As commuters cross the Midpoint Memorial Bridge connecting Fort Myers to Cape Coral, they are greeted by the site of a 20 foot statue depicting five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman raising the American flag on 560-foot Mount Suribachi, the highest point on Iwo Jima, a small island located 660 miles south of Tokyo that witnessed intense and bloody fighting during the waning days of the Pacific