Youth’s journey takes on history
Senior staff writer
You could say Dustin Spence is obsessed with Iwo Jima, and he might even admit it.
Ever since he was bowled over by a book about the famous, bloody World War II battle, Spence has been consumed by the subject and its famous flag-raising photos – and then some.
That passion placed the Bear River High School graduate on a recent Washington, D.C., panel with scholars of the famous World War II battle and, maybe, in a small acting role in an upcoming Clint Eastwood film about the most terrible battle of America’s quest to beat the Japanese.
It also placed Spence in a controversy about who was in the photos taken at what historians call “the first flag-raising” at Iwo Jima, which is not when the famous photo was shot.
That was at the second flag-raising, taken by now-retired San Francisco Examiner photographer Joe Rosenthal and immortalized on postage stamps, at the famous statue of its likeness in Washington, D.C., and in countless other images.
Spence’s interest in World War II actually began as a child when his grandfather, Clarence Spence, began telling him about his exploits while flying the famous P-38 Lightning during the war.
“He started telling me these stories and he hadn’t talked about it” for years, just like many other World War II veterans. His grandfather died while he was in high school, but that didn’t stop Spence, now 21, from making a documentary and a short feature film at Bear River about World War II.
When Spence got to UC Davis, he read “The Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley, whose father, John Bradley, was one of the men in the famous, second flag-raising photograph.
A few years later, Spence confronted Bradley with research that said Bradley’s father was also at the first flag-raising. Bradley didn’t know it. Spence also told Bradley he had misidentified some of the men in his book from the first flag-raising photographs, taken by Marine photographer Sgt. Lou Lowery.
Prior to that, Spence just wanted to know everything he could about Iwo Jima, admittedly because he wanted a part in the upcoming Clint Eastwood movie about Iwo Jima, with the same title as Bradley’s book. He started at the Marine Corps League meeting in Grass Valley.
“And that’s where I met Dick,” Spence said, referring to Dick Bowen of Grass Valley, who served at Iwo Jima as a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines. Bowen doesn’t remember much about Iwo Jima and thinks that’s how he dealt with all the sheer horror and death of it all.
Bowen does remember landing on the beach and seeing the first American flag raised on Mt. Suribachi. For the next few weeks, he saw friends blown up in mortar attacks and killed by snipers.
Bowen eventually won the Bronze Star for leading a patrol to save a wounded Marine he had previously treated. The Japanese were so dug into the hills on Iwo Jima that he actually never saw an enemy soldier until he encountered a prisoner while leaving the island.
Shortly after meeting Spence, Bowen took him to a 60th anniversary gathering for Iwo Jima veterans in San Francisco in late February 2005. Clint Eastwood spoke at that meeting and divulged that he was doing an Iwo Jima movie.
Spence, who has acted at UC Davis while pursuing his International Relations degree, eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where, he said, he landed a bit part in the movie. The Union could not confirm that Spence was hired by a firm called Central Casting, but Spence said he was, based on his Iwo Jima research and acting ability.
He said he went with the film crew on a ship near Catalina Island, where “I went up in the crow’s nest and reacted to the flag going up. I tell my guys the flag’s going up and there’s a lot of yelling and cheering.”
Spence knows full well that his scene may end up on the cutting-room floor, but that hasn’t stopped his Iwo Jima film and research quest. He hopes to make a documentary after graduating this month and wants to get a part in an upcoming series about the Pacific Theater being done by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
An Iwo Jima Marine veteran named Chuck Tatum had his Iwo Jima book, “Iwo Jima, Red Blood, Black Sand,” optioned for the series, and Spence wants to play him. Spence found Tatum through Ret. Maj. Gen. O.K. Steele, who lives in Grass Valley.
Tatum, 79, of Stockton, came in on the first wave at Iwo Jima, got hit early, and was brought out of the battle after 15 days with combat fatigue. Tatum said combat fatigue sets in “when you see so many people killed,” like the bulk of his squad.
“I was the worst speller in the platoon,” Tatum said this week. But he felt compelled to write his book after being dissatisfied with others he had read.
After Spence contacted him and told him he would like to play him in the Spielberg-Hanks series, Tatum began trying to help him through his limited contacts in Hollywood from his days as a stuntman there.
