Hamilton forensic expert finds identity mixup in iconic American photo

A Hamilton forensic expert found a bombshell in one of the world's most famous photographs.

Hamilton Police forensic expert Michael Plaxton analyzed the 'Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima' photo

The Marines Corps announced Thursday, June 23, 2016, that one of the six men long identified in this iconic World War II photograph was actually not in the image. (Joe Rosenthal/The Associated Press)

A Hamilton Police forensic video expert who moonlights as a consultant on private projects has found a bombshell in one of the world's most iconic photos.

You've seen it: It depicts six Marines raising an American flag in the Battle for Iwo Jima during the Second World War.

Our history is important to us, and we have a responsibility to ensure it's right.- Marine Corps' commandant, Gen. Robert Neller

The photograph was taken Feb. 23, 1945 as U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raised the flag atop Mt. Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima in Japan.

It was reprinted countless times. It became a postage stamp, won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945 and formed the basis of a sculpted memorial in honour of the Marine Corps.

But careful sleuthing and analysis by Michael Plaxton of Crystal Beach, Ont., has revealed that one of the six men in the photo, for seven decades thought to be a Navy medical specialist named John Bradley, is misidentified. Bradley it turns out, is not part of the flag-raising.

Here's how the photo's occupants were previously identified:

A photo with tags misidentifies two men in the iconic Iwo Jima photo. (Michael Plaxton)

'We have a responsibility to ensure it's right'

The finding will feature in a documentary that premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on Sunday night. 

When the filmmakers brought their evidence forward, the U.S. Marine Corps investigated themselves and said last week they agreed.

Bradley's not in the photo, they said. He had participated in an earlier flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. 

But Harold Schultz of Detroit, Michigan, is.

"Our history is important to us, and we have a responsibility to ensure it's right," said Marine Corps' commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, in a public statement.

"Although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it's not about the individuals and never has been," he said.

'An iconic American image'

Michael Plaxton of Crystal Beach, Ont., is a forensic image expert who recently found that one of the six men in an iconic photo of Marines raising an American flag at Iwo Jima was misidentified. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Plaxton's involvement started with a phone call last fall from a production company in the United States.

The caller asked Plaxton if he'd have some time to work on a question about "an iconic American image," he said.

He agreed, and took a couple of weeks off from his police work to dive in.

Then he found out which photo it was: Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer-winning "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima."

It's a favourite of Plaxton's, who studied film and photography in college and himself worked in military photography for years.

"I've always considered it sort of the quintessential photograph," he said.

But in recent years there'd been questions about the photograph and the identities of the men, and the Marines had previously admitted a different man had been misidentified initially. The documentarians wanted to settle the question of whether John Bradley was in the photograph once and for all.

Plaxton gathered the photographs and film footage taken on the same day and got to work.

He was looking for clues: a strap of a helmet, a roll of a pant leg, a tilt of a rifle. He would spot pieces of gear in photos where men's identities were clear and known, and then compare them to the Rosenthal photograph to see if those same pieces of gear showed up.

For example, because Bradley was a corpsman, other photographs of him that day show him with his "Unit 3" medical supplies.

As a medical specialist with the Navy, John Bradley would be wearing specific gear to help with his duties that Plaxton did not see in the iconic Iwo Jima photo. (Michael Plaxton)

But Plaxton didn't see those same accessories in the Rosenthal photo.

"There was no aha moment," Plaxton said. "Because it only about a minute to realize that that was not John Bradley."

He made several photo comparisons showing inconsistencies between the accessories that Bradley was wearing and where he was supposedly standing in the photo.

But the work wasn't finished. Plaxton realized that one man previously thought to be second from the left, Franklin Sousley, was actually in the spot previously thought to be occupied by John Bradley.

Plaxton traced the gear of Franklin Sousley to determine that he was actually where John Bradley had been thought to be standing in the flag-raising effort. (Michael Plaxton)

So who was in Sousley's spot?

Harold Schultz, whose right pocket appeared to be bulging and whose rifle was slung improperly, possibly because of a malfunction.

With Franklin Sousley's position made clear, Plaxton determined that it was Harold Schultz who was actually the second from the left in the iconic photo. (Michael Plaxton)

A side project that takes on significance

When Plaxton got started, he thought, "Yeah, nice little project, this is kind of cool," he said.

"And then I got to the point where I was like, 'This is not John Bradley. Oh my god.'"

"And then, a week later, I went, 'I found out who the guy is, it's Harold Schultz. Oh my god,'" he said. "'And it's sort of, 'Oh. This is actually sort of important. It's no longer just a nice little project.'

Here's what Plaxton's final lineup looks like:

When Plaxton finished his analysis, he identified the men as listed above. (Michael Plaxton)

By the end of the project, he couldn't get the men off of his mind.

"I thought about them pretty much every day," he said. "Still do."

While Bradley was determined not to be in the iconic photograph, he was present that day and had taken part in another flag-raising earlier. Here, the troops rally for a "gung ho" photograph after the flag has been raised. (MIchael Plaxton)

The gravity of the discovery hit home when Plaxton watched a CBS television story about the Marines' statement.

It showed where John Bradley's name is listed on a plaque next to the Iwo Jima flag in the Marine Corps museum. That will be removed and Schultz's name will be added, the CBS report said.

"It really hit me then," he said. "They said, 'John Bradley's name will be removed and Harold Schultz's name will be added."

He sighed, recalling hearing that. What if the photo could have been treated with the kind of symbolism like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

"Bittersweet, you know," he said. "Better if none of them had been identified. If there had never been any names under there, it would truly be perfect. You would look at it, and there'd be no controversy about John Bradley or Harold Schultz or Sousley or Harlon, or any of those guys."

"It just would've been this perfect image that was totally representational of the Marines on Iwo Jima in 1945."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett