- Amateur historians dispute long-held beliefs about Iwo Jima flag-raiser's identity
- The phenomenon of "false memories" could explain the discrepancy
(CNN)In one of the most iconic images in American history, five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raise a flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
- The initial memory came during a time of duress: Exhausted, triumphant and combat-worn, the men on Iwo Jima were undoubtedly experiencing the high stress of war at the time the photo was taken. Three of the six flag-raisers were later killed on the island. "When your emotions get raised to a very high degree, it makes it even harder to process information and distinguish reality and unreality," Whitbourne said.
- It was reinforced by outside sources: James Bradley has said his father had a memory of raising a flag on the mountain. There was more than one flag raised at the time, and Bradley was present at one of them. His personal memory was reinforced by information John Bradley received from the Marines. "It's important to realize my father didn't independently say, 'Hey, I raised the flag and I'm in the photo,' " James Bradley told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He was told months later in a hospital bed, 'Here you are.' " Whitbourne says this is a common way false memories persist. "When it's something that's self-enhancing, (a memory) has even more likelihood that it's going to grow around the frame and the narrative that you'd like to create for yourself and your family."
- The memory was retold secondhand over the course of decades: James Bradley, who helped immortalize his father's legacy in print, was obviously not present at the time of the flag raising. He was told secondhand, via his father and the Marines. That imperfect exchange of information, coupled with the years the assumption was left to grow, can form a powerful unreality. "All memories are subject to distortion over time," Whitbourne said. "Every time it gets played, something changes. ... At the same time, the more you keep reiterating the same fiction of fact, the less distorted it seems even though it may be increasingly further away from reality."