Dan Glaister / Guardian – 2006-10-22 08:44:11
LOS ANGELES (October 21, 2006) — On February 19, 1945, Thomas McPhatter found himself on a landing craft heading toward the beach on Iwo Jima.
“There were bodies bobbing up all around, all these dead men,” said the former US marine, now 83 and living in San Diego. “Then we were crawling on our bellies and moving up the beach. I jumped in a foxhole and there was a young white marine holding his family pictures. He had been hit by shrapnel, he was bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth. It frightened me. The only thing I could do was lie there and repeat the Lord’s prayer, over and over and over.”
Sadly, Sgt McPhatter’s experience is not mirrored in Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s big-budget, Oscar-tipped film of the battle for the Japanese island that opened on Friday in the US. While the film’s battle scenes show scores of young soldiers in combat, none of them are African-American. Yet almost 900 African-American troops took part in the battle of Iwo Jima, including Sgt McPhatter.
The film tells the story of the raising of the stars and stripes over Mount Suribachi at the tip of the island. The moment was captured in a photograph that became a symbol of the US war effort. Eastwood’s film follows the marines in the picture, including the Native American Ira Hayes, as they were removed from combat operations to promote the sale of government war bonds.
Mr McPhatter, who went on to serve in Vietnam and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander in the US navy, even had a part in the raising of the flag. “The man who put the first flag up on Iwo Jima got a piece of pipe from me to put the flag up on,” he says. That, too, is absent from the film.
“Of all the movies that have been made of Iwo Jima, you never see a black face,” said Mr McPhatter. “This is the last straw. I feel like I’ve been denied, I’ve been insulted, I’ve been mistreated. But what can you do? We still have a strong underlying force in my country of rabid racism.”
Melton McLaurin, author of the forthcoming The Marines of Montford Point and an accompanying documentary to be released in February, says that there were hundreds of black soldiers on Iwo Jima from the first day of the 35-day battle. Although most of the black marine units were assigned ammunition and supply roles, the chaos of the landing soon undermined the battle plan.
“When they first hit the beach the resistance was so fierce that they weren’t shifting ammunition, they were firing their rifles,” said Dr McLaurin.
The failure to transfer the active role played by African-Americans at Iwo Jima to the big screen does not surprise him. “One of the marines I interviewed said that the people who were filming newsreel footage on Iwo Jima deliberately turned their cameras away when black folks came by.
Blacks are not surprised at all when they see movies set where black troops were engaged and never show on the screen. I would like to say that it was from ignorance but anybody can do research and come up with books about African-Americans in world war two. I think it has to do with box office and what producers of movies think Americans really want to see.”
He added: “I want to see these guys get their due. They’re just so anxious to have their story told and to have it known.”
Roland Durden, another black marine, landed on the beach on the third day. “When we hit the shore we were loaded with ammunition and the Japanese hit us with mortar.” Private Durden was soon assigned to burial detail, “burying the dead day in, day out. It seemed like endless days. They treated us like workmen rather than marines.”
Mr Durden, too, is wearied but unsurprised at the omissions in Eastwood’s film. “We’re always left out of the films, from John Wayne on,” he said. Mr Durden ascribes to both the conspiracy as well as the cock-up theory of history. “They didn’t want blacks to be heroes. This was pre-1945, pre-civil rights.”
A spokesperson for Warner Bros said: “The film is correct based on the book.” The omission was first remarked upon in a review by Fox News columnist Roger Friedman, who noted that the history of black involvement at Iwo Jima was recorded in several books, including Christopher Moore’s recent Fighting for America: Black Soldiers – the Unsung Heroes of World War II.
“They weren’t in the background at all,” said Moore. “The people carrying the ammunition were 90% black, so that’s an opportunity to show black soldiers. These are our films and very often they become our history, historical documents.”
Yvonne Latty, a New York University professor and author of We Were There: Voices of African-American Veterans (2004), wrote to Eastwood and the film’s producers pleading with them to include the experience of black soldiers. HarperCollins, the book’s publishers, sent the director a copy, but never heard back.
“It would take only a couple of extras and everyone would be happy,” she said. “No one’s asking for them to be the stars of the movies, but at least show that they were there. This is the way a new generation will think about Iwo Jima. Once again it will be that African-American people did not serve, that we were absent. It’s a lie.”
The first chapter to James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers, which forms the basis of the movie, opens with a quotation from president Harry Truman. “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” It would provide a fitting endnote to Eastwood’s film.
Sgt Thomas McPhatter, 8th US Marine Corps ammunition company, was at Iwo Jima in 1945. These are his memories:
We set up an ammunition dump and the Japanese spotted it because they were firing mortars. There was black powder and smoke everywhere. It’s unbelievable what you can smell. Men losing their legs …
On the second night, we were hit again by mortar fire. All of a sudden, the dump was burning. I said “the whole dump’s going to go soon,” and we couldn’t put the fire out.
We made our way to the beach … when I got to the beach, my eyes were burning and the dispensary put something on my face. Two days later, they start ammunition drops from planes. They started dropping the ammo in multi-coloured parachutes like an ice-cream canopy. So you’ve got to chase ammunition with the enemy firing on you. Oh, Lord. My platoon leader put us in for a commendation but that never got anywhere. It was beyond the call of duty.
Our last involvement was when we turned back a banzai attack … the last battle on Iwo Jima. There were army people there who had come after us to repair the airfield who were living in tents … They came out of their holes with their swords drawn, high-hollering ‘Banzai!’
The Japanese cut the guy ropes and they were running them through the canvas with their swords. When they came through our area, we were still sleeping in the dirt. We cut them down. It was the black soldiers that did it. It’s never been recognised.
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