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A Texan at Iwo Jima

Rio Grande Valley native among the immortals in the famous photo from 75 years ago

The high school seniors on the 1942 Weslaco Panthers football team formed a bond even stronger than most brothers of the gridiron. All eight of the young men finished their final year of high school in one semester so they could enlist in the Marines and fight for Uncle Sam in World War II. All but one survived the global conflict.

That Marine, Harlon Block, appears in one of the most reproduced images in history, the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. The photograph by The Associated Press’ Joe Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize, but because Block’s back was to the camera—he’s crouching on the far right—he was at first misidentified by military authorities as another Marine.

When Harlon’s mother, Belle Block, saw the photograph on the front page of the Weslaco Mid-Valley News on February 25, she exclaimed, “That’s Harlon!” Her intuition was affirmed in 1946, when Ira Hayes, a surviving flag raiser, visited Harlon’s father, Ed Block, in Weslaco and told him that his son was indeed in the photograph. Ed Block wrote his congressman, and an investigation confirmed the identity. Hayes, a member of the Pima tribe, is further immortalized in the Peter La Farge song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, recorded by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and others.

Block died in combat on Iwo Jima, just six days after the flag raising. He was 21. Block was first buried in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery at Mount Suribachi, then he was reinterred in Weslaco in 1949. He was reburied a second time in 1995, on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, beside the academy’s Iwo Jima Monument.

According to the son of one of Block’s high school teammates, all seven of the surviving football players served as pallbearers at both of his reinterments.

Writer and author Gene Fowler specializes in art and history.