James Bradley, the author, recalls how he grew up knowing little about his father's war experience. John Bradley kept to himself regarding his memories of Iwo Jima, the flag raising, and what followed. After his father's death in 1994, James found a letter his father had written to his parents from Iwo Jima, calling the flag raising "the happiest moment" of his life. James decided to embark upon the research that would result in this book.
After completing his research, James traveled to Iwo Jima himself with his mother, Betty, and three of his brothers: Steve, Mark, and Joe. They flew to Iwo Jima from Okinawa with General Charles Krulak. They took a tour of the island, including a visit to the beach where many American soldiers died upon their arrival. They embed a commemorative plaque at the top of Mt. Suribachi, and James Bradley speaks about each of the flag raisers, about whom he knows so much after all his research: his own father, Rene Gagnon, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Mike Strank, and Ira Hayes. The family sings some of John Bradley’s favorite songs, and then leaves the island.
In Chapter 2, James Bradley introduces the reader to each of the flag raisers. John Bradley, his own father, was from Appleton, Wisconsin. His father, James J. Bradley, nicknamed "Cabbage," was a veteran of WWI. His mother, Kathryn, was very Catholic and influenced John to be also devout. When he was ten years old, his little sister, Mary Ellen, died after being badly burned. John decided he wanted to be a funeral director and enlisted in the Navy with the hope of avoiding land battle.
Franklin Sousley grew up in Hilltop, Kentucky as his mother Goldie's only son after the untimely deaths of his brother Malcolm and his father. Franklin is remembered by those who knew him as fun, daring, and silly. He was very handsome and always popular with the girls. After graduating from high school, he went to work at a Frigidaire plant in Dayton, Ohio to support Goldie, and was drafted in January of 1944.
Harlon Block lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas as the middle of six children. His mother, Belle, was not happy there; she preferred city life, but put up with her situation because Ed, Harlon's father, dreamed of farming. Perhaps as an escape, Belle became devoted to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and influenced Harlon to believe, as well. When the family moved to the neighboring town of Weslaco, Texas, Harlon does not return to his Seventh-Day Adventist school; instead, he joins the Weslaco football team. He becomes a star player, much to the chagrin of his pious mother.
Pima Indian Ira Hayes grew up on the Gila River Indian Reservation, the oldest of six children. His mother, Nancy, read to him from the Bible and made sure he was educated at the Phoenix Indian School. Everyone whom James Bradley interviews recalls him as quiet and noncompetitive. He enlisted in the Marines nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was ushered off to war with a traditional Pima ceremony.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, Rene Gagnon grew up as the only child of French-Canadian mill workers Henry and Irene. Irene divorced Henry after she discovered he was having an affair, and Rene grew up not knowing his father. Rene had a nondescript personality but was very handsome. His mother brought him to work at the Amoskeag Mills, which, although once thriving, were suffering by the time Irene worked there. He was drafted into the Army and before he left, he promised Pauline Harnois that he would marry her.
Mike Strank also grew up in a mill and mining town, that of Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania. He immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia as a child with his mother, Martha; his father, Vasil, had left three years earlier and had been sending back money from his job in the mines of Bethlehem Steel. After the Depression hit his mining town, Mike joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he worked until he was nineteen. He decided to join the Marines, though he could have avoided military service because of his Czech citizenship.
As James Bradley recalls his feelings after reading the letter his father wrote from Iwo Jima, he uses the technique of rhetorical questions. Here, they express his curiosity about the other flag raisers. There exist answers to these questions, and the book represents those answers. However, the rhetorical questions he poses later in the book often remain unanswered, intended only as introductions to more questions for the reader. Later in Chapter 1 as Bradley remembers exploring Iwo Jima with his family members, he wonders, "What must it have been like to crouch in that blockhouse and watch the American armada materialize offshore?"
James Bradley often mixes past and present in one sentence. As his mother, Betty, walks across the beach at Iwo Jima as an elderly woman, he imagines her as a young girl, the way she was when she first met his father, John. Throughout the book, Bradley often creates a feeling of timelessness by tying together images of the present and past. This technique also suggests nostalgia. He himself is a vessel of past emotion as he stands at the top of Mt. Suribachi, feeling invigorated as his father must have when he wrote that letter home to his parents.
One of the themes of Flags of Our Fathers is religion, and in Chapter 2 it is clear how religion influences each of the flag raisers in their childhoods. John Bradley and Mike Strank are devout Catholics. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church influences Harlon Block more than his other siblings, though he leaves his religious school to play football at Welasco High School. Ira Hayes lived just a few steps from the church in which his mother was an important figure.
Closely tied to the theme of religion is the theme of mothers, since the boy's mothers influence them strongly in matters of religion. After the death of her young daughter Mary Ellen, Kathryn Bradley concentrates on raising John devoutly Catholic; Mike Strank's Catholic faith is also the result of his mother's influence. Goldie Sousley and her son, Franklin, are extremely close after the deaths of his brother and father. Belle Block strongly opposes Harlon's joining the football team, but her influence on him in terms of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs is clear. Ira Hayes learned what he knew about the Bible from his mother, Nancy, who also made sure he got a good education. Likewise, Rene Gagnon's mother is the most important person in his life until he marries Pauline Harnois. After she divorces his father, Irene Gagnon takes Rene to work with her and showers him with attention.
James Bradley uses the technique of personification to paint a picture of the world in which the flag raisers grew up. The flag raisers are connected to America as a whole: "All of them together illuminated a great deal that was wonderful and innocent in an America that was soon to leave behind its own childhood forever." As he describes Hilltop, Kentucky, where Franklin Sousley grew up, he notes, "The hollows swallow up people, even history."
Because much of his research involved interviews, James Bradley often uses the characterization technique of description by other people. Franklin is described as fun, daring, and silly by those who knew him while he was growing up. The use of direct quotes enhances the picture of what he might have been like. Likewise, Mike Strank is described as "A Marine's Marine" by those who served with him.