“He’s right for the part,” Tatum said. “I’m impressed with his ambitions.”
Spence’s ambitions led Tatum to link him up with Iwo Jima Marine veteran, Lake Tahoe resident and former Bay Area newsman Raymond Jacobs. When Tatum sat down with Jacobs, he discovered the veteran might have some new information about the photos taken of the first flag-raising.
Jacobs had found Sgt. Lou Lowery’s photos of the first flag-raising in an article in the June 2002 issue of the Marines periodical, Leatherneck Magazine. The people identified in the photos in the magazine did not coincide with the identities listed in the same set of photos in Bradley’s book.
Jacobs said he was the radio man in the photos and knew all the men. He also said Bradley’s father was in those photos and that Bradley never knew it.
Jacobs has copies of Los Angeles newspapers of the time that he says can prove he was at the first flag-raising, along with Lowery’s photos. Just to be sure, Jacobs hired a forensic photo analyst, who confirmed through another picture of Jacobs from that time that he indeed was the radio man in Lowery’s pictures.
Through further research, Spence found a retired Marine named Keith Wells, who was one of the men who led the flag raisers up Mt. Suribachi. Wells looked at the pictures and identified a man standing next to Bradley’s father as Pvt. Phil Ward.
Spence contacted Ward in Indiana, who told him that he had been upset for many years that he was not included in the first flag-raising photo identifications, because he was definitely in them.
At that point, Spence realized he had information that could change the historic accuracy of Eastwood’s movie, and felt compelled to confront Bradley.
“So here I am, this college student, and my information is challenging his book,” Spence said, the very book that started him on his Iwo Jima odyssey to begin with. Spence contacted Bradley, who thanked him for the information and a PowerPoint presentation Spence developed, outlining his theories about the alleged mistakes.
Jacobs and Tatum also contacted Bradley, and both said he admitted the evidence showed his father was at the first flag-raising and that some of the photos in his book were misidentified.
“Mr. Jacobs had the proof, and the photos didn’t lie,” Tatum said. “I wanted this story told correctly and the Marines who were there to get recognition. I’m convinced this is right.”
“James did not know his father had been there,” at the first flag-raising, Jacobs said. “I sent him the photos and now he admits it, and that’s how we confirmed all these things.”
James Bradley wasn’t ready to tell The Union that Spence, Tatum and Jacobs were correct.
“I’d have to see the theory in writing with photos in front of me to comment. I’m a professional historian,” Bradley said. “Dustin cares a lot and is a professional amateur.”
However, Bradley did confirm that his father walked up Mt. Suribachi with Jacobs. He may have to look no further than at a couple of upcoming pieces by Spence and Jacobs to see the theory in print.
The former newsman said he has a story about the situation coming out in the April edition of the Marine Corps Gazette. The Marine Corps Association, which prints the Gazette, would not divulge information about how to confirm that with editors there.
Jacobs said his story will also be coming out soon in a piece Spence is writing for Leatherneck Magazine. Leatherneck editor Col. Walter G. Ford confirmed that he has asked Spence to write the article but wants to review it before promising to publish it.
“I’ve asked him to present what the people involved said happened,” Ford said. “He’s made a lot of contacts and developed rapport and respect from Iwo Jima historians.”
Ford knows Maj. Gen. Steele of Grass Valley and said a call from him boosted Spence’s credibility. He also met Spence in Washington, D.C.
“His passion and research was obvious,” Ford said. “Some of the claims appear to be valid, but they are not well documented. In a battle like Iwo Jima, people didn’t take time to document everything.”
Spence met Ford when he presented his information during a panel discussion with Iwo Jima historians in Washington, D.C., last month.
After presenting it, “no one challenged it,” Spence said. “A lot of people came up to me and said it was pretty amazing information.
“I just want the story to be right,” Spence said. “A lot has happened and the Marines from Nevada County were an important part.”
Spence’s father, veterinarian Dr. Dennis Spence and his mother, teacher Susan Spence, are proud of their son.
“He’s very meticulous,” Dr. Spence said. “The veterans have taken him in like their son and as long as he gets his degree in Davis this month, we’re willing to let him pursue this.
“He’s done a noble thing, helping these veterans out.”
To contact senior staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4237.
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