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Vets give a salute to `Flags'

Clint Eastwood's movie gets it right, says an audience of men who were at Iwo Jima.

October 21, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It won't be the largest audience to see "Flags of Our Fathers," director Clint Eastwood's take on the bestselling book of the same name.

But it was probably one of the more attentive. And it was certainly the most knowledgeable.

Several dozen former Marines and sailors who participated in the World War II battle of Iwo Jima gathered at a movie theater here last week for an early preview of the film portraying that battle. It was a quiet crowd, although occasionally a veteran could be heard stage-whispering to his wife or to the friends who joined them: That's what it was like.

And at the end, when the filmmaking gave way to a collage of historic photos on the screen, the already subdued audience became even more hushed. No one left until the pictures were finished and the lights were turned on.

Like the book, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers, the movie captures the horror of the battle in early 1945 that lasted more than a month and cost more than 6,800 American lives and more than 20,000 Japanese.

Book and movie -- which opened Friday to critical acclaim -- both attempt to demystify the flag-raising picture taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, considered the defining image of World War II.

Hy "Doc" Rabeck, 83, a Navy corpsman who had been in combat in North Africa, Saipan and Tinian before Iwo Jima, was particularly pleased with how "Flags" portrayed the Navy medics who follow Marines into combat.

The lead character, played by Ryan Phillippe, is John "Doc" Bradley, a Navy corpsman who helps raise the flag and is sent home to participate in a bond drive as the War Department seeks to capitalize on the surviving flag-raisers' fame.

"The corpsman [character] was exactly right, the guys on the beach were depending on us," Rabeck said. "You'd hear a scream, 'Corpsman,' and then another scream, 'Corpsman,' and you were on the run again."

Tickets were dispensed to mark the gravely wounded for immediate evacuation. "They gave me 50 tickets. They were gone in the first three hours."

The movie also captured the sense of dread felt by troops as they waited to assault a rocky, heavily fortified island, the veterans agreed.

"We could see it was strictly a suicide mission," Rabeck said. "We knew that most of us wouldn't be coming back."

While some movie-goers might be squeamish at scenes of blood and death, the veterans found them realistic, even vital.

"As we got out of the landing craft, I saw eight dead Marines, right at my feet," said retired Master Sgt. William Behana, 81, who was a 19-year-old private when he landed on Iwo Jima. "Nobody has good memories of Iwo Jima."

As realistic as the combat scenes are, the veterans agreed, they lacked an essential element: the stink of sulfur -- the island is volcanic -- and of rotting bodies.

"Many of the Japanese bodies had been laying there for weeks, and our guys sometimes laid there for days," said James Shriver, 80, then a Marine private. "Only if you were around 100 dead bodies could you get the true smell of Iwo Jima."

Two of the former Marines appreciated "Flags' " fidelity to other key facts.

Retired Marine Col. Dave Severance, a company commander on Iwo Jima, said he was glad Eastwood included that the flag in the famous picture was the second one raised on Mount Suribachi and that the first flag was removed because Navy Secretary James Forrestal wanted it to take back to Washington.

Many history books say the second flag was needed because the first flag was too small and could not be seen. Not so, said Severance.

"The Marine Corps for 61 years has been saying the first flag was too small," said Severance, 87. "This should put the story straight."

Severance is portrayed by Neal McDonough in the movie, but he doubts whether his brush with Hollywood will make him break a vow he made after the fighting was over.

"I try not to think about Iwo Jima too often," he said. "I think it was worthwhile, that we had to fight it, I just don't want to think about all the men we lost."

"Flags" also tells of the torture and death of Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (played by Jamie Bell) after he was captured by the Japanese and the agony of "Doc" Bradley at the loss of his buddy.

James Scotella, 81, a Marine private at the time, also knew Iggy and recalled seeing his body. The gruesome condition of the corpse was a symbol of the savagery of the fight on Iwo Jima. He was grateful both that the scene was included and that the director chose not to exploit the kind of torture Iggy endured.

"It was worse than you can ever imagine," he said.

The veterans did have quibbles. Some thought the jumping back and forth from the battle scenes to the bond drive was confusing; some thought the significance of the bond drive was overplayed.

Several said the portrayal of infantryman Ira Hayes, another one of the flag raisers, was wrong: that he was not nearly as forceful as actor Adam Beach portrayed him.

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