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Flags of Our Fathers

SUBJECTS — U.S./1940-1945; World/WWII & Japan;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS —Trustworthiness; Citizenship.

Age: 15+; MPAA Rating -- R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language; Drama; 2006, 135 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Description: This is the story of six Marines photographed while raising a U.S. flag during the WWII battle for Iwo Jima. The photograph evoked strong emotions in the American public and to this day serves as an iconic image of U.S. soldiers in combat.

Only three of the flag raisers survived the carnage on Iwo Jima. They were ordered home to serve as the major attraction for a national campaign to sell war bonds. As the three Marines toured the country, they were idolized as heroes. However, for them, the act of raising the flag was not heroic at all. There was no enemy resistance at that location and the flag was merely a replacement for the first U.S. flag flown over the island. The effort shown in the photograph was the struggle to lift a heavy metal flag-pole, not to defeat an enemy. To the flag raisers, the adulation they received was undeserved and the real heroes were their 6800 fellow Marines who died in the battle.

The movie explores the experiences of the six flag raisers in battle on Iwo Jima and the lives of the three who survived the fighting . . . lives played out in the shadow of "the Photograph."

Rationale for Using the Movie: Flags of Our Fathers provides vivid images of the battle of Iwo Jima and the massive bond drives used by the government to finance WWII. It is also an excellent platform for exploring:
    (A) the nature of heroism and the difference between heroism and celebrity;

    (B) the disconnect between what actually happened, which is often very complex, and the historical interpretation of events, which often simplifies what occurred; and

    (C) the creation of patriotic symbols and how they become important for what people read into them rather than as accurate representations of past events.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will be introduced to the battle of Iwo Jima, perhaps the most ferocious battle ever fought by U.S. soldiers in WWII and the bond drives used to finance the war. They will understand the three concepts described in the Rationale.

Possible Problems: The film contains sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and some profanity.



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


Additional Helpful Background:
      A Note on Historical Accuracy

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

"None of us are real heroes; we all just jumped in and lent a hand." John Bradley in interview, quoted at Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley, p. 266.

Helpful Background

The Battle of Iwo Jima

In February of 1945, the U.S. the Navy and the Army Air Force settled on Iwo Jima, a small volcanic island about 660 miles from Tokyo, as the next target for invasion. Iwo Jima, literally "Sulfur Island," was about mid-way between the Air Force bases in the Mariana Islands and the Japanese home islands. It contained air strips from which it was feared that Japanese fighters could harass B-29 bombers on their way to Japan or stage air attacks on the B-29 bases as they had done from November 1944 through January 1945. There was also a radar station on Iwo Jima which provided the home islands with early warning of air raids by U.S. bombers. The island would also provide a base for search and rescue operations for flyers who had to ditch their planes in the Pacific. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the island was strategic because in U.S. hands the airstrips on Iwo Jima would provide an emergency landing area for planes that were damaged or had mechanical problems on bombing runs to Japan.

The U.S. committed some 80,000 Marines, more than 500 Navy ships, and hundreds of planes, an overwhelming force, to what was code named "Operation Detachment." The U.S. controlled the seas and the air around Iwo Jima and subjected the island to substantial pre-landing bombardment. However, unknown to the U.S. the bombardment was virtually ineffective.

Defending the island were 18,000 - 22,000 well-entrenched Japanese soldiers who had gone underground building command posts, sleeping areas, bunkers, and artillery positions. These were both concealed and protected from U.S. bombardment. The Japanese had also built eleven miles of interconnecting tunnels. The artillery and gun emplacements were designed by the commanding Japanese general, Tamachiko Kurabayashi, to catch the Marines in deadly cross-fires. Iwo Jima was the outermost part of Japan proper, part of the district that included far-away Tokyo. While it was a sulphurous piece of rock where little grew and there was no source of water other than the rain, Iwo Jima was considered to be sacred Japanese soil. If the Americans occupied the island, it would be the first territory of the Japanese homeland to fall.

Japanese soldiers in WWII were expected to die for the Emperor rather than be taken prisoner, especially when defending a part of the Japanese homeland. On Iwo Jima, the primary goal of the Japanese military was to make the expected American victory so expensive in terms of lives and materiel, that the U.S. would decide not to invade the Japanese home islands, drop its demand for unconditional surrender, and enter into negotiations to end the war. This would leave the Emperor and the current Japanese government in control of the country. Another goal was to delay the American bombing of the Japanese mainland However, the Japanese military held no illusions that the defenders of Iwo Jima would be able to defeat the Americans.

