Among all these Hollywood Marines, for many the single most memorable fictional Leatherneck of all time was Sgt John M. Stryker, as depicted in the RKO Pictures film Sands of Iwo Jima (SoIJ). Played by John Wayne, one of America's most beloved actors, Sgt Styker came to represent the epitome of the Marine Corps and its ethos. And for Wayne himself, the role of Stryker was among the most enduring of his career.
For decades after its release, SoIJ was the quintessential movie about Marines, and Sgt Stryker served as a prototype of how Americans saw the Corps and of how Marines saw themselves. The film was released to rave reviews in December 1949 and John Wayne earned an Oscar nomination for best actor. In January 1950, Wayne pressed his signature and footprints into cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Mixed in with the cement was sand from the island of Iwo Jima – a tribute to the Marines depicted in the film.
By the standards of the late 1940s, SoIJ was a groundbreaking film. Much like the motion picture Battleground – also released in 1949 – SoIJ showed film audiences one of the first realistic post-World War II depictions of men in ground combat. Showing as it did the full range of human emotions, including life and death in combat, it was a hard-hitting picture that affected many people deeply. Even viewing the film through our modern lens, the characters, how they interact with each other, and the scope of the film make it a moving experience.
This is as good a spot as any to bring up one of the great puzzles of the movie. The writers never told us which division Stryker and his squad served with. None of the real Marine divisions fought at both Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Early in the movie, the fictional unit was based in New Zealand, where in 1942 the Second Marine Division rebuilt and refitted after Guadalcanal. Two renowned officers from the Silent Second; Col David M. Shoup, and Maj Henry P. 'Jim' Crowe, made cameo appearances during the Tarawa sequence. Maj Crowe commanded 2nd Battalion, Eighth Marines, which landed in Beach Red 3 on D-Day at Tarawa, and we can surmise from dialogue in the film that Stryker and his Marines were assigned to this unit. So in this part of the film, we can surmise that the squad represented the Second Marine Division.
After the assault on Tarawa, the scene shifts to Hawaii as the Marines rebuild and train for Iwo Jima. Two of the real assault divisions bound for Iwo staged out of Hawaii; the Fourth and Fifth. Again, the film makers are not specific about which division the squad was assigned to, as the Iwo sequences unfold it becomes clear that Stryker and his men represent the Fifth Marine Division. This is confirmed by the appearance of Capt Harold G. Schreier, and the three surviving flag raisers; Pfc Rene Gagnon, Pfc Ira Hayes, and PhM2/c John Bradley. All these Marines served with Co E, 2nd Bn, 28th Marines, which assaulted and cleared the top of Mount Suribachi on 23 Feb 1945 and subsequently raised the flag there.
So with that established, let's move on to the crux of this essay. Sgt John M. Stryker is strong figure and the storyline of the movie is his story. As a Marine and as a man, his story has resonated with generations of fans. As the picture unfolds we learn bits and pieces about Stryker and his life. Although the focus of the film, our knowledge is never quite complete. So what do we know about him with certainty?
Stryker is an infantry Marine, buck sergeant, and squad leader who served in combat with the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. He has somewhere between twelve and fifteen years of service, served in China, and was the heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet. At one time, he was a sergeant major, but was reduced in rank prior to the events in the film for an unspecified reason, probably involving overconsumption of alcohol. By extrapolation, we can guess that the reduction occurred recently. During World War II, any experienced NCO could expect promotion at a fast pace as the Corps expanded due to the demands of combat. If Stryker's reduction had occurred more than a few years ago, he would probably would have been advanced back to his old rank.
Without doubt, Stryker is a flawed human being. Like many combat veterans, he drinks too much. It's a pretty safe bet to say he's an alcoholic. He is also divorced and has a 10 year-old son whom he has little contact with. His wife left him because she couldn't put up with him being deployed all the time and as the storyline unfolds we learn that Stryker is filled with regret about his life. At a climactic moment, we learn that he believes he's been a failure and there is a strong hint that prior to his final operation, he felt like he wouldn't make it through. Stryker's story is part of the World War II era, but combat veterans of every conflict can identify with him. We cannot know for sure that Stryker has PTSD and TBI, but it would surprise me if he didn't. These struggles are ones that countless veterans can empathize with.
As a combat veteran, Stryker demands the utmost from his Marines, drilling them over and over in basic infantry skills. He makes it clear to them that he has the final word of when they become Marines. In combat, Stryker shows another side, refusing to throw away his men's lives needlessly. When necessary to accomplish the mission, he leads the squad directly against the enemy. But at other times, he forces his Marines to stay put when their adrenaline urges them to race into the fire needlessly. In modern parlance, this dual leadership trait is known by the phrase, "Mission first, Marines always."
