One Iconic Photo, One Prolific Man
Wartime photographs from WWII, though often troubling in their imagery, help to illuminate to the public the sentiments felt during battle.
Few photos are as widely recognized as the “Raising The Flag on Iwo Jima”, that image of the six American soldiers who lifted the American flag onto Mount Suribach that 23 February 1945 day, symbolizing the relief of victory over Japan and the beginning of the end of WWII.
via Associated Press
Rene Gagnon was one of the six soldiers who became an icon after appearing in the famous photograph. Though of the six soldiers in the photo, only three survived the hard-fought battle, and the remaining men were reportedly plagued with survivor’s guilt, including Gagnon.
We’ve gotten a rare glimpse into the private life of Rene Gagnon as we’re auctioning a substantial collection of his personal letters, written to his longtime love back home, Pauline Harnois. The four separate collections of letters being auctioned expose a man grappling with the perplexities of war in incredible detail.
In an early 1943 group of 36 autograph letters signed to Harnois while being stationed at training camp on Parris Island, Gagnon expresses his strong desire for the war to end and his determination to survive it so that he can go home to New Hampshire and marry her, which he eventually does.
Once the war begins, his letters become more impassioned and reveal more of his personal character, evidenced through his acts of altruism as an MP in the Naval prison, his intolerance for racial injustice and, most interestingly, his resistance to the temptation of going AWOL. In a set of 39 WWII-dated ALSs’, he speaks to his temptations of going AWOL, “…I must admit I’ve been giving a lot of thought to going over the hill…”
A third set of 47 ALSs describe his feelings of wanting to quit the marines, but resisting, “…doctor said…I…could get medical discharge…I’m for it…” But Then, “…If I just quit and all the other fellows like me quit Hitler himself would be sitting in that capitol…” You can sense his confidence waning after a year being away from home, as the eventuality of combat begins to close in.
Lastly in the sets of letters, we’re auctioning 42 ALSs and V-Mails written as he fought in the South Pacific, “…we were in action on Iwo Jima, you’ve probably read about it in the papers, as it was a pretty tough battle…Tell your dad I’ll send him a Jap rifle for a souvenir…” One of the V-mails (“Victory Mails,” a form of communication used during WWII), was written by Gagnon at Iwo Jima, 24 February 1945, the day after the “Raising the Flag…” photo was taken.
We’re also auctioning Gagnon’s personally owned Marines-issued knife, likely used in the highly fatal Battle of Iwo Jima. In a letter during his training, he speaks to his confusion which plagued him later in life over the bloodshed of war: “…when I was a kid I never realized that I one day would actually kill a man, as a matter of fact none of us really like the idea of killing, but if that’s the only language the Axis understand then that’s what it will have to be…”
Though his life would forever be complicated by the effects of war on his psyche, these letters unearth the intricacies of WWII from the perspective of one of its most famous participants.