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Legendary Letter Carriers: Harold Schultz, the "Real" Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima

Although many are mystified by his mysterious moniker, Mel Carriere is a San Diego mailman who writes about the mail, among other things.

In Dubious Postal Battle

Postal employees fight with their supervisors; a little green lizard told me it's what postal employees do. A post office or a mail processing facility can be a very confrontational work environment, with both craft employees and managers going home thinking they have been battling in the trenches or storming the beaches after a stressful workday that, in this poisonous atmosphere, is made more stressful than it really should be.

Of course, most of these conflicts are petty, silly, juvenile, and could have been avoided with a bit of maturity on the part of all parties involved in the fracas. Postal conflicts, after all, are kindergarten skirmishes in scale and scope. With the exception of those veterans who have done time in Afghanistan and Iraq, most of us folks who move the mail for a living really don't know what real war is all about.

But then the postal news buzz is rocked by a story coming out of nowhere, a headline regarding a postal employee who did know war's horrors. This warrior not only did his duty for his country and mankind, but with humility not easily understood in this narcissistic age of the selfie, for 50 years shunned the praise and honors that could have deservedly come from it.

This was Harold Schultz, a former Marine who worked for the United States Postal Service for 30 years in Los Angeles, California. Earlier, in a much more noble cause, he served his country in the United States Marine Corps, fighting against the Japanese on the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima, the site of the most famous and most bloody "island-hopping" battle of World War II.

This, then, is the story of the reluctant Marine Corps soldier who, if he was ever guilty of shirking, it was for dodging the spotlight that would illuminate his great deeds. Because of his reticence, it was only very recently, 20 years after his death, that he was finally paid homage to as one of the flag raisers in the iconic Iwo Jima flag raising photo by Joe Rosenthal.

Whether this recognition reaches Harold posthumously on some level is a discussion for theologians, but nevertheless his story needs to be told. This, then, is my poor attempt to help immortalize this man for his family, friends, fellow soldiers, and postal co-workers.

"Raising The Flag on Iwo Jima," by Joe Rosenthal.  Pictured left to right are Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, and Harlon Block.  The red arrow denotes Schultz.

"Raising The Flag on Iwo Jima," by Joe Rosenthal. Pictured left to right are Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, and Harlon Block. The red arrow denotes Schultz.

About Legendary Letter Carriers

This article is part of a series about letter carriers, or postal workers in general, who have achieved notoriety in the media for doing something positive, beneficial or inspirational for humanity. You won't find any postal spree killers here, if that is what you are looking for. In creating this series I will be applying the term "letter carrier" loosely, broadly, and liberally. Any postal worker who has ever, in an official capacity, carried letters to and from one point to another; including clerks, mail handlers, machine operators, postal maintenance men, truck driver, or actual letter carrier, is qualified to appear here after carrying out a noteworthy deed.

Black Sand Backdrop

Harold Schultz entered the Marine Corps from Detroit, Michigan in December, 1943, a month shy of his 18th birthday. He was a mortarman assigned to Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. In this capacity, Schultz was part of the Iwo Jima invasion that took the war into Japanese territory.

The sparsely populated volcanic island of Iwo Jima (Sulfur Island) was considered strategically important to the allies because its three airfields were within bombing distance of mainland Japan. Recognizing the vulnerability of this exposed flank of what are known as the Volcanic Islands, the Japanese garrisoned Iwo Jima with 21,000 troops under Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

Having studied the defenses of previous island assaults, Kuribayashi recognized the futility of defending the beach head against overwhelming American firepower. He instead elected for a "defense in depth" strategy, which consisted of mutually supporting pillboxes, bunkers, and artillery positions connected by a vast network of tunnels. The Japanese defenses on the island were formidable, and deadly. They constituted a meat grinder that would suck the complacent American attackers into their pulverizing blades, once the Yankee invader had gained a foothold on the island's notorious black sand beaches.

Looming over those black beaches, soon to be colored red by the blood of dead and wounded Marines, stood Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. This commanding elevation was considered a key strategic point by the battle's planners, and Schultz's 28th Marine regiment was dispatched to take it.

The famous black sands of Iwo Jima, with deadly Suribachi in the background.

The famous black sands of Iwo Jima, with deadly Suribachi in the background.