In their first goal the Japanese were partially successful. Along with the fanatical defense of Okinawa, the Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima convinced the U.S. that an invasion of the Japanese homeland would result in several hundred thousand American soldiers killed or wounded. It also helped convince the Americans to compromise their demand for unconditional surrender by allowing the Emperor to stay, if only as a figurehead who provided legitimacy to the American occupation.

However, the high level of expected U.S. casualties in an invasion of the Japanese home islands did not drive the U.S. to the bargaining table. Instead, they served as a crucial and probably decisive reason for using the atomic bomb to end the war without an invasion. Of course, no Japanese government official could have anticipated this new escalation in the ferocity and destructiveness of warfare. In other words, the point made by the Japanese in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, that invasion of the home islands would cost many American lives, had an unintended result: the use of the atomic bomb on Japanese cities.

U.S. casualties in the battle of Iwo Jima were 19,200 Americans wounded and 6,800 killed for a total of 26,000 U.S. casualties. Of the 18,000 to 22,000 Japanese defenders, all were killed except some 1,000 who were captured. An estimated 3,000 Japanese held out in deep caves and bunkers after the island was declared secure and the Marines turned the island over to the U.S. Army. Almost all were captured or killed in May and June of 1945. Some four years after the battle, in January of 1949, the last two Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima emerged from underground and surrendered.

Iwo Jima constituted a failure of U.S. intelligence which had predicted that subduing the island would take only a week, underestimated the number of defenders by several thousand men, and missed the fact that General Kurabayashi had departed from the usual and previously unsuccessful Japanese practice of focusing on a shoreline defense. Instead, he built tunnels allowing troops to be moved underground and created hardened bunkers and artillery sites designed to catch invaders in devastating zones of cross-fire. For the Marines, this meant that their enemy killed them from unseen positions. The battle of Iwo Jima took 36 days costing the U.S. many more casualties than expected.

Some historians have questioned the validity of each of the reasons given by the U.S. for the invasion of the island. For example, the Japanese radar installation at Rota that also gave early warning of B-29 attacks on the Japanese homeland was allowed to operate until the end of the war. Perhaps this was because the radar could not tell the home-defenders where the bombers would strike once they reached Japan and that therefore the radar installation on Rota, like the one on Iwo Jima, was of no strategic value to the Japanese. As for the need to deny Japan the use of Iwo Jima's airstrips, there were few sorties from Iwo Jima by Japanese planes against allied bombers and the U.S. had air superiority which could destroy the airstrips and any planes parked at those airstrips without an invasion of the island. In addition, there was at least one other alternative for an emergency landing air-strip for the B-29s in a nearby island and many of the B-29 emergency landings at Iwo Jima were for minor mechanical issues that could have withstood a trip to the home base in the Mariana Islands. It appears that only 24,000 airmen were saved, rather than the 27,000 claimed by the Navy and the movie. Much of this criticism appears to be the clarity brought out by the unexpectedly high number of Marine casualties. Had the conquest of the island taken a week as originally estimated, the Marine casualties would have been a fraction of what they turned out to be and the cost/benefit ratio would have been drastically altered.

The Photograph

James Bradley in his book Flags of Our Fathers writes the following:
"Detached – liberated – even from the merely factual circumstances that produced it, the photograph had become a receptacle for America's emotions; it stood for everything good that Americans wanted to stand for; it had begun to act as a great prism, drawing the light of all America's values into its facets, and giving off a brilliant rainbow of feeling and thoughts." Bradley, p. 282

". . .The Photograph had transported many thousands of anxious, grieving, and war-weary Americans into a radiant state of mind: a kind of sacred realm, where faith, patriotism, mythic history, and the simple capacity to hope all intermingled." Ibid. p. 292.
The War Bond Drives

The 7th War Bond Drive shown in the film demonstrates how the government borrowed money from the American people to pay for the war. The drives were a mixture of patriotic fervor and carnival. They brought the nation together and gave a shared sense of purpose for the war.
National in scope, local in flavor, Bond Tours combined the old fashioned elements of vaudeville, the country fair, the Fourth of July parade. And they anticipated some of the flash and crowd-pleasing fervor that would accrue . . . to Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones….

