Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Iwo Jima Memorial - Manchester, New Hampshire


From February 19th through 25th, 1945, a battle on Iwo Jima left an enormous number of casualties on both sides, and mass graves. It was late in the war, this would be the last winter, but the snows of New Hampshire were missing from this Pacific island, awash in human blood and gore, and close enough to Japan to make giving up unthinkable to both American and Japanese forces.

Most of us are familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Joe Rosenthal photograph of the victorious American marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. That happened on the 23rd. One of those fellows was PFC Rene A. Gagnon of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. He was 18 years old at the time.

A monument sits in a quiet place in a Manchester, New Hampshire park, and the green of last summer seems too-vivid, garish in the snows of today. The memorial is dedicated to Rene Gagnon, who was born and raised in Manchester, and to all Manchester service personnel who “answered their country’s call.”

Underneath the bas-relief depiction of PFC Gagnon, is a quote by him, “Don’t glorify war…there is no glory in it.” Anyone whom fate had placed on the small island of Iwo Jima during those hellish days would know.

His moment in history seemed to be something he tried to live up to, and also from which he tried to capitalize. He appeared as himself in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), and in a documentary short called “To the Shores of Iwo Jima” (1945), and a couple of TV appearances, but his notoriety as a common man captured in one of the most famous photos on one of the important events of World War II was a doubled -edged sword. He spent the rest of his life in menial jobs, alcoholic and embittered by failing to live up to, or beyond, that moment of destiny. He died in 1979. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

But here his likeness, and that uplifting moment when victory was announced with the scramble to hoist a flag on a hilltop -- are cast in metal and stone, standing in peace and serenity denied Rene Gagnon.

For more on PFC Rene Gagnon, have a look at this website. For more on the Battle of Iwo Jima, have a look here.

7 comments:

John Hayes said...

A sa dtale that's worth telling. In an odd coincidence(?) Gagnon's story sounds a bit like the story of Ira Hayes, the Native American man who also was involved in the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. At least the version I know from the great Peter LaFarge song that was covered by Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt & others.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. Yes, Mr. Hayes had a similar unhappy ending. And, he was also in "The Sands of Iwo Jima" with Gagnon.

Anonymous said...

This article is rubbish. I am Rene Gagnon's grandson and this article seems to pull untrue information out of its ass.

My grandfather never tried to capitalize on anything, he was never an alcoholic (who writes this stuff?) He wasn't embittered, and he never worked a menial job... in fact he owned a travel agency with my grandmother.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sir,
Thank you for responding to this blog post about Rene Gagnon. When you say, “Who writes this stuff?” -- if you mean the blog post, it was written by me. My name is Jacqueline T. Lynch, as you can see in the sidebar information, and this is my blog. All the posts are written by me.

If you mean who writes the information about Rene Gagnon being described as working at menial jobs, or being troubled by alcoholism, or capitalizing on his sudden fame as one of the heroes of Iwo Jima -- there have been numerous newspaper accounts over the decades, and most famously the book “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley with Ron Powers. This of course was later made into the film directed by Clint Eastwood. The characterizations of Rene Gagnon are consistent.

To be clear, “menial” means only a non-professional job, and is not intended to imply an insult. Along with his involvement in the travel agency, he worked many non-professional jobs over the years and was working as a janitor at the time of his death.

As for the report of his alcoholism, this is referenced in numerous sources, including the New York Times feature article obituary of October 13, 1979, by George Goodman, Jr.

CONTINUED....

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

.....Interestingly, Mr. Gagnon’s son, Rene Gagnon, Jr., had left a comment on the website of the Harris Ferry Chapter of Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (http://maley.net/harrisferry/gagnon.htm) regarding his father refuting this:
“I would like to say that my parents were never divorced, and although a report to the news media depicting him as an alcoholic in his later years, there never was any foundation to that story. It was originally printed in one of the "grocery store" tabloids, which should have been enough in itself, to see it as gossip, yet the national papers picked up the articles as the gospel truth. In truth, my parents were having problems with their marriage, my dad did take several weeks away, as a solo vacation, (if you knew my mother, you would definitely have taken several), but NEVER moved out, and did return until his death. It was during this time that my mom leaked the "alcoholic" story, to try and discredit him, if he had wanted to stay gone. But nothing ever really takes away the soiled image....”

Mary Elson writing in the Toledo Magazine for the Toledo Blade April 6, 1980, about six months after Mr. Gagnon’s death concurs that such a picture of him may be unfair:
“Only last year, Gagnon was fired from a job as a night hotel manager as a result of an article in the Concord, N.H. Monitor that began as a Memorial Day tribute to the marine, but ended with the suggestion that Gagnon was an alcoholic and couldn’t hold a job.
“From all evidence, the story was shabbily done, but it spread quickly across the United States…” She quotes the inflammatory story originally published in the Manchester Union-Leader.

I understand that Mr. Gagnon’s family discovered a collections of letters he wrote home and that there were plans a few years ago to turn them into either a book or a theatrical presentation. I’d be very interested to learn more about that.

If you feel that the remarks made in the above post were wrong, I would like to give you the opportunity to tell your side of it. I know that in the press sometimes an error is made and then gets repeated endlessly, to the point where it seems to become “fact”. This is very frustrating for the subjects of these articles, their families, and for historical researchers. The only people who enjoy misrepresentations are gossipmongers.

If you would like to send me an email with what you feel is the correct description of Rene Gagnon’s post-war life, I’ll put up a new blog post as an addendum. You can reach me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com.

However, please contact me with your name. “Anonymous” carries no weight. You could be Mr. Gagnon’s grandson, or you could be a “troll”. Standing by your name gives you credibility.

Which is why it’s so important to correct this information about Rene Gagnon if you have something different to say. All that’s left is his name and his memory. If I have written false information about him by repeating false information, then I apologize.

Thanks again for leaving your comment.

tammy chalbeck said...

Just found out by my brother that Rene Arthur Gagnon was my grandmothers uncle..makes me proud to know that I am related to this man...wish I had heard the same stories from my grandmother that my brother did but I was young...my grandmothers name was Lillian Gagne...would love to know more about him and wish she was alive to tell me! Thank you Tammy Chalbeck

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Tammy, and thank you for commenting. Mr. Gagnon's family has a right to be proud of him. There are many like you who want to know more about their WWII-era relatives. Unfortunately, the farther we get away from that generation, the harder is it to keep their memory alive. Sharing family stories is so important.