On this day in 1954, the United States Marine Corps celebrates its birthday—and it dedicates a new War Memorial. That Memorial is easily recognizable today, but do you know the story of how it was created?
The statue was the brainchild of Felix de Weldon, a Viennese-born sculptor who’d come to North America just before World War II began. De Weldon had been commissioned to create a bust for the Canadian Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister was not available to pose when he first arrived. De Weldon had some time to kill, so he decided to tour the United States.
He surely had no idea what was about to happen.
“I traveled through 44 of the 48 states,” he later explained, “and I was so impressed by the friendliness of the people, the vastness and the beauty of the country, the tremendous vitality of its industry and its schools and its science, that I felt ‘This is the country to live in.’”
He completed the Prime Minister’s bust, as he’d promised, but he soon returned to America. Then he volunteered for the Navy.
To put this into perspective, de Weldon was an internationally acclaimed artist with two Ph.Ds. He would eventually become an American citizen, but that moment was years in the future. He didn’t have to volunteer to serve in the U.S. Navy—yet he did.
De Weldon spent much of his time in the Navy serving as a combat artist, but his most memorable moment came on February 23, 1945. He was supposed to be finishing a painting of the Battle of the Coral Sea, but a photograph of Marines raising a flag at Iwo Jima came across the press wire.
He was floored.
“When I saw the picture of the Iwo Jima flag raising . . . . I was so deeply impressed by its significance, its meaning,” he said, “that I imagined that it would arouse the imagination of the American people to show the forward drive, the unison of action, the will to sacrifice, the relentless determination of these young men. Everything was embodied in that picture.”
He began working on a wax model depicting that moment.
“That was a Friday,” de Weldon concluded, “I worked all Friday night, all Saturday, part of Saturday night, all Sunday and by Monday morning the model was completed. . . . the captain immediately sent me with it to Washington, and he said, ‘This is too important to have it here at the station.’”
De Weldon was soon asked to do another, larger model, which could be used to launch a victory bond drive. This 9-foot limestone model was created with the help of three Marines: Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley. They were thought to be the only survivors of the flag raising, so they posed for de Weldon, although it was later determined that Bradley had been misidentified and was not in the iconic photo.
After the war, Congress commissioned de Weldon to create the larger statue with 32-foot figures that Americans are so familiar with today. De Weldon was determined, sometimes working as many as 19 hours a day. He first created a plaster model—this process took three years! The model was then taken apart, and each piece was separately cast in bronze. Finally, the (still largely unassembled) statue was delivered to Washington D.C. by a three-truck convoy.
The $850,000 project had been financed entirely by private donations.
Today, a flag always flies above the statue, but it’s the modern flag, not the 48-star flag that flew during World War II. The Memorial stands in honor of all Marines who have given their lives, not just the Marines who served at Iwo Jima.
“In honor and memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since 10 November 1775,” the granite base of the Memorial reads, “Uncommon Valor Was a Common Virtue.”
Semper Fi, Marines, and Happy Birthday!
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Douglas Martin, Felix de Weldon Is Dead at 96; Sculptured Memorial to Marines (NY Times; June 15, 2003)
Dr. Felix Weihs de Weldon (Marine Corps University)
Felix de Weldon Oral History Interview (January 22, 1969, with Jerry N. Hess (reprinted on Harry S. Truman Library & Museum website, here)
History of the Marine Corps War Memorial (National Park Service)
Marine Corps War Memorial (US Marine Corps website)
USMC Statement on Iwo Jima Flag Raisers (Office of U.S. Marine Corps Communication; Headquarters Marine Corps; June 23, 2016)