This was the ponderous challenge -- and the incomparable excitement – of reaching a mass public in an age before television: a great roving road show that would personify the war's realities and deliver them to America's home precincts. An effort by the government to communicate almost face-to-face with as many of its citizens as possible, and to make its case for voluntary sacrifices, rather than simply confiscate the needed money through taxes. A gargantuan feat of popular democracy, the likes of which have since vanished from the culture. Id. p. 282


Introduction to the Movie

To fully appreciate the movie, students should know at least the following. For a written form of this statement suitable to be printed and handed out to students, Click Here.
Iwo Jima, which translates as "Sulfur Island" in Japanese, is eight square miles of volcanic ash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It has little vegetation, no source of water, and reeks of sulfur. The landscape is dominated by an extinct volcano, Mount Suribachi. While the island has no natural harbor, it does have room for several airstrips. Despite the fact that Iwo Jima is 660 miles from Tokyo, it is part of Japan and it was the first Japanese soil to be invaded by the U.S. in WWII.

In February, 1945, the Japanese had 18,000 - 22,000 soldiers housed in underground bunkers linked by 11 miles of tunnels. Their artillery was hidden and protected from bombing from the air and sea. Their positions were set up to allow the American Marines to land on the beach and then, as the Marines moved inland, annihilated them with zones of withering cross-fire. The instructions to the Japanese soldiers were that they were to kill as many Americans as possible and die without being taken captive. In the end, only about 1,000 Japanese defenders were taken prisoner and the remainder were killed, but not before inflicting a heavy toll on the Marines. The Marines suffered 26,000 casualties, of which 6,800 were fatalities.

The U.S. approached Iwo Jima with overwhelming force, 500 ships and 80,000 Marines. The U.S. also had control of the air. The U.S. effort was marred by intelligence failures which underestimated the number of Japanese defenders, the extent to which they were dug in, and the fact that the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima had changed tactics from resisting the invasion at the beach to trying to destroy the invaders from dug in cross-firing positions as they moved inland. For example, the artillery barrage from Navy ships and the bombing from the air that preceded the invasion were ineffective because the Japanese defenders were so well dug-in. U.S. intelligence missed this and estimated that the battle would take seven days; it took 36.

The Marines who fought for Iwo Jima faced a fanatical enemy they often couldn't see who caught them in devastating cross-fires. Iwo Jima was conquered not in any strategic broad stroke but yard by fatal yard. U.S. Admiral Nimitz summed up the efforts of the Marines on Iwo Jima by saying, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."
End of Handout.

What about Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima? This is an excellent movie with a simple theme: that the fanatical Japanese soldiers of WWII were people, too. In TWM's opinion that concept is not worth taking the class time to show a two hour film. See entry for this movie in TWM's Movies Without Guides.

An interesting twist: What would the photograph of the Marines raising a U.S. flag on a heavy metal pipe mean to one of the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima? Response: The pipe that the Marines selected on which to hoist the flag was from the pile of junk that they found on top of Mount Suribachi. That junk included the remains of the Japanese rainwater collection system now destroyed by U.S. bombing. Iwo Jima had no source of water and the Japanese defenders were forced to rely on rainwater. When the flag was raised, February 23, 1945, the remaining defenders of Iwo Jima, deep in their underground tunnels and bunkers were starting to suffer from lack of water. The fact that an American flag was raised using a pipe from the remnants of their rain-water collection system would have seemed grimly appropriate had any Japanese defenders witnessed it.

Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child and discuss the nature of heroism. See Discussion questions 1 - 3.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Discussion Questions:

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

A Fundamental Question: Do the dead make claims upon the living? Do the men who died at Iwo Jima make a claim on you? If so, what is that claim? Suggested Response: A good discussion will include the following: The dead do make a claim and that claim is to live our lives to be the best people we can be so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain. The dead cannot make a claim for vengeance because that will only result in an endless cycle of violence.

    (A) The Nature of Heroism and the Difference Between Heroism and Celebrity

1.   Why was it important to the three surviving flag raisers to stress that the real heroes were the young Marines who died on the battlefield? Suggested Response: It was a matter of honesty and loyalty. The flag raisers didn't think that raising the flag was anything consequential, and they didn't want to take the credit away from their buddies for sacrifices in the battle. It was a matter of loyalty to their friends in the unit and fellow Marines. Raising the flag was one of the few times that the Marines were not acting heroically during the battle of Iwo Jima.

2.   Do you agree with the three surviving flag raisers that the real heroes were the young Marines who died on the battlefield? Describe your reasons. Suggested Response: There is no single correct response to this question. A full discussion will include the following points: (1) Any soldier who landed on Iwo Jima and was able to force himself forward into the battle was a hero. As Admiral Nimitz said, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue" among the Marines who attacked the entrenched Japanese positions on Iwo Jima. (2) There were some who distinguished themselves beyond the heroism of most Marines by taking extra chances to save their buddies or to pursue the Japanese. Those Marines were given the Medal of Honor or the Navy Cross or some other award if their efforts were observed and if the observers survived. Of the three surviving flag raisers, only John Bradley, the medic, was given a medal. There were probably many Marines who performed just as heroically as those who were awarded medals but everyone who observed their exploits died and their efforts were not recognized.

