That Time the Marine Corps Mistook a John Wayne Movie For Real WWII Footage

July 10, 2023Mac Caltrider
Iwo Jima

John Wayne as the fictional Sgt. Stryker. Screenshot from “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

There is something off about a picture the United States Marine Corps posted to its official Instagram account last November. For starters, the image, posted in honor of the 79th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa, seems a little too clear for a photograph supposedly taken nearly eight decades ago and in the midst of one of the most intense engagements of World War II. 

The picture in question depicts a squad of Marines with fixed bayonets climbing over a coconut-log seawall. Presumably, they are charging toward Japanese soldiers defending the island of Tarawa. In reality, however, the men in the photograph are not Marines, nor was it taken by a war correspondent in the thick of combat. It is a still from the popular 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne.

So, how does something like this happen? To commemorate the battle’s anniversary, the Marine Corps shared a carousel of old black-and-white photographs on Instagram. The accompanying caption heralded the brave Marines and sailors of the 2nd Marine Division who emerged victorious from the 76-hour operation to seize control of Tarawa from the Japanese. The post included several photos of actual Marines hurling hand grenades, rushing enemy pillboxes, and wading ashore through the island’s fire-swept lagoon. And for some reason — perhaps they didn’t do their research? — the Marine Corps’ social media team threw a frame from a John Wayne movie into the mix.

Sure, at a glance, the image appears legitimate. But a few extra moments of study reveal certain key details that would indicate to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of World War II that the scene was clearly staged. In addition to being of much higher resolution than any other image chronicling the battle, the photograph is taken from an impossible point of view: beyond the seawall where Marines were pinned down. Fans of Sands of Iwo Jima will recognize it as the moment in the film when a squad of Marines begin their heroic assault, after the Duke singlehandedly destroys an enemy bunker.

Mistakes happen, of course, but this one would’ve been too easy to avoid. After all, there is no shortage of real photographs from the battle. The Corps even won an Oscar in 1945 for a documentary they produced about Tarawa, which only featured actual combat footage. 

Read Next: WATCH: The Bloody Documentary That Won the Marine Corps an Oscar

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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