The film does a good job of showing the importance of training in World War II. Stryker is a squad leader and responsible for ensuring his Marines are combat-ready. He is an unconventional leader and uses whatever method works. In a memorable scene early on, Stryker meets his men for the first time and explains his mission:
A career Marine and combat veteran of the Solomons, Stryker knew that he needed a simple and effective way to turn boys into men, recruits into Marines, unknowing youths into combat veterans. Results drove his style of leadership, not process. If it meant dancing with one of his Marines to teach bayonet drill, Stryker did it. If a Marine needed to have his attitude adjusted forcefully, Stryker wouldn't hesitate to provide the right kind of guidance and motivation. In combat, he led from the front, showing the way to his Marines and making the tough choices to get the job done with a group of civilians in uniform. His driving imperative was to keep his men alive and make sure they possessed the combat skills to do so.
Without question, Stryker shows courage in combat. He leads from the front, even at the risk of his own life, as shown in the Tarawa sequence. In one scene, a Japanese bunker has the entire beachhead under automatic weapons fire, raking back and forth among the Marines taking cover behind the seawall. An officer orders flamethrowers and demolition teams to knock out the emplacement. These Marines are all killed and the defenders are still slicing into the exposed Marines.
Stryker charges out from the seawall as machine gun bullets strike all around him in the sand. He grabs two satchel charges from a fallen Marine and climbs to the top of the bunker, where he cooks off the charges and allows them to burn down. Coming dangerously close to ignition, Stryker tosses the charges into the embrasure and vaults off the bunker a split second before the charges detonate. His heroic action unlocks the beachhead and the Marines are now able to advance inland.
So was John M. Stryker – as played by John Wayne – intentionally developed to be the epitome of a Marine noncommissioned officer? The original idea of a story about Iwo Jima came from the Marine Corps. It is important to look at the political situation of the time, and the role played by the Marine Corps in the production of SoIJ. In the immediate postwar era, the Corps found itself locked in a battle for its future in the unification fight, a series of conflicts between the armed services to define and shape their roles. Many prominent politicians and high ranking army officers, among them President Truman and George Marshall, supported merging the Marine Corps into the US Army. A savage political fight was taking place in Washington D.C. as SoIJ went in production.
The movie was produced with full assistance from the Marine Corps. The Corps made Camp Pendleton available to RKO Pictures and supplied an entire infantry regiment, along with amphibian tractors, tanks, aircraft, motor transport and many other forms of support. Marine engineers supplied and rigged many of the explosive charges in the combat scenes. Four Marine officers were assigned as technical advisors and the Corps had final approval on every scene and every line of dialogue. The Corps made thousands of feet of actual combat film available for inclusion in the movie. Notable Marines – including all three surviving flag raisers – appeared as themselves in the film alongside the actors. The hallowed Iwo Jima flag was sent by special courier from Headquarters, Marine Corps, for use in the filming of the sequences on Mount Suribachi.
Upon its release, the movie became one of the top films of 1950 and quickly established itself as an iconic war story. Because SoIJ was so closely linked to the real events on Iwo Jima, it became the film about Marines in World War II. For decades thereafter, Americans young and old came to see the Marine Corps through the lens of Stryker and his squad. SoIJ is still considered by many to be one of the top war movies of all time. And in the Corps itself, for decades after its release, the film was required viewing for all Marine recruits.
Stryker and his squad were fictional, but the world they lived in was real. It was so real in fact, that many Marines played themselves in the film as they had been in World War II. The equipment used in the film – the weapons, uniforms, and just about everything else – were the exact same as used in the war. The characters spoke the lingo common to real Marines, knew how to climb down cargo nets, stow their rifles under their their cots, stand in formation, load and fire their rifles, and a thousand other skills. Even the flag used in the film portrayal of the iconic moment on Suribachi was the real thing. No other movie about Marines before or after has worked so closely with the Corps to present these authentic details.
But what about Stryker? As a fictional character interpreted by John Wayne he was clearly crafted to represent someone who represented the personal struggles and triumphs of the war. Throughout the production of SoIJ, the Marine Corps made sure that Stryker's every action fit with the epitome of a Marine combat leader. His hard training, his leadership in action, the all-too human traits that he displayed through the film, and finally, his death in combat – they were all part of the Marine story. Although Stryker was a fictional character, his life and how he lived it showed the American public what it meant to be a Leatherneck in the Second World War. Sands of Iwo Jima is such a compelling tale because at the core Stryker and his Marines are flesh-and-blood people trying to stay alive in the cauldron of war, too often unsuccessfully.
As for John Wayne, this role was written for his strength and swagger. For many of us he will always be Sgt Stryker—NCO, combat leader, father, fallen Leatherneck, and American hero.
This site is owned & maintained by Mark Flowers, copyright 2004, all rights reserved.