In Brooklyn with Pie and The Duke
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD 20th Century Hero Worship in Small-Town Iowa
How Long Is This Post? 2,700 words, or about 13 minutes
Dear Nonnie Friend,
First time I ever drove through Iowa in my life was just a few short years ago, when I took my teenage son, Hoosen, Jr. on a road trip to visit colleges in the Midwest. We came to Iowa to see Grinnell College, which is pretty much in the middle of a corn field. I don’t recall which route we took, but I do remember how boring a drive that was: Iowa lived down to its reputation. We saw nothing I thought might be worth a closer look. “Last I checked,” I said by way of conversation to Hoosen, Jr., “Iowa is the best-read state in the nation. Probably because there’s nothing else to do.”
Iowa readers, I would like to apologize. I have since noted the many interesting museums in your fair state (although Hoosen has so far resisted my call for a holiday in Cedar Rapids, not even a weekend, after we briefly stopped there last month. But it’s so conveniently located!). I found a brief stop in Dubuque charming, and Hoosen remarked that, why, even its tattoo shops looked nice.
And then we found Brooklyn, Iowa, and, more exactly, two men who once lived there, both of them hailed as hometown heroes.
A Piece of Pie
HAROLD “PIE” KELLER MEMORIAL said the sign on the freeway. Pie? Who’s he? Let’s have a look, I said to Hoosen, as we coasted on the freeway last month. This should be good. Maybe Harold made outstanding baked goods? We were half a mile down the road in the direction of Brooklyn, Iowa, when I learned what the memorial was about, and I thought I would save the news as a surprise for Hoosen.
And here it is: A parade of flags is the first thing you see from the road, and then the statue of “Pie” Keller himself, alongside a plaque showing the reason for the fuss:
So Harold “Pie” Keller, an enlisted man in the Marine Corps, was one of those who raised the flag in that iconic photo of WWII, at Iwo Jima, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the War in the Pacific.
Honestly? Brooklyn, Iowa, should have quit while it was ahead. As a casual tourist, I might have been satisfied with what you see in the photo above , and gone on my way. But no, you added two more plaques. And they are, honestly, pretty strange.
THE BLOODY BATTLE FOR MT. SURIBACHI
FINAL CASUALTIES ON THE AMERICAN SIDE WERE:
2,648 CASES OF COMBAT FATIGUE
AT LEAST 20,000 JAPANESE WERE EITHER KILLED, MANY BY INCINERATION OR KILLED THEMSELVES TO AVOID THE DISHONOR OF SURRENDERING. REFERENCED FROM "INVESTIGATING TWO, THE FLAG RAISINGS IN MYTH, MEMORY & [Esprit] DE CORPS"
Okay, that’s a lot of focus on how the Japanese soldiers died, and it’s not clear why you felt moved to include that, but let’s leave that aside for now. How about that last line? You don’t normally see sort-of scholarly footnotes on a historical plaque or info panel, not least because scholarship is always changing. Actually, let me be clear: This is a first. What on earth?
So I looked up the book the memorial mentions: Investigating Iwo: The Flag Raisings in Myth, Memory, & Esprit de Corps. It’s edited by USMC historian Dr. Breanne Robertson, and published by the Marine Corps History Division (2019),
Yes, you read that right. So now we know that this is a very recent statue. And yes, indeed, I can confirm that the US Marine Corps (and all the branches of the armed forces) employ historians. Some of these historians are servicepeople. Others are civilians. Some are on temporary hire from civilian universities. Others work permanently for the military. I have known a few of them. I have even assigned their work in class on occasion. Why? Because they are professional scholars, not hacks. I still recall the article produced by a historian employed by the US Navy, on the eve of the Iraq War, who strongly suggested that invading Iraq and trying to make it a democracy from the outside might be a very bad idea, because it had never been done successfully in the past. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether he was right, but I bet it gave his employers something to think about. And that’s exactly what they wanted from him.
Look, the US Armed Forces haven’t time for BS: They want as much helpful context as they can get, they need to learn from history as a matter of urgency (and these days, they get that this is hard: We’re always fighting the last war). Most of all, they need truth, because as they know better than anyone, the ultimate proof of truth is piles of bodies, something they would rather avoid.
If I was surprised by this plaque, it was only because (a) I had no idea that military historians were participating in the exciting new work on History and Memory (but that shouldn’t have surprised me, not at all) and (b) A book was footnoted on a memorial, which is, frankly, a bit weird, and very amateur hour. Hadn’t the organizers looked at any other statues to see how these things are done? Is nobody in town willing or able to raise a dissenting voice? Were no trained public historians involved in this decision? Apparently not. Check out the third plaque:
Here’s what it says: WITH MUCH PRIDE, BROOKLYN HAS CHOSEN TO HONOR HAROLD "PIE" KELLER, WHO AFTER 74 YEARS WAS CONFIRMED AS ONE OF THE SIX FLAG RAISERS ON IWO JIMA. WE WOULD ALSO LIKE TO RECOGNIZE THREE OTHER BROOKLYN NATIVES: BYARD BRALEY, DON ENT, AND BOB DAPPEN, WHO ALSO WERE INVOLVED IN THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA. THERE WERE AT LEAST 6 BROOKLYN WOMEN AND MANY MEN WHO ENLISTED IN THE ARMED SERVICES DURING WWII. WITH MUCH GRATITUDE WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK BRENT WESTEMEYER, STEPHEN FOLEY AND DUSTIN SPENCE FOR BEING THE KEY PEOPLE IN IDENTIFYING "PIE" AND GETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT WITH THE USMC IN 2019.
