By visiting Grave 7179, Section 12, in Arlington National Cemetery, one can find the headstone of Michael Strank, a United States Marine Corps Sergeant who served and was killed in World War II.
Strank, a son of Ukrainian immigrants, is remembered as more than just a soldier, however. A short walk away from where he is buried, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial depicts him as one of six men who iconically raised the American flag at the top of a rugged mountain on Iwo Jima, on February 23rd, 1945.
Only eight days after raising the flag, Strank was killed by artillery fire while attacking the northern part of Iwo Jima. Aged 25 at the time of his death, Strank was still the eldest and the highest ranking of the six flag-raisers.
Strank was born on November 10, 1919 in the village of Oriabyna, Czechoslovakia (modern-day northern Slovakia) into a Lemko Ukrainian family. Shortly after his birth, his family immigrated to southwestern Pennsylvania, where his father worked as a coal miner.
In 1939, two years after graduating high school, Strank enlisted in the Marine Corps. In 1942, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and deployed to Wallis Island in the Pacific, later participating in occupations of French Polynesian territories and the Bougainville Campaign.
On February 19th, 1945, Strank led his division as they landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. This marked the start of the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the deadliest battles fought by the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, with more than 25,000 American casualties, including 6,821 deaths.
Strank’s division participated in the seizure of Mount Suribachi on the southwestern corner of the island, after which LCT Chandler Johnson ordered Strank and his squad to place a large U.S. flag on top of the mountain.
As the men were making their way up the steep mountain with a heavy iron pipe that weighed close to 100 pounds, Strank carried the American flag in his hands. It was then that civilian war photographer Joe Rosenthal noticed them, later taking the iconic photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The photo depicted the six soldiers implanting the heavy pole with the flag to indicate that the highest point of Iwo Jima had been taken.
Strank has been honored as a local hero in both Slovakia and Ukraine. In Slovakia, he was recognized through a stamp series, while in Ukraine, he is honored with a statuette in the Carpathian city of Uzhhorod, as well as by a short film from the Ministry of Defense as part of a series on Ukrainian war heroes.
Strank was described by those who served with him as a “Marine’s Marine”, a warrior who led his men by example. According to the New York Times bestselling book Flags of Our Fathers, Strank told his squad, “Follow me and I’ll try to bring all of you safely back to your mothers. Listen to me, and follow my orders, and I’ll do my best to bring you home.”
Photo at top of page: The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, depicting the six soldier who raised the flag on top of Mt. Suribachi. Sources: The National Park Service, FindAGrave.