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Two Flags Over Suribachi

On February 19, 1945, the amphibious assault on Iwo Jima began. Using flamethrowers, grenades, and a myriad of other explosive and incendiary devices, the Marines of the 28th regiment moved toward Mt. Suribachi at a torpid, crawling pace of about 400 yards per day. This sluggish advance was characteristic of the battle to control Iwo Jima, a campaign earmarked by some of the deadliest fighting of the war. Victory would come at the cost of 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 Americans killed. 6,800 men in the prime of their youth, fallen atop approximately 20,000 of their Japanese counterparts who died in the tunnels beneath them, all exchanged for 8 square miles of sooty, ash covered real estate where no one would ever even swim, surf or sunbathe, because blood-soaked black sand does not come off easily in the shower. Can the term the folly of war be defined any better?

Despite this ferocious, savage defense, 40 Marines finally dared to assault the 554 foot Suribachi summit. 36 among them would eventually be killed or wounded in the month of merciless fighting left for Iwo Jima. During the mid morning of February 23rd, a half dozen of these Marines raised the American Flag atop those pricey heights, to the joyous clamor of approval coming from the horns of an enormous array of 880 Navy ships parked in the waters around the island.

The participants in this "first" flag raising, which would become the source of well over half a century of mistaken identity for Harold Schultz, were PFC James Robeson, Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, PFC Raymond Jacobs,Sergeant Henry Hansen, Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Phm2c John Bradley, Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, and PFC James Michels.

The distinction between the first and second flag raising on Iwo Jima is significant, because it caused a great deal of historical confusion that endured 71 years into the future. Particularly noteworthy is the appearance of Navy Corpsman John Bradley in the first flag raising photo. Although he was undeniably a brave warrior himself—his valor proven by his wounds and subsequent Navy Cross medal—in the fog of battle, Bradley was mistakenly credited for being in the second, insanely famous Joe Rosenthal photo. The universal renown of the second photo got Bradley included in a war bonds tour of the United States. In May 2000, his son James Bradley published the book Flags of Our Fathers, a bestseller that covered the experiences of the flag raisers from the Rosenthal photo. The elder Bradley's exploits are given significant space in the book, which was later made into a Clint Eastwood-directed film. But as undeniably heroic and significant as Bradley's actions were on Iwo Jima, he was not in this archetypal image that has come to typify Marine toughness, grittiness, and determination throughout history.

Watching the flag raising scene from the relative safety of the rolling waters surrounding the island, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal eyed the first Iwo Jima flag covetously. He desired to claim it for a souvenir, but 2nd Battalion commander Chandler Johnson, with an outburst of "To hell with that!," proclaimed that it belonged to his men. He dispatched Marines up the hill to secure the original flag for the Corps, and replace it with a larger one that could be more easily seen from down below.

Joseph John Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer who had been rejected by the Army because of poor eyesight, was thinking himself a day late and a dollar short as he trudged up Suribachi, because the flag was already planted on the hilltop. As a consolation prize, he was on hand to capture the raising of that second flag, an event that was largely ignored by the Navy and Marines present, who had already loudly feted Old Glory atop the summit. Nonetheless, when Rosenthal's shot of the second ho-hum raising arrived in the hands of AP editor John Bodkin, he exclaimed "Here's one for all time!" and immediately dispatched it to New York, from where it exploded across the wire services in the 1940s version of going viral.

Although a cursory glance at the photo gives the impression that it contains the images of only four Marines, there are actually six; with two in back obscured by the ones in front. The subjects of the Rosenthal photograph, corrected by the 2016 investigation, are Ira Hayes, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, Harlon Block and finally, credited after 71 years, that previously forgotten Marine from Detroit, Harold Schultz.

First Iwo Jima flag raising.  Robeson (not visible in this version), Schrier, Jacobs, Hansen, Thomas, Bradley, Michels, Lindberg.

First Iwo Jima flag raising. Robeson (not visible in this version), Schrier, Jacobs, Hansen, Thomas, Bradley, Michels, Lindberg.

Postwar Anonymity and Who Is That Mystery Marine?

Unlike Ira Hayes, the Akimel O'odham Native American who is the subject of a Johnny Cash song; John Bradley, who was immortalized by his son's book; and Rene Gagnon, who went along for the ride on a post battle bond tour that rained laurels upon the flag raisers, Harold Schultz was swept under by the fog of history and the fog of memories.

Instead of being flaunted about like a rock star in those hugely publicized war bond parades, Harold Schultz was quietly shuffled aside after being wounded in action on Iwo. He received a Purple Heart medal, then resettled in Los Angeles, California, where he took a job for the United States Postal Service working the swing shift in the Chinatown PO. When a young lady he was engaged to passed away, Schultz gave up plans of marriage completely, until he finally entered matrimony with neighbor Rita Reyes at the age of 60.

