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74 years later, Iowa Marine ID'd in iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising World War II photo

Harold 'Pie' Keller, of Brooklyn, Iowa, confirmed as one of six Marines

FILE - In this Feb 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. After acknowledging they misidentified some of the men shown in an iconic image raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, the Marines said Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, they were also mistaken in listing the names of those who raised an earlier flag amid intense fighting on the island. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File)
FILE - In this Feb 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. After acknowledging they misidentified some of the men shown in an iconic image raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, the Marines said Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, they were also mistaken in listing the names of those who raised an earlier flag amid intense fighting on the island. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File)
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Seventy four years after a famous photo of Marines hoisting an American flag at Iwo Jima was taken, an Iowa historian has succeeded in his quest to correctly identify one of six men shown in the World War II image as a Marine from Brooklyn, Iowa.

This month, the Marine Corps confirmed it had misidentified a second man shown in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken Feb. 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.

Instead of Rene Gagnon, who long had been thought to have been in the photo, it actually was Harold “Pie” Keller, a Brooklyn native who died in 1979. He can be seen at the back of the scrum, using leverage to plant the flag in the rocky soil of Japan’s Mount Suribachi.

“No. 2 is a bigger, more robust Marine. Rene Gagnon was tiny,” said Brent Westemeyer, 54, of Johnston, referring to the positions of the Marines in the photo. “I thought, ‘There’s no way that is Rene Gagnon.’”

Westemeyer, an amateur World War II historian who is a financial investment consultant, in 2014 started noticing inconsistencies in the Rosenthal photo and the list of men first identified: A bayonet on a gun in one photo but not in another, and Marines’ body shapes that didn’t match up with the names in the photo.

He showed his evidence to two other WW II historians, Stephen Foley, of Ireland, and Dustin Spence, of Sacramento, who eventually agreed with him. They made a PowerPoint presentation and shared it with the Marine Corps, which did its own investigation and confirmed what the historians had found.

This was three years after the Marine Corps corrected another mistaken identity, announcing in 2016 that the late Private First Class Harold Schultz appeared in the photo instead of John Bradley, a Navy hospital corpsman first identified. Bradley became the subject of the bestselling book “Flags of our Fathers” and a Clint Eastwood movie adaptation.

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“He was the first one who figured it out,” Kay Maurer, 70, of Clarence, said about Westemeyer’s identification of her father, Keller, in the photo.

Maurer had met with Westemeyer and the other historians for several years, sharing with them photos of her dad and articles about the flag raising.

“I knew that Dad was in the platoon that went up Mount Suribachi,” Maurer said. But Keller didn’t talk much about the war, only telling his three children occasional stories about the lighthearted moments with his fellow Marines.

Maurer thinks her father knew he was in the photo, but was glad he hadn’t been named and thrust into the limelight.

But Maurer, who revered her father and watched him closely when she was a child, agreed it was him once she saw the evidence.

“Somebody showed me a video of that flag raising,” she said. “When they planted the flag and Dad stepped forward to get some rocks to build up around the base of the flagpole, I said ‘My God, that’s Dad.’ I could tell by his walk.”

Keller got his nickname “Pie” from a time in high school when he’d eaten too much pie before a football game and, shall we say, left it on the field.

He served in the Marine Corps from Jan. 6, 1942, to Sept. 19, 1945, and was awarded a Purple Heart. He fought in major battles, including the Battle of Midway, where he survived a bullet in the neck, the Washington Post reported.

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Westemeyer said the Marine Corps confirming his identification of Keller in the famous photo was “wonderful.”

“To me, making it right is great. Making it right for Brooklyn, Iowa, is a good thing,” he said. “To do this for her (Maurer’s) family is really all I’m asking for.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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