3.   What is heroism? Suggested Response: Here is one definition: placing your life or your personal safety at risk for the benefit of a noble cause or to protect another person or persons. Heroism can also involve placing at risk or sacrificing something that you have worked many years to create.

4.   It is said of soldiers that they fight for their country but they die for their friends in their unit. What is meant by this and how does it relate to heroism? Suggested Response: Soldiers who enlist in the armed forces in times of war and put themselves in harm's way usually do so to protect or serve their country. However, soldiers move forward under fire because their unit is ordered to take a position. Their loyalty to their friends in the unit is usually the most important motivating factor in their decision to risk their lives. This is especially true with respect to actions of uncommon valor in which soldiers put themselves at special risk in a situation in which their actions are necessary to protect other members of their unit, such as falling on a grenade or rushing a pillbox.

5.   Evaluate the heroism shown by people in these three situations: (a) an ordinary citizen who risks his or her life by dashing into a burning building to save a stranger, (b) a fireman who does the same thing, or (c) a soldier who risks his life to save the buddies in his unit. Describe your reasons. Suggested Response: A good discussion will including the following: (a) The ordinary citizen is extremely heroic because there is no particular duty to act nor is there any personal relationship with the person being saved; (b) the fireman also doesn't have a personal relationship with the individual being saved; however, the fireman assumed a duty to save lives when he/she took the job although no duty was undertaken to risk his/her life to save another; the fireman may also have received some training in how to reduce risk when entering a burning building; arguments can be made that the employment and the training makes the fireman's heroism somewhat less than that of the civilian; it is still heroism; (c) soldiers do not have a duty to sacrifice their lives for the other soldiers in the unit, but they do have a duty to fight in the war; therefor, the soldier is both under a duty to protect the members of his or her unit and he or she knows them personally; it could therefor be argued that this makes the heroism of a soldier who risks his or her life to save others in the unit something less than that of a citizen who rushes into a burning building to save a stranger; however it all depends on the situation because a soldier who faces almost certain death for his or her actions, for example by falling on a grenade, is acting in a very heroic fashion. In summary, each of these actions are heroic. The actions in the hypothetical situations can be evaluated by three criteria: first, whether the hero has any personal relationship with the person he or she is trying to save; second, whether the hero has undertaken a duty to save that person; and third, the certainty and extent of the risk that the hero undertakes.

6.   What is the relationship between being a hero and being a celebrity? Suggested Response: A few heroes become celebrities. However, they are very few, and very few celebrities are heroes. In fact, people who seek publicity and either make money or obtain satisfaction in being a celebrity are not heroic at all. There is nothing about seeking publicity that is heroic.

7.   Why was the flag raising itself not a heroic act? Suggested Response: The flag being raised was just a larger substitute for the first American flag that had been flown on Mount Suribachi. It was the first flag that elicited the enthusiastic response from the Navy ships and the Marines on the ground. There was no risk in raising the second flag; the effort of the Marines shown in the photograph was in raising the heavy pole. At the site of the flag raising, there were no Japanese defenders trying to kill the flag raisers. The Marines risked their lives all the time they were in combat, but they were not in combat at the moment they raised the flag. In addition, raising the second flag, in itself, killed no Japanese soldiers nor did it secure additional territory for the U.S.

    (B) The Difference Between the Complexity of What Actually Happens and the Historical Interpretation of the Events;

8.   At the time of the battle of Iwo Jima, the U.S. was demanding that Japan submit to unconditional surrender. In other words, the U.S. was refusing to negotiate an end to the war. The Japanese government realized that it could not win the war but wanted to get concessions in negotiations that would, for example, leave the Emperor in power and protect the military from prosecution as war criminals. A key part of the Japanese strategy to get the U.S. to the bargaining table was making it clear to America that it would be very costly in terms of American lives to invade the Japanese home islands. The Japanese made their point on Iwo Jima and later on Okinawa; the Americans realized that there would be hundreds of thousands of American casualties in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Why didn't this lead to the negotiations that the Japanese hoped for? Suggested Response: The fanatical defense of Iwo Jima followed by the similar defense of Okinawa was successful in convincing the Americans that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be very expensive in terms of American casualties. However, this did not drive the Americans to the bargaining table to negotiate an end to the war. Instead, the expected casualties in an invasion of the home islands served as a crucial and probably decisive reason for using the atomic bomb to end the war without an invasion. Of course, no Japanese official could have anticipated this new escalation in the ferocity and destructiveness of warfare. In other words, the point made by the Japanese, that invasion of the home islands would cost many American casualties had an unintended consequence: the use of the atomic bomb on Japanese cities causing the deaths of over one hundred thousand Japanese civilians.

