February 24, 2016

Meet Harlan Block, the Seventh-day Adventist Who Helped Raise the U.S. Flag on Iwo Jima

Roughly two years after graduating from the high school in Weslaco, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley, Henry Harlan Block was part of one of this nation's most stirring achievements: the capture of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima in Japan on February 23, 1945.

If you've ever seen the prize-winning photo of a group of United States Marines raising the American flag atop the summit, you've seen Harlan Block, the son of Seventh-day Adventist parents, and someone who was raised in the faith. He's the Marine crouching at the foot of the flagpole, helping to secure it in the ground. The scene is also immortalized in the Marine Corps Memorial sculpture that is a centerpiece in Arlington, Virginia.

Not much is known of Block's Adventism, except that an apparently independent spirit may have caused him problems. After the Block family moved to Weslaco, Harlan was enrolled in the local Seventh-day Adventist Academy. But when a student, or students, committed an act of vandalism — probably a childhood prank, but the details aren't known — Harlan refused to "snitch." His act of loyalty got him expelled from the Adventist school and landed him at Weslaco High School.

There, Block was a standout football player, and along with some of his classmates, was on track for athletic success. But once again, Block's independent streak changed the direction of his life. Playing hooky one afternoon to see a movie in nearby Harlingen, Block and his friends stopped by a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting station, and picked up some brochures with the idea they'd enlist after graduation the following June.

Instead, on returning to high school, the young men were confronted by the principal with a demand to explain their absence. Displaying the recruiting brochures bought the miscreants an excuse — and a speeded-up high school graduation. Block and seven others from the school graduated in January 1943 and enlisted the following month.

On Iwo Jima, an island where the Japanese determined they would blunt the advance of American troops bent on defeating Tojo's forces, Block and Sgt. Michael Strank were among those seen raising the flag. Eight days later, the two would be killed by shrapnel from a Japanese shell.

Though some controversy surrounded the question of whether Block was, indeed, one of the Marines to raise the flag, it was later determined that his place in this historic event was secure. According to the history division of the Marine Corps, Block was awarded several military decorations: the Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation with one star (for Iwo Jima), the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two stars (for the Consolidation of the Northern Solomons and Iwo Jima), the American Campaign medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. He is buried in Harlingen, Texas, and a sports complex in Weslaco bears his name.

Nothing in the available history, not even the memories of his close friend Glen Cleckler, who was a Weslaco High teammate and fellow Marine Corps enlistee, suggests much about Block's Adventism. But his roots in the faith are there, and his service is remembered even now.

Writing on Facebook on February 23, 2016, Texas Governor Greg Abbott noted, "On this day in 1945, Corporal Harlon Block of Weslaco helped raise the flag over Iwo Jima. He was killed in action on March 1. We'll never forget the sacrifices our servicemen and women have made for our freedom."