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Unknown valor: Talking to some unsung heroes of Iwo Jima

The poem “In Flanders Fields” makes my Aunt Nancy cry. It reminds her of her 18-year-old brother, who was killed at Iwo Jima.

It was written by Canadian doctor and soldier John McCrae, after he buried his friend in Belgium in World War I: “In Flanders Field, the poppies blow, between the crosses, row by row.” It goes on, “We are the Dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.”

The poem quickly became popular — today we would say it went viral. Dr. McCrae died three years later of pneumonia, likely brought on by illness from German chlorine gas attacks.

Twenty-seven years later, during World War II, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal piled rocks to stand on for a good photo. His subject: six Marines pushing a 20-foot pipe with an American flag to the edge of Mt. Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima. Seventy-five years ago this week, Rosenthal captured them as they lunged together to hoist the Stars and Stripes.

Rosenthal’s photo was instantly recognized as an iconic image that would inspire the nation. The photo seemed to scream, ”Our boys are winning!” “The tide in the Pacific is turning!”

The “flag raising” also went viral. Yet the battle was hardly over: Of the six Marines who raised the flag that Feb. 23 in 1945, three would be dead within days.

The dug-in enemy would batter the Marines for 31 days more. Earlier, spotters flying overhead had noticed Japanese soldiers and weapons disappearing underground. One remembers, “The enemy wasn’t on Iwo Jima, it was ‘in’ it.”

Under the moon-like terrain were 11 miles of hidden interconnecting tunnels and bunkers and sniper holes. From those positions the Japanese would kill nearly 7,000 Marines and injure nearly 20,000 others. They lost 21,000 soldiers.

When I was a teen, my mother showed me her cousin Harry Gray’s letters. In them, an 18-year-old boy, 7,000 miles from home, assures everyone back home that he’s fine. He gives few details but always spins an upbeat story, as mortars fly above.

“Two other fellows and myself are in a hole and you can bet it’s very secure . . . We had an air raid and Mom you can bet I was plenty scared. The living conditions are good and the chow is surprisingly good and plenty of it.”

I visited Iwo Jima last March. On my flight were several veterans returning to the island that still haunted their nightmares.

Rondo Scharfe was 16 (he used a faked birth certificate to skirt the age-18 minimum) when his Higgins boat heading for shore hit an obstruction, breaking his sternum and killing others.

He told me when he visits the graves of the buddies, he wonders why he got to have a life, marry and have kids — and they did not.

On Iwo Jima, I walked the beach where Harry Gray landed and the field on the part of the island where he was killed. He was heading up to the front for the first time on March 13, 1945, carrying ammunition in a column of 19 Marines when the mortars hit.

Harry was with his buddies when he died: Herman Graeter of Ohio (also killed); George Colburn, who told my grandfather what happened; and Charlie Gubish, who is now 101 and still carries the shrapnel in his body.

While writing “Unknown Valor,” I found Charlie and George alive and well, in Pennsylvania and Florida, respectively. George fell silent when I explained that I was Harry Gray’s niece. He said, after a very long pause, “I think about Harry all the time . . . We were so close. Closer than brothers.”

Charlie remembered Harry, too. They shared a foxhole. Charlie told me that because he was 24 and the others were just 18, they called him “Pop.” He said Harry would “say to me ‘Pop, you sleep, I’ll watch’ ” at night in the bomb crater where they slept.

These are the men about whom movies are not made. They are the men who die on the beaches and fields. They sacrificed everything, but for most of them, their valor is unknown.

Let’s remember those who gave their all so that we would be free — those who served with valor known only to those with whom they were “‘closer than brothers.”

Martha MacCallum is a Fox News anchor and author of “Unknown Valor,” out this month.