Finally, while there were no negotiations, the fanatical Japanese resistance did convince the Americans to make one concession: the U.S. allowed the Emperor to remain in place but without any power in return for his cooperation in ordering the several million soldiers still in the Japanese army to lay down their arms. A high percentage of these soldiers, as demonstrated on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as well as on other battlefields, would refuse to surrender and would fight to the death despite the fact that there was no prospect that Japan would win the war. However, they would obey an order from the Emperor to give up their arms. The U.S. offered, what was in effect, a face-saving gesture to the Emperor in return for something that was very much in U.S. interests.

    (C) The Creation of Patriotic Symbols and How They Become Important for What People Read Into Them Rather Than as Accurate Representations of Past Events

9.   What is the difference between the public's perception of the flag raising as shown in the photograph and that of the soldiers? Suggested Response: RESPONSE: For the public, the photograph symbolized the heroism of the Marines on Iwo Jima and of U.S. forces during the war. For the Marines, raising the flag (i.e., the replacement flag) was an inconsequential act. There was no Japanese resistance at the top of Mount Suribachi at that time; the Marines were in no danger when they raised the flag; they were not acting heroically when they raised the flag; no territory on Iwo Jima was won by raising the flag; and no Japanese defenders were killed by raising the flag. Raising the flag wasn't very hard, except that the metal pole to which the flag had been tied was quite heavy.

10.   Why does the public of any country need heroes and symbols of national pride? Suggested Response: Any well-thought-out response is appropriate. Here are some possibilities. People need something to aspire to. People need something to take pride in. For any nation, these symbols are necessary to reinforce morale and a sense of national identity.

11.   The movie tells us that in early 1945, the U.S. public was especially in need of heroes and symbols of national pride. What is it about the photograph that focused all that pent-up need into an explosion of patriotism? Suggested Response: It has the flag. It shows great effort. It appears as if the soldiers are resisting the enemy (when it was really just the weight of the metal pipe used as a flag pole). It shows soldiers working together to do something for the nation.

12.   What have you learned about the symbols of patriotism? Suggested Response: Symbols are what people read into them rather than accurate representations of past events.

For several additional discussion questions, click here.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.  Research and write a report on the war bond drives that the government used to pay for much of the Second World War. Comment on their social utility.

2.  History is what the present chooses to remember about the past. How does that statement relate to the photograph of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima?

3.   Write an essay describing two images or scenes from the movie Flags of Our Fathers that stand out in your mind. Discuss why they impressed you and how they relate to themes explored in the story.

4.   Write an essay in which you name and describe the protagonist(s) and the antagonist(s) in this story. Describe what happened to them and how that relates to the themes of the movie. Remember, the antagonist in a story doesn't have to be a person. It can be an idea, a thing, a set of circumstances, a part of the protagonist's personality, etc.' 5.   If there are students in the class who are musically inclined, have them perform the Ballad of Ira Hayes. See Ballad of Ira Hays sung by Johnny Cash, Ballad of Ira Hays sung by Johnny Cash, another version; and
  • Lyrics of the Ballad of Ira Hayes.

    See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

    For several additional discussion questions, click here.

    Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

    The flag in the photograph which flew over the first part of Japanese territory conquered by the U.S. had been salvaged from a ship damaged at Pearl Harbor. Official Marine Corps History of the Battle of Iwo Jima p. 8.

    Ira Hays was promoted to corporal after his return to his unit during the preparation for the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. He was awarded a Letter of Commendation with Commendation Ribbon for "meritorious and efficient performance of duty while serving with a Marine infantry battalion during operations against the enemy on Vella Lavella and Bougainville, British Solomon Islands, from 15 August to 15 December 1943, and on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, from 19 February to 27 March 1945." Ibid., p. 13.

    Corpsman John Bradley ". . . landed with the regiment on 19 February and just two days later earned the Nation's second highest award, the Navy Cross, for 'extraordinary heroism as a Hospital Corpsman in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima.' Bradley rushed to the aid of a wounded Marine, under intense fire bandaged his wounds, and then pulled the Marine 30 yards through heavy enemy fire to a position of safety. He served until wounded in both legs on 12 March by an enemy mortar shell, but refused evacuation until rendering aid to two other wounded Marines." Id. p. 14.

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    This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and was published on June 25, 2015.

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