Brown Signs – Marine Corps Museum

Iwo Jima Memorial. Photo: JDickson

How many times have I driven by the brown sign on US 95 going south out of Washington DC?  The sign that says Marine Corps Museum. 

There are other brown signs I drive by all the time as well.  The FDR Library in Hyde Park is the one brown sign I drive by the most, but there are others, like Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Washington’s Winter Headquarters in New Jersey.

So, my goal is to come back to those brown signs and report on what I saw.

The Marine Corps Museum has a story to tell.  Many, in fact, but the one I left with was the flag-raising at Iwo Jimo.  You know the one of the six soldiers raising the U.S. flag, later made into a statue near Arlington Cemetery.  Six anonymous faces bravely raising the flag, seemingly after winning the battle.

Yet, the battle was far from won.  Captured was Mt. Suribachi,the volcano on one end of the island, but there was more than a month and thousands of Marines dead left before the island could be claimed as safe.

Newspapers across the country carried the photo by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal as soon as it cleared military censors and distribution time.  Shortly thereafter, so did a story that the event was staged.   

That story still persists, even though the accusation was settled almost immediately.  Those present do acknowledge that there were actually two different flags raised.  The commander of the Fifth Marine Division, Lt. Gen. Keller Rockey ordered a larger flag to be found and raised since the first one was not visible. 

Part of the controversy stems from professional rivalry as those present for the initial flag raising were annoyed that their effort at the tail end of actual combat to secure Suribachi went unnoticed.  Another was a seemingly innocuous comment by the photographer himself who answered in the affirmative when asked shortly after the photo was taken if it had been staged.  He, of course, had taken many pictures of that moment and didn’t know which one was on the front pages across the U.S. and now in doubt.  In, fact, he had taken a staged photo, called a “gung-ho” shot, of all the Marines facing the camera at the foot of the flag, but that did not have the drama as the one we all know.

He had not positioned the six soldiers for the memorialized photo, and another cameraman with movie film footage proved what Rosenthal referred to as the luck of a photographer – timing and positioning.   When asked about the photo later, he said, “I took the picture; the Marines took the hill.”

Kudos to the Marine from the Vietnam War who was volunteering and relayed the story in front of the Iwo Jima flag on display at the museum in Quantico, Virginia.  He was the only docent in front of any display we saw in the museum the day we visited, which told us of the prominence of this in Marine history.

A couple of other tidbits on the museum.

— If the trend in museums is to engage the public interactively, war museums may have a harder time than others.  One exhibit on Vietnam included walking through a helicopter into a gun position replete with battle noise and tropical heat.  Uncomfortable. 

The exhibit which was most crowded during our visit portrayed boot camp, from the arrival bus to uniform protocol and even a firing range.   More fun and engaging, but not at all connected to the battlefield.

— I skeptically expected a museum extolling all our wars, but was surprised to see comments in the displays questioning decisions to go to war against Mexico in 1848 or calling the end of the Vietnam War “ugly.”

— Finally, it was reassuring to see uniformed Marines taking in their own museum, seeking a little background on their choice of service to country.

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