By DAVE PAXTON
Kay Maurer has visited the Welcome Home Soldier Monument twice. The Clarence (near Cedar Rapids) resident stares at the east side of the Iwo Jima statue that is the first statue to greet visitors. It is a sculptor’s rendition because the original photograph taken on Mount Suribachi by Joe Rosenthal doesn’t show much of the left side.
But now Maurer can at least visualize her father, the man in the statue shouldering the flag, helping to raise the American flag and create perhaps the most iconic photograph of WWII. The visualization helps Maurer come to terms with what her father, Harold “Pie” Keller did for his fellow Marines and the American war effort. Because until a year or so ago, she never knew he was even on Iwo Jima, let alone one of the six who put up the second flag on Mount Suribachi.
It is an amazing story of misidentification, of selflessness and humility and of a Marine hero who simply wanted to get back home and start his life over.
Pie Keller was born Aug. 3, 1921 in Brooklyn, Iowa lived there all his life except for the four years he was in the Marines, and died there of a massive heart attack in 1979 at the age of 58. He was too young to enlist in January of 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor and had his mother sign his papers. As one of the first to join the Marines, he was in some of the earliest battles as a member of the famous 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, including the bloody battles of Guadalcanal and Bougainville where he sustained a serious shoulder wound, spent a couple of months in a Naval hospital in the South Pacific and then came home on leave to marry his high school sweetheart, Ruby O’Halloran.
He went back to the South Pacific, this time landing in February 1945 on Iwo Jima, a member of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, on Feb. 23, he was a member of a 40-man patrol that captured the top of Mount Suribachi and raised the first U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. He is one of the six Marines who raised the larger replacement flag on the mountaintop the same day as shown in the Rosenthal photograph.
The first flag flown over Mount Suribachi at the south end of Iwo Jima was regarded to be too small to be seen by the thousands of Marines fighting on the other side of the mountain, so it was replaced by the second one. Although there were photographs taken of the first flag flying on Mount Suribachi, there is no photograph of Marines raising the first flag. The second flag raising became famous and took precedence over the first flag-raising after copies of the second flag-raising photograph appeared in newspapers two days later. The second flag raising was also filmed in color.
Keller was misidentified as Rene Gagnon, a Marine who actually carried the flag to the top of Mount Suribachi. That mistake stood for almost 75 years before Brent Westemeyer of West Des Moines, Californian Dustin Spence and Stephen Foley (all amateur WWII historians) began an exhaustive search to properly identify those who set the flag. Keller was one of three Marines in the photograph who were not originally identified as flag raisers.
The corrected story
The 40-man platoon-sized patrol left about 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 23 with 1st Lt. Harold Schrier the executive officer, with orders to raise the battalion’s American flag if possible to signal the mountaintop was secure. The Marines had a difficult climb and came under Japanese sniper fire on the way up. When Lt. Schrier and his men reached the rim of the volcano, there was a skirmish which they soon overcame. After a Japanese iron water pipe was found to use as a flagpole, the battalion's American flag was tied to it by Lt. Schrier, Sgt. Henry Hansen, and Cpl. Charles Lindberg.
Once the flag was tied on, the flagstaff was raised about 10:30 a.m. by Lt. Schrier, Platoon Sgt. Ernest Thomas, Sgt. Hansen and Cpl. Lindberg. Seeing the flag raised immediately caused loud cheers from the Marines, sailors, and Coast Guardsmen on the south end of Iwo Jima and from the men on the ships near the beach. Due to the terrific winds and soft ground on the mountaintop, Pvt. Phil Ward and Navy corpsman John Bradley pitched in afterwards to help keep the flagstaff vertical.
Staff Sgt. Lou Lowery, a Marine photographer for "Leatherneck Magazine" and the only photographer who accompanied the patrol, took several photos of the first flag before and after it was raised. The last photo he took on the mountaintop was before a Japanese grenade caused him to fall several feet down the side of the crater and break his camera (his film was not damaged). The Marine Corps did not allow any of his photos to be published until 1947, in Leatherneck Magazine. Platoon Sgt. Thomas was killed on March 3 and Sgt. Hansen on March 1. Cpl. Lindberg was wounded on March 13.
Two hours after the first flag was raised on Mount Suribachi, Marine Corps leaders decided that in order for the American flag to be better seen on the other side of Mount Suribachi by the thousands of Marines fighting there to capture the island, another larger flag should be flown on Mount Suribachi (Lt. Col. Johnson also wanted to secure the flag for his battalion).
Under Lt. Col. Johnson's orders, Captain Severance ordered Sgt. Michael Strank a rifle squad leader from Second Platoon, to take three of his Marines to the top of Mount Suribachi and raise the second flag. Sgt. Strank chose Corporal Harlon Block, Pvt. First Class Ira Hayes, and Pvt. First Class Franklin Sousley. Pvt. First Class Rene Gagnon, a Second Battalion runner (messenger) for E Company, was ordered to take the replacement flag up the mountain and return the first flag to the battalion adjutant.