Although Harold rarely spoke about the war, one evening over dinner, he surprised Rita's daughter by stating that he was one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers. That was the only clue until Harold's death in 1995, when his stepdaughter found a copy of the "Gung-ho" photo among his effects. This image of approximately a dozen and half Marines, also taken by Rosenthal shortly after the flag raising, was signed by the legendary photographer. On the back, Harold Schultz had hand written the name of each Marine in the photo, including his own.

Because Harold Schultz only apparently spoke once about being a flag raiser, he lived in obscurity the rest of his life. Then, 10 years after his passing, a technical adviser for the 2005 production of Flags of Our Fathers noticed that the gear John Bradley carries in the Rosenthal photo did not match what a Navy Corpsman of that time would have been wearing. Nine years later, in 2014, a reporter for The Omaha World Herald elaborated upon this mystery after receiving a tip from an amateur military historian, which outlined significant discrepancies with the accepted identities of the flag raising participants. A crime scene photographic expert was brought in to lend weight to the investigation. Franklin Sousley, a Marine who had been previously accepted as being in the photograph, was found by the investigator to be in the wrong spot; third from the left rather than second. So the new mystery confronting the investigator was - who is the mystery Marine in the second spot, now vacated by Sousley?

A strap hanging loose on the unknown Marine's helmet and an incorrectly slung rifle strap were discovered to be associated with Harold Henry Schultz. The information was presented to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller. So 70 years after the battle, 20 years after the forgotten warrior's death, the Corps officially confirmed that the mystery Marine second to the left was Harold Schultz.

Joe Rosenthal's "Gung-ho" photo, with Schultz circled.

Joe Rosenthal's "Gung-ho" photo, with Schultz circled.

A Plea for Help

This article desperately needs help. My last "Legendary Letter Carriers" article about Doug Hansen, the postal employee who climbed Mt. Everest, was greatly enhanced by comments from his friends and family members. The topic of this current piece, Harold Schultz, is in dire need of some assistence to help fill in the blanks of his life. He left very little behind; apparently there are not even any post war photographs to help preserve his legacy. If you are reading this and are a family member, friend, co-worker, or even a fellow Marine who knew him, please leave a comment with your impressions of this departed hero.

Harold's Legacy - "I Was a Marine"

Although any man brave enough to be standing on Suribachi on February 23rd, 1945, deserves to be acknowledged as a hero, and I am by no means disparaging John Bradley or any others brave enough to endure the horrors of Iwo Jima, the fact remains that Harold Schultz was slighted. Unlike Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon, he letter got to shoot a movie with the Duke, he never was the main attraction of a Times Square parade, he never got kissed by Lockheed girls. After reading the little bit available on Harold this dearth of information pains me more, because I have come to like the man with his slovenly unfastened helmet strap and his rifle carelessly slung Beetle Bailey style over his shoulder. I feel I can identify with him, less the heroism and humility parts, of course.

After seeing the movie in 2005, I read Flags of Our Fathers shortly thereafter, a book dealing with the on and off the battlefield exploits of the surviving Iwo Jima flag raisers. Not thinking I would have much use for it, a few years afterward I donated it to the Friends of The Library. Of course, while researching this article I needed it back, because I wanted to know how much, if any space was devoted to Harold Schultz in its pages. On a side note, if you intend to write, never throw your old books away. The ghosts of your old books sooner or later come back to haunt you.

Luckily, I found a copy in the Barnes and Noble and was able to peruse the index without buying it again. As I suspected, there is not so much as a footnote on Harold Schultz in Flags of Our Fathers. In its very detailed index he should be somewhere in between Schrier and Scott, but he is not. This seems unusual for a person whose photo is featured prominently on the cover, second from the left.

As a Postal Employee like Harold Schultz, in the course of my duties I still occasionally encounter World War II veterans. I used to frequently converse with another "island-hopper" from the 7th Army Infantry division who served on Kwajalein and Attu against the Japanese, but he has long since passed away. Currently I deliver to a veteran from the II Armored Division who fought in France. This aging warrior has to be pushing 90. All the same, he still walks to the convenience store two blocks away everyday to buy his newspaper, and I sometimes catch him sleeping in a chair on his shady front porch when I pass by with the mail. I don't wake him. He g***amn earned the right to snooze. Because of him, and so many men like him, I can also take a nap without worrying about fascists crawling up my ass.

We need to thank men like these before they are all gone, which will be soon. I have tried to, but it ain't easy. They don't get it, they don't understand what the fuss is about, they look at you funny when you bring it up.

A common theme among these champions is the one personified by Harold Schultz; humility. When his stepdaughter tried to tell him he was a hero, Harold brushed her off by saying, "I was a Marine."

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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