22,000 Japanese soldiers have constructed an incredible network of underground tunnels and rooms on the island, with blockhouses on the surface made of concrete and steel, camouflaged with sand. The maps used for US reconnaissance had no way of detecting the underground world that awaited the American troops. On the morning of February 19, 1945, the Marines arrive at Iwo Jima. After about an hour of silence, the devastating defense begins.
The Marines are bombarded by Japanese mortar fire throughout the nights, as well. Doc Bradley runs through the chaos, tending to his fellow Marines being blown to bits around him. Platoon Sergeant Ernest Boots Thomas identifies the weak spot in the defensive line on Suribachi and leads the breakthrough to the mountain. On the fourth day of fighting, American Marines surround Mount Suribachi, and they can hear the enemy moving and talking beneath the ground. As night falls on the fourth day of fighting, and the news reaches the Japanese navy guard headquarters as well as Harry the Horse Liversedge that Mount Suribachi has fallen.
On the fifth morning of the Marine’s time on Iwo Jima, a patrol ascends Mount Suribachi unhindered by enemy fire to raise an American flag. Rene Gagnon is sent up with a replacement flag, since Chandler Johnson does not want the Secretary of the Navy to get his hands on the original. The six flag raisers put up the replacement flag without any pomp; this flag is not nearly as important, in their opinions, as the original. Joe Rosenthal, a photographer from the Associated Press, captures the moment with his camera, though he is unsure that it came out well. The photograph is published Sunday, February 25, and Americans are captivated. The New York Times begins publishing misleading stories and photographs that support the false idea that the Marines struggled through terrible firefights to the top of Mount Suribachi and raised the flag in the photo under duress.
Though the Americans have raised their flag on the top of Mount Suribachi, the battle on Iwo Jima lasts for four more weeks. Mike Strank is killed when a shell explodes while he is about to draw an escape route in the sand for his men. Hank Hansen dies in the arms of Doc Bradley, who tries to save him after a bullet wound through his abdomen. Not long after, Harlon Block dies, though a letter to his mother, stating that he was just fine, has not yet left the island. Franklin Sousley dies when he wanders into an open road and is shot in the back. Iggy's body is found inside a cave. He has been tortured horribly before being killed, and Jack Bradley has to clean up what remains of his body. When asked to help with the identification of the flag raisers in the photograph, Rene Gagnon mistakes Harlon Block for Hank Hansen and does not notice Ira Hayes as one of the participants.
President Roosevelt sends orders to the Marine headquarters in the Pacific that he wants the six men who appear in The Photograph to be transferred home in order to participate in the Seventh Bond Tour. Soon after the President's death, Ira and Jack arrive in Washington, D.C. Ira has made note of the misidentification of Harlon Block during his briefing at the Marine Barracks, but has been ordered by an officer not to say anything. The Seventh Bond Tour begins, and throughout its duration, the boys refuse the press's encouragement to portray themselves as heroes, rather insisting that they are not special among all the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. Ira becomes an alcoholic and is eventually sent back to military duty. The bond tour exceeds all expectations, earning $26.3 billion. Rene is granted leave, and marries Pauline Harnois before being sent back to San Diego.
Jack Bradley returns to Appleton, Wisconsin, and eventually marries Betty Van Gorp. Rene Gagnon returns to work in the mills in Manchester, New Hampshire with Pauline, his new wife. Ira returns to his life on the Pima reservation near Phoenix, Arizona, performing odd jobs and working in the fields. In May of 1946, he makes a spontaneous trip to Weslaco, Texas, to tell Ed Block that it is, in fact, Harlon in the famous photograph, not Hank Hansen. Meanwhile, the press covers his frequent incarcerations with ruthless attention. The Chicago Sun-Times, in particular, stages a media stunt of "saving Ira Hayes," and Ira is pressured to play along. Dean Martin's wife, Elizabeth, hires Ira as her chauffeur and babysitter for her children after reading about him in the Sun-Times, but he blows his chance at a normal life by being sent in jail again. He returns home to Arizona and continues drinking. A week before Christmas in 1954, Ira is arrested for the fifty-first and last time for his drunkenness. About a month later, he is found dead in the snow after getting in a fight over a card game.
Rene Gagnon works as an airline clerk, an employee in Pauline's travel agency, and eventually as a janitor. Their marriage suffers because she was emotionally abusive, and he dies of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, trapped in a janitor's closet. In 1994, John Bradley dies after suffering a stroke. Many people come to his wake at his own funeral home, and nobody remembers him for his role in the famous photograph; rather, for his involvement in the community and strength as a man.