When Sgt. Strank with his three Marines got to the top with communication wire (or supplies), Pfc. Hayes and Pfc. Sousley found another Japanese steel pipe to attach the flag on. After they took the pipe to Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block, the replacement flag was attached to the pipe which was near the other flag.
As the four Marines were about to raise the flagstaff, Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block called out to two nearby Marines from Lt. Schrier's patrol, Pvt. First Class Harold Schultz and Pvt. First Class Keller, to help them raise the flagstaff. Lt. Schrier then ordered the six Marines to raise the second flag while Pfc. Gagnon and three Marines lowered the first flagstaff. In order to keep the flagstaff in a vertical position, Sgt. Strank and his three Marines held it while rocks were added by Pfc. Keller, Pfc. Schultz, and others around the base of the flagstaff. The flagstaff then was stabilized with three guy-ropes.
Associated Press combat photographer Joe Rosenthal had climbed up the mountain with two Marine photographers (Sgt. Bill Genaust and Pvt. Robert Campbell) in time to photograph the first flag while it was still up. This also enabled him to take the famous black-and-white photograph of the second-flag raising; Rosenthal's second flag raising photograph started appearing in newspapers on Sunday, Feb. 25, 1945. Lt. Col. Johnson was killed on Iwo Jima on March 2 and Sgt. Bill Genaust, who filmed the second flag-raising in color, was killed in a cave on March 4. Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block were killed on March 1 and Pfc. Sousley was killed on March 21.
Pie Keller comes home
Keller survived the war and returned to his wife in Iowa where they raised two boys and one girl. And he never talked about the war. He worked as a telephone lineman and for the Brooklyn Creamery, later installing dairy equipment. He immersed himself into community life as fire chief and Little League coach.
“He never talked about his war experience,” said Kay Maurer, the youngest of the three Keller children, now 71 years old. “We knew he served in the Marines and I grew up knowing what “fubar” meant. He would tell us light-hearted stuff, like when Eleanor Roosevelt visited the troops. And he told us about suffering from jungle foot rot. We knew that brother, Wayne (now 73), was named after Wayne Hathaway, who was killed in the war.”
“Vietnam was my generation’s war and when I would press him about his service to try to get him to open up, he’d just walk out of the room,” she said. The oldest Keller brother is 75 and neither son served in Vietnam because of medical issues.
Then one day about two years ago, she got calls from West Des Moines (Westemeyer) and from Californian (Dustin Spence). “They both wanted to talk to me about my dad,” said Maurer. “My husband, Steve, immediately said something was up. I talked to Spence first and he told me that Dad was one of the flag bearers in the second picture taken on Mount Suribachi.”
Her first reaction was to cry. Then she got mad at her dad. “Why didn’t my dad tell me that?” she said. “It took me awhile to make peace with the fact that he wanted to put the war behind him and, other than my mother, my aunt and some cousins, he didn’t talk to anybody about it. I still regret not being able to talk to him.”
Maurer remembers after finding out about her father being one of the flag bearers, being with her mother just before she died and asking her about her father’s war experience. “Let’s not talk about it,” Maurer remembers her mother saying. Maurer pressed her mother. “Tell me the truth, did Dad have his hand on that flagpole?” she asked again. “My mother said something like, ‘Don’t you think everyone on that mountain helped raise that flag?’ It shut me down.”
Maurer and her siblings also kept quite about the revelation for a couple of years because Spence was hoping to sell the story as a movie. He apparently got close but nothing materialized and the non-disclosure agreement ended, allowing Kay and her family to talk about their father beginning last October.
She prefers now to think about the loving father who raised her. “We never saw anything like PTSD,” she said. “He was the best; a loving father who served his community. I think that when he first came home he had nightmares.”
Maurer isn’t sure who is interested in her father’s story today. “When we told our son (who is in his mid-30s) he didn’t say a whole lot. I’m afraid it will be lost to my generation. A lot of my high school classmates call and ask me questions I can’t answer.”
Her husband, Steve, wants people to remember. “ Nobody wants to follow up this much,” he said. “He was in South Pacific four years and was shot and damned near killed at Bougainville. On Iwo Jima, four of 40 walked off that mountain. His platoon of 46 received 26 medals. The crazy thing is, he didn’t receive his purple heart until Kay’s mom complained and he finally received it in the mid 1950s. He was the only one of the flag raisers to return home and raise a family.”
Which makes Welcome Home Soldier so important to Kay. “I’m so impressed with Welcome Home Soldier,” she said. “As you walk in and see the Iwo Jima flag raising, Dad is on the right (facing the statue) with the flag on his right soldier. In the photograph all you can see is his helmet and a bit of his thigh. Seeing the statue pleases me to know end.”