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Sgt. Michael Strank: Beloved leader still has questions raised about his citizenship and his death

… one is clear, the other not so much

The photo is iconic, the vision of a victory by the United States over Japan in World War II. The U.S. capturing of Iwo Jima was a key for finally ending the war in the Pacific, albeit the atomic bombs were needed to bring the effort to fruition.

The raising of the flag over Iwo Jima was staged for photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. In fact, it was taken twice to increase the impact that it would have on the morale of Americans in the U.S. who were weary of war.

The sergeant who led that unit was revered by his men, and he was one of the six who raised that flag. His name was Sgt. Michael Strank, and he grew up in a small town named Franklin, Pa., just outside of Johnstown.

However, there are some questions about Strank’s life and service that have lingered more than 75 years later. One of them has to do with his citizenship, the other about his death. They are both interesting.

One is pretty well-settled, the other a little less clear.

Strank’s background

One aspect of Michael Strank’s life is clear. He and his parents immigrated to the United States,

Mike Strank (nee Strenk) was born on Nov. 10, 1919, in Jarabenia, Czechslovakia. He was the first child of Vasil and Martha Strenk. (The last name was changed to Strank when Vasil came to America).

In order to reach America, Vasil was sponsored by his uncle, Alex Yarina, who had secured a job for Vasil in the coal mines in Franklin.

Once in America, Vasil pursued the American Dream, saving his hard-earned money. In just two years, he was able to send money home to bring Mike and Martha to America.

Two more boys entered the Strank household, John in 1922 and Pete in 1925. Those two young men served in the U.S. Navy during the war.

Eight years later, the youngest and the only girl, Mary, was born.

Hugh Conrad, Johnstown Magazine, 2014

As a result, Michael was not a naturalized American citizen. If not a citizen, how was he able to enter the United States Marine Corps in 1939?

That is a very good question. The reality is that he became an American citizen in 1935 when his father was naturalized. However, he never received citizenship papers until the 21st Century, so he entered without having presented those to the Marine Corps.

That may not have mattered. If he presented evidence that his father was then a naturalized citizen, that may have been enough for him to enter the Marines.

However, those papers are not publicly available, so no one really knows whether the military even asked him to verification of his citizenship, though most assume that they had.

In either event, he was an American citizen when he fought in WWII, even if he did not have the certification.

The official citizenship papers

Strank officially became an American citizen, albeit posthumously, in 2008. However, the story from the AP led to questions being asked about his citizenship,

For more than 60 years the Marine Corps has proudly told the story of Sgt. Michael Strank and the five other warriors who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.

Turns out they were telling part of the story all wrong.

A 73-year oversight was rectified Tuesday when immigration authorities posthumously presented citizenship papers to a relative of Strank, the oldest of the six flag raisers and the first to be killed in combat as the Iwo Jima battle raged on.

The ceremony set the record straight on the citizenship of Strank, a native of Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, who came to the United States in 1922 at age 3.

Strank became a citizen automatically in 1935 when his father, Vasil, was naturalized. But authorities never gave the son his own certificate of citizenship.

Matthew Barakat, “Iwo Jima flag raiser gets citizenship papers,”

Associated Press, July 29, 2008

By calling it an “oversight,” the story raised questions about Strank’s citizenship. However, they were answered by the confirmation of his father’s naturalization in 1935.

Situation with his death is murkier

For many years, the military insisted that Sgt. Strank had been killed by the Japanese on March 1, 1945 on Iwo Jima. Some information today reflects that as being true, but other does not.

However, researchers later unearthed data that points to the fact that the attack that killed Strank came from an American ship,

Strank’s official Marine Corps biography presents it this way,

After the fall of Mount Suribachi, he moved northward with his unit. Fighting was heavy, and both the Japanese and the American forces were taking heavy casualties.

On 1 March, his squad came under heavy fire, and took cover. While forming a plan of attack, he was killed by friendly artillery fire. The shell that killed Sgt. Strank was almost certainly fired from offshore by an American ship.

“Michael Strank,” Biography, Military Hall of Honor

While “almost certainly” is not definitive, it shows that the reality is that he could indeed have become the victim of firing from the ship that did not realize that American fighters were in the area.

He was idolized by his men

Regardless of some questions, one factor is very clear: Sgt. Michael Strank was loved by the men in his squad,

Sgt. Mike Strank's squad idolized him, and many men since who served alongside him have stated he had a way of setting them at ease, making them feel that he could help them survive the war. Of the men photographed raising the flag on Iwo Jima, Strank was the oldest and most experienced in combat. In interviews conducted years later, many documented in the book Flags of Our Fathers written by James Bradley, he is described by men who served with him as "a Marine's Marine," a true warrior and leader, who led his men by example. He often told his men,

"Follow me, and I'll try to bring you all safely home to your mothers."

“Michael Strank,” Biography, Military Hall of Honor

That is the most important fact to remember about the iconic Marine leader.

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