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. Thousands of people pay their respects when his body is laid in state at the Arizona Capitol Rotunda. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Though many people believe that Ira's death was a result of the fame that he gained from the famous photograph, James Bradley believes that his alcoholism was caused by what would today be diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder caused from the battle at Iwo Jima.
Of all the six flag raisers, only Jack Bradley and Rene Gagnon had children, so James Bradley, the author, feels an instant connection with Rene Gagnon, Jr. He learns from Rene Jr. that his father never found peace, largely because of his mother, Pauline Harnois. Rene Gagnon worked as an airline clerk, an employee in Pauline's travel agency, and eventually as a janitor. Their marriage suffered because she was emotionally abusive; he once told his son that he felt trapped. He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, trapped in a janitor's closet. Though Rene was not eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Pauline threatened to generate bad press until the government agreed to bury him at Arlington.
In 1979, Chicago Tribune writer Mary Elson surprises Jack Bradley at work in the funeral home he owns. He grants her a ten-minute interview, in which he expresses regret that there was a flag attached to the pipe he put in the ground. She totally misses the meaning of his comment, but James Bradley believes it captures the plainness of the moment of the flag raising in contrast to the public's grand perception of it. She is the same writer who described the eulogy for Rene Gagnon at Holy Rosary Church.
In the 1980s, Dave Severance begins to organize reunions for the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima in Easy Company. Jack Bradley does not attend any of the reunions. He claims it is because he would not be able to be himself since he has been so singled out by the press for his role in the photograph, but James Bradley believes it is really because he doesn't feel like a hero at all. When the author was in third grade and asked his father to give a speech to his class, he remembers that his father answered, "Your teacher said something about heroes... I want you to always remember something. The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back."
James Bradley does not ask his father about Iwo Jima again until six years later. After a long silence, John Bradley begins to talk about Iggy and how the Japanese tortured him. He says that he visited Iggy's parents after the war and lied to them about how he died. The author now understands that later, when he studied abroad in Japan and asked his parents to visit him there, this is why they refused to come. As James Bradley learns more about Japan as he grows up, he becomes fascinated with it. His father listens in silence as he spouts defenses of Japan's involvement in World War II that completely conflict with John Bradley's experiences.
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. The "only photo he cared about" is put in his casket with him: not the one of the famous flag raising, but one of his family. After his death, his family learns that he was awarded a Navy Cross for his heroism on Iwo Jima and never spoke of it to them.
James Bradley includes the text of a letter his daughter Alison wrote as a fifteen-year-old high school student to her late grandfather, as the person she admires most. She asks him why he never told them about his Navy Cross, and why he kept so silent about his memories from Iwo Jima, knowing she'll never get an answer. Bradley ends the book with segments from the only taped interview his father endured, in 1985. John Bradley says, "People refer to us as heroes. We certainly weren't heroes. And I speak for the rest of the guys as well."
In these chapters, James Bradley switches into first-person narration, as he has at times throughout the book. However, here, as the book ends, he inserts more of his own analysis of events. For example, he rejects the notion that Ira Hayes's alcoholism was the result of his sudden fame: "What's also clear - to me, at least - is that the notion he died young as a result of his fame is just bunk. Today a battle-scarred Ira Hayes would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and there would be understanding and treatment available to him. But in the late forties and early fifties, Ira had to suffer alone. Suffer daily with images of and misplaced guilt over his 'good buddies who didn't come back.'"
Bradley also uses the technique of direct address often in these last chapters. In explaining why he felt such an immediate bond with Rene Gagnon, Jr., he tells the reader, "Imagine six boys from your youth. Line them up in your mind. They are eighteen to twenty-four years old. Select them now; see them. How many marriages, how many children will intersect their lives?" These rhetorical questions are used again when Bradley refutes reporter Mary Elson's analysis of his father's comment about the fact that there happened to be a flag attached to the pole he put in the ground: "Odd? Irrelevant? A casual afterthought? I don't think so."
The technique of short, dramatic sentences and sentence fragments emphasizes the tragedy of Rene's death, especially as it paralleled his situation in life: "No way out. No escape. He was fifty-four." The phrase "Simple as that," which James Bradley often heard his father say in conversation, is repeated to emphasize the first conversation Jack Bradley talked with James about Iwo Jima: "'I want you to always remember something. The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back.' Simple as that." "Simple as that" is repeated again as the last phrase in the book, explaining why the six boys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima were "not heroes."
Pauline Harnois is connected to the theme of the difference between perception and reality. She loves the fame that being in the photograph brings Rene, although he knows that the moment captured in the famous photograph was not indicative of the heroism that took place on Iwo Jima. Bradley draws the connection between Pauline's perspective and that of the American public: "Pauline was like the public: She embraced the idealized image, never grasping Rene's conception of the ordinariness of his action."
The American public's misconception is largely blamed on the representation of the flag raising by the press throughout the book. In Chapter 20, Bradley says, "Just as the inquiring reporter in Citizen Kane had missed the significance of 'Rosebud,' Mary Elson remained oblivious to the revelation John had handed her." His words draw attention to the continued stupidity of reporters in general when he relates Chicago Tribune writer Mary Elson's misconception of his father's quote about the chance of there being a flag attached to the pole they put in the ground on Mount Suribachi.