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An Iwo Jima Ukrainian Connection

IwoJima-1Almost all Americans are familiar with the image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima: if they didn’t encounter the picture in a book or magazine, they may have seen the John Wayne movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima” - or the more recent Clint Eastwood film "Flags of Our Fathers" - in which the event is recreated. Most Ukrainian-Americans, however, do not realize that one of their own was among the group of men who helped raise that banner. This celebrated event has now been reproduced twice on US stamps and so this individual is the only person of Ukrainian extraction to be doubly honored by the United States Postal Service (USPS).

His name was Michael Strank (biography below) and he was one of six men who raised the American flag atop a rugged mountain on Iwo Jima (23 February 1945) during the bitter battle against the Japanese for control of that Pacific Ocean island.

Background on the Iwo Jima Operation

Iwo Jima is an eight-square mile island of sulfuric sand and volcanic ash situated some 700 miles south of Tokyo. The Japanese installed radar stations on the island along with two airstrips that enabled them to intercept US planes on bombing runs to Japan.

Tokyo knew that the Allies were interested in taking the island and so they installed a strong garrison of 21,000 troops. The island was turned into a fortress with 1,500 pillboxes and blockhouses, trenches, and hundreds of connecting tunnels. The main volcanic peak, Mt. Suribachi, was also honeycombed with bunkers. The soldiers serving on the island knew it would be a fight to the death with no hope of rescue by the Japanese Imperial Fleet; they were prepared to make any attempt to take the island as costly as possible.

US marines landed on 19 February 1945 after three days of continuous naval bombardment. The summit of Mt. Suribachi was taken four days later, but it took almost a month to completely occupy the remainder of the island. The first American flag raised on the heights was a small one and not easily visible. A larger ensign was found and its planting is what was captured on the famous photograph.

The battle for Iwo Jima turned out to be the bloodiest of the Pacific war. Some 6,800 US marines and sailors were killed and more than 18,000 wounded. Of the 21,000 Japanese, only 200 were taken prisoner, the remainder died fighting.

Commemorations

IwoJima-2IwoJima-3A photograph of the flag-raising was soon after selected as the official symbol of the Seventh War Loan Drive. The poster bearing this photo was acclaimed the greatest of the war and given the widest possible display. Vying closely in importance was the issuance on 11 July 1945 of a green, 3-cent commemorative postage stamp depicting the famous event. The stamp was the result of widespread popular demand culminating in a resolution signed by 12 United States senators. The final stamp engraving closely copied the original photographic image.

IwoJima-4In 1946, by unanimous vote of Congress, a statue of the famous flag-raising was authorized. It was not until November 1954, however, that the completed statue, officially named the Marine Corps War Memorial, was dedicated on a knoll at the north end of Arlington National Cemetery overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C..

From 1991 to 1995 the USPS issued an annual commemorative sheetlet marking the 50th anniversary of events from World War II. IwoJima-5Each of these five sheetlets depicted 10 significant occurrences and the one from 1995 included the capture of Iwo Jima. This 32-cent stamp, released on 2 September 1995, as well as all of the World War II commemorative series issues, were produced in a horizontal format and in full color.

A Biography of Sergeant Michael Strank

Sergeant Michael Strank, though only 25, was the eldest and highest ranking of the six flag-raisers. He was also the only one of this renowned group in the regular Marine Corps. It is fitting indeed that he should have taken part in the famous flag-raising, for he was an ardent lover of America’s emblem. When stationed at New River, North Carolina with the First Marine Division, he would always make it a point to come to attention and salute the flag when it was being lowered for the day.

Michael Strank was born on 10 November 1919 to Vasil and Martha Strank, in Conemaugh, Pennsylvania. His parents were Ukrainian (Rusyn-Lemko) immigrants from the Priashiv (Preshov) region of Czechoslovakia (now in eastern Slovakia). Michael attended the Franklin Borough, Pennsylvania schools and graduated from high school in 1937. His favorite sports were football and basketball. Following his graduation, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at Adamana, California. After 18 months he returned to Pennsylvania and became a highway worker for the state.

On 6 October 1939, Strank signed up at Pittsburgh for a four-year enlistment with the regular Marine Corps. After completing his recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was transferred to Headquarters Company, Post Troops, at the same base, where he was promoted to Private First Class on 15 July 1940. A short time later, he was qualified as “marksman.” On 18 January 1941, he sailed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; he served there until 8 April when his company returned to the states. Arriving at Charleston, S.C. on the llth, the company proceeded to Parris Island. In September, the division moved to Camp Lejeune, one of the Marines' largest bases, in the vicinity of New River.

Private First Class Michael Strank was promoted to Corporal on 23 April 1941, and on 26 January 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II, he was promoted again to the rank of Sergeant and was made a platoon sergeant shortly thereafter. From early in April of 1942 to February of 1944, Strank served with various units in many areas of the Pacific. Although his four-year enlistment expired on 5 October 1943, he extended it the following day for two more years. On 14 February 1944, Sergeant Strank returned to the United States and received a 30-day furlough. Upon his return to Camp Elliott, San Diego, California, he was reassigned to Company “E", Second Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division. After six months of hard training at Camp Pendleton, California, the company was transferred to Hilo, Hawaii for further exercises including amphibious landings. In January of 1945, the company crossed the Pacific visiting several islands enroute, including the Marshalls and the Marianas.

IwoJima-6On 19 February 1945, Sergeant Strank was a member of the invasion force that landed on Iwo Jima. After fighting for four davs and nights with very little sleep on that sizzling, barren island, he, along with four other Marines and one of his company's corps men, raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, the main stronghold of enemy artillery on the southern part of the island.

Following the memorable flag-raising event, Sergeant Strank continued in combat on the northernmost part of the island. On 1 March, while fighting under heavy enemy fire, he was mortally wounded in the neck and chest by artillery fire. He was buried in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694 in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery, with the last rites of the Catholic Church. The famous Pennsylvania Marine had served 30 months overseas and was serving his third tour of foreign duty when death came.

Sergeant Michael Strank earned the following medals and decorations: Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation with one star (for Iwo Jima), American Defense Service Medal with base clasp (for service in Cuba before the war), the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

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This article is slightly expanded from a version that first appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly Vol. 68 No. 23 (4 June 2000): 13, 18.