Monday, August 4, 2008

Immigrant Immortalized in Rosenthal Photo, Iwo Jima Sculpture, Now Naturalized

Fred Edwards wrote Aug. 1 in Military Matters in Review that Czech immigrant Michael Strank, killed in action at Iwo Jima, has been posthumously awarded U.S. citizenship. Strank himself apparently never applied for citizenship before his death at age 25 leading a Marine Corps fire team against the Japanese.

But a fellow Marine serving in the security unit at the U.S. Embassy in the Slovak Republic filed on Strank's behalf last year, and an immigration official presented a certificate of citizenship to Strank's younger sister late last month.

Iwo Jima Flag-raising Hero Becomes an Official American
by Fred Edwards, Military Matters in Review

On July 29, Marine Sgt. Michael Strank was posthumously awarded a certificate of U.S. citizenship. Jonathan Scharfen, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, presented the certificate to Mary Pero, 75, Strank's younger sister.

The ceremony took place in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, often called the Iwo Jima Memorial. Sculptor Felix de Weldon crafted it from the famous photograph snapped by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal Feb. 23,1945.

De Weldon's work reproduced Strank -- and the other five men who raised the flag -- so meticulously that you can see their grime and smell their sweat. Strank, or Sergeant Mike, as his men called him, was the third from the left in the photo, and was barely visible.

Two of the six men would live to walk off the island. A third man would be carried off with shrapnel wounds. The other three would be buried in the sands of Iwo. This reflects the same casualty rate of the invading forces: during 36 days of fighting, the United States suffered almost 26,000 casualties, nearly 7,000 of them killed. Only one of every three who hit the beach left the island unscathed.

Until this year, the Marines listed Strank's birthplace as Pennsylvania. According to Scharfen, a Marine security guard at the American Embassy in the Slovak Republic was researching Strank's background and found no record that he was a U.S. citizen. So he filed an application for posthumous naturalization.

So who was Michael Strank? In "Flags of Our Fathers," James Bradley fills in details from interviews of Strank's family, friends, and fellow Marines.

He was born Michal Strenk on the Marine Corps birthday, Nov. 10, 1919, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia. His father, Vasil, emigrated to the United States in 1920 and changed his name to Strank. Vasil worked in the Pennsylvania mines for three years, and saved enough money to bring his wife and 3-year-old son to America.

In 1935, he became a naturalized American citizen, but son Mike never received a certificate. When Mike sailed for Iwo Jima, he was a 25-year-old sergeant and combat veteran of the Pavuvu and Bougainville island campaigns. He shunned the sergeants' mess and ate with his troops, who he called "his boys."

His company commander had recommended him for platoon sergeant, but he refused, saying, "I promised my boys I'd be there for them."

Indeed he had promised. Often he would tell his squad, "Follow me, and I'll try to bring all of you back safely to your mothers."

Joe Rodriguez, a member of one of the three fire teams Mike led as squad leader, said "Everybody idolized Mike. He was a born leader, a natural leader, and a leader by example."

After Bougainville, Mike was exhausted from combat and couldn't shake a case of malaria, so he was sent home on leave to recover. He also couldn't shake the feeling that he had used up his share of survivability. One evening when he was out to say goodbye to friends Mike and Eva Slazich, he told them, "I doubt if I'll ever see you again. I don't think I'll be coming back."

He let slip his premonition to his family, and his father pleaded with him to seek a stateside assignment. Mike replied, "Dad, there's a war going on out there. Young boys are fighting that war. And Dad . . . they need my help." So he went to Iwo Jima with his boys.

Bradley describes the aftermath of the flag-raising as follows: Mike and a group of Marines had come under Japanese sniper fire, and he pulled them into an outcropping that was protected from all sides except the sea. He was drawing a diagram in the sand of the tactics they would use to break out when a shell "tore a hole in his chest and ripped out his heart."

Many accounts describe it simply as an artillery shell, and some describe it as an "enemy" shell. Bradley, on the other hand, states: "Almost certainly,the round had come from a U.S. destroyer offshore; it sliced through the only unprotected side of the outcropping. The Czech immigrant to America, born on the Marine Corps birthday, serving his third tour of duty for his adopted country, the sergeant who was a friend to his boys, was cut down by friendly fire."

No matter the source of the shell, Sergeant Mike died as a combat leader. He was a Marine's Marine. Now he's an official American. Semper Fidelis.

Fred Edwards is a journalist and a military columnist. To see his bio and archived columns, visit

No comments: