By EARL McRAE
He didn't have the papers to prove it, no. But he had the blood. And the blood, he once suggested, was thicker than the papers.
In the late 1940s he told the Canadian magazine Liberty: "I'm an American on paper, but my parents were from Quebec. So, I have Canadian blood. If Canadians want to say a Canadian helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, that's fine with me."
Rene Gagnon. Few people of recent generations realize his Canadian connection, nor will they in director Clint Eastwood's new heavily hyped movie Flags Of Our Fathers about the six U.S. soldiers who became instant legends after AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped their picture hoisting the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in what was America's bloodiest battle of WWII, more than 5,000 Marines killed.
The photograph is the most famous from the war, hailed for its dramatic symmetry and emotional impact, and was replicated on monuments at home, merchandise, and a U.S. postage stamp that became the biggest-selling of all time.
Three of the five Marines and one Naval corpsman were killed in action shortly after it was taken. The other three came home: John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon. Bradley, right until his 1994 death, refused all interviews. He'd have family members tell reporters over the phone he was incommunicado fishing somewhere in Canada. He'd never been to Canada, he didn't fish.
In the Eastwood movie Ira Hayes, an American Indian, is portrayed by Canadian Adam Beach, an actor from Ottawa, who is also Native. The story of Ira Hayes is one of tragedy. A war hero, he came home and was treated like dirt. Because he was "just" an Indian. He took to the bottle and his saga was told in a movie starring Tony Curtis, and a song by Johnny Cash among others, The Ballad Of Ira Hayes.
But he was just a Pima Indian / No water, no crops, no chance. At home nobody cared what Ira'd done / And when did the Indians dance. He died drunk one mornin' / Alone in the land he fought to save. Two inches of water in a lonely ditch / Was the grave for Ira Hayes.
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Americans honour their heroes, and an argument can be made that the same should be done by our own musicians and filmmakers on the life and times of Rene Gagnon, "Canadian," whose story was also one of sadness and tragedy, the result of the iconic photograph.
He was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, the only child of Henri Gagnon and Irenee Marcotte, French-Canadians who'd emigrated from Saint Luce, Quebec.
His parents divorced when he was an infant after Irenee caught Henri cheating. His mother would sometimes take him back to Canada to visit relatives. Rene quit high school after only two years to join his mother as a labourer in the local textile mill. In 1943, he signed up for war. He was shy and considered a "mama's boy."
In Rosenthal's photo of February 23, 1945, Gagnon is partially obscured by John Bradley. Pfc Rene Gagnon, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, was the youngest of the six, a boy of only 18. The day before the flag-raising, he'd written a letter home to his girlfriend Pauline (who later became his wife) saying:
"I kept the picture you sent me in my helmut (sic) -- the one in your evening dress."
When the gullible Gagnon returned to the States, the government and military exploited his fame. He was given small roles in two movies -- The Sands Of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne, and To The Shores Of Iwo Jima. Promises of greater fame and fortune were made to him. He was used, they didn't materialize. He became bitter, an alcoholic, worked at menial jobs, was fired from most of them, the last, sadly, on Memorial Day of 1978.
He died in October the next year of a heart attack. He was 53, a janitor at an apartment complex in Manchester. Shortly before he told a reporter: "I'm pretty well known in Manchester. When someone who doesn't know me is introduced to me, they say 'That was you in the photograph? What the hell are you doing here? If I was you, I'd have a good job and lots of money.' "
Rene Gagnon is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and is honoured in a special room at the Wright Museum of WWII memorabilia in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Rene Gagnon, "Canadian blood."