I can’t even with this. There’s more about the memorial committee on this plaque than there is about Harold Keller himself. They didn’t even remember to include the dates of his birth and death. But boy, they remembered to congratulate the committee members. I lived in a small town for fifteen years, and every bloody event—even plays— started with the sodding committee being asked to “stand and be recognized”. I made fun of this in the first chapter of one of my novels.
And the mysterious story about “setting the record straight” is even more of a distraction. Who was the man in the famous photo identified as before he was revealed as Keller? Which flag raising (there was more than one)? Who was Harold Keller? None of this gets explained, not that I really expected answers but I didn’t expect a memorial to raise so many questions, either. Maybe they ran out of money for even more long, rambling explanations cast in bronze? For that we can be grateful. Churchill got “REMEMBER CHURCHILL” on his gravestone. Harold “Pie” Keller is memorialized in a raw stream of committee meeting minutes.
So I did the Google, and checked out the Wikipedia article on Harold Keller, and this piece from the Des Moines Register, which was published very recently, June 14, 2021. I was astonished to discover in the latter that the memorial was funded in part by a sale of guns: “Firearms manufacturer Henry Repeating Arms is selling 100 Golden Boy Pie Keller Memorial Edition rifles to help raise the rest of the money, according to a news release.”
I wonder what Harold “Pie” Keller would have made of his name put on a gun, and sold to raise a memorial to him? That made me pause. I knew a lot of World War II veterans, grew up among them, and what they had in common? They didn’t talk to us about the war. And that was triply true for those who saw combat. They just didn’t. Any boasting, they left to the blokes who, in reality, had had a very quiet war.
Both articles emphasize that Harold Keller was no exception to this norm. He never mentioned Iwo Jima to family, friends, or neighbors. When another Marine was credited as him on the Iwo Jima photo, if the Wikipedia article is correct, he may have expressed his concern, but he didn’t protest when he was told to keep quiet. The misidentification was only corrected in 2019, forty years after he died from a heart attack at age 57, and this correction was supposedly the inspiration for the memorial.
What were Harold Keller’s feelings on guns for civilian use? Would he have minded having a rifle named for him? I have no idea. But I raise the question because I don’t assume anything: I’ve known many combat veterans who weren’t gung-ho about war or guns. I still remember the kindly old Georgian who confessed to having been at the Battle of the Bulge. “Oh, that was hard,” I said quietly, and he couldn’t do anything but nod, tears in his eyes.
Keller served as a firefighter for thirty years, another risky occupation, and that’s about all we know. In 1979, the year he died, gun ownership for hunting only was still common. School shootings alone have a long history in the US, but I think most of us would date the awful era in which they have become horrifyingly ubiquitous to the mass murders at Columbine Hugh School, or, for me, to the January, 1979, shooting that inspired the Boomtown Rats’ song I Don’t Like Mondays. That 1979 shooting made international news, and unless Keller died in that first month of 1979, there’s a good chance he heard about it. But what he thought then, or, had he been alive today, what he would have thought now about the huge rise in mass shootings and gun proliferation, and/or about the fundraiser, is anyone’s guess. And I do mean that. He’s not here to think or give an opinion about a 21st century society he would surely have found bewildering. God knows, I’m living in it, and I have no idea what’s going on.
The only words on the Memorial actually from Harold Keller himself also struck me as the words that rung most true. You’ll see what he said in small letters on the plaque next to his statue, the one depicting the famous Iwo Jima photo: “All of us raised the flag that day.”
I teared up when I read that. Those were the words I could clearly identify as those of the World War II generation. It didn’t really matter who got credit for being in the photo: This was all the Marines who fought (and in six thousand cases, died) on Iwo Jima, in the Pacific War, maybe in all of World War II.
Maybe the Committee should have left it at that. Keeping it simple would certainly have made the Memorial affordable without selling Harold “Pie” Keller’s name on a gun barrel without his posthumous consent, and would have made for a far more powerful, more poignant memorial to all those small-town men who, even if they survived the horrors of war, never really come home.
The Memorial that actually happened? Very much a product of 2021, a time after WWII being a living memory for practically everyone. And that thought, despite this being an obviously limited comparison, put me in mind of the Daughters' of the Confederacy’s belated, turn-of-the century memorials to the Civil War. It no longer means the same thing, decades later.
The Duke of Brooklyn
Right next to the Harold “Pie” Keller memorial was a sign advising us that the John Wayne Boyhood Home was four blocks away. Well, that was unexpected. I was pretty sure the actor’s birthplace was elsewhere in Iowa.
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