John Wayne’s World War II classic Sands of Iwo Jima hit theaters just four years after the battle. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
When it comes to John Wayne’s movies, his Westerns reign supreme, but Hollywood’s most famous cowboy has a filmography of more than 180 films, including an impressive number of war movies. Among his best films that don’t include a horse or spurs is the World War II classic Sands of Iwo Jima.
In the 1949 film about the cataclysmic battle in the Pacific, Wayne plays hard-nosed Marine Sgt. John M. Stryker, a role originally intended for Kirk Douglas. Luckily for Wayne, he won the part of the fictional squad leader and fought his way to the top of Mount Suribachi and into the awards arena. The role “The Duke” almost missed out on earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
In honor of Wayne’s best impression of a World War II gyrene, we’ve compiled a list of five more facts you probably didn’t know about Sands of Iwo Jima.
Sands of Iwo Jima was released just four years after the battle took place. Because of its proximity to the fighting, many of the battle’s veterans were able to star in the film. Among the Marines who portrayed themselves were Col. David M. Shoup, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions on Tarawa; Lt. Col. Harold Schrier, who led the 5th Marine Regiment up Mount Suribachi; and Col. Henry Pierson Crowe, who commanded the 8th Marines on Tarawa and whose waxed mustache makes him easy to spot in the film.
In addition to the impressive amount of brass, three enlisted men who were long believed to be the surviving members of Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the flag-raising also portrayed themselves in the film. Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon and Navy Corpsman James H. Bradley all have cameos.
In 1950, John Wayne became the 125th celebrity to be honored with a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Wayne left impressions of his hands and feet in the concrete outside of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre. In a special nod to the Duke’s role as Sgt. Stryker, the concrete used for Wayne’s square was mixed with black sand shipped all the way from the tiny volcanic island in the Pacific.
Sands of Iwo Jima was groundbreaking in 1949 for its mixing of Hollywood re-creations with actual footage of World War II combat. In addition to film captured during the Battle of Iwo Jima, the movie contains extensive footage borrowed from With the Marines at Tarawa: a documentary that won the Marine Corps its own Oscar.
Among the footage used in the film is the moment 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman led a team of Marines carrying flamethrowers and demolitions in an attack against a bombproof Japanese bunker. Bonnyman was killed in the successful attack and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His remains were unaccounted for until 2015, when they were finally identified and returned to the United States for burial. During the Tarawa scene in Sands of Iwo Jima, Bonnyman can be seen leading his team to the top of the Japanese bunker.
In one memorable scene early in the film, Wayne teaches a new, clumsy boot proper footwork for using a bayonet. The young grunt is played by Hal Baylor, a real Marine who fought on Tinian and Saipan. While Wayne portrays the seasoned veteran among the pair, the Duke never actually served in the military.
Of the six men captured in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the American flag being hoisted atop Mount Suribachi, three were originally thought to have been killed in the battle. The three survivors — Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley — went on to participate in a war-bond drive. In 2016, the Marine Corps announced that Bradley had been misidentified, and the man in the photograph was actually Marine Pfc. Harold Schulz. Then, in 2019, it announced the Marine originally thought to be Gagnon was actually Cpl. Harold Keller.
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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