I’ve spent this Memorial Day reading Flags of Our Fathers, stunned by the unimaginable horrors experienced by those who fought on Iwo Jima. This painting, which is based on the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, hangs in the Weslaco Museum. Weslaco, Texas, was home to the young man on the far right, the one anchoring the base of the pole. His name was Harlon Block. When his mother first saw the original photograph, she immediately knew it was her son, although it was several years before he was correctly identified officially. After the war, the man on the far left, Ira Hayes, hitchhiked from Arizona to south Texas to tell Harlon’s family what his mother had known all along–it really was him. She had changed too many diapers not to recognize her son’s rear end.
The battle for Iwo Jima lasted more than a month and most of it occurred after the raising of the American flag. The Japanese were entrenched in an extensive system of underground pillboxes and tunnels, and they fought to the death, refusing to surrender. More than 26,000 American men were killed or injured on the tiny island.
Harlon had entered the battle with the distinct impression that he would not survive. He had shared this presentiment with multiple friends and two of his siblings while he was on leave. They tried to encourage him and convince him otherwise, but the feeling never left him. Turns out he was right–six days after the flag-raising, he was killed in action.
Harlon had been a high school football standout. His letter sweater, shown below, is also on display at the museum. The Weslaco Panthers were conference champions his senior year, and all thirteen of the senior football players enlisted in the Marines in January 1943. The school held a special midyear graduation ceremony before they left for the war.
One of his senior teammates, Leo LaDuke, was the younger brother of my great-aunt, Golda LaDuke Roberts. She is shown below, pointing to Leo’s photo at the Weslaco Museum, of which she was a tireless supporter. When Harlon insisted that he wouldn’t be coming back home, Leo promised to name his son after him. And he did.
After the war, Harlon’s body was brought back to Weslaco. Later, his remains were moved to the Marine Military Academy in nearby Harlingen, where he lies near the Iwo Jima memorial monument that was fashioned after the famous flag-raising photo. The makeshift cemetery on Iwo Jima where he and more than 6,000 fellow Marines were first buried bore this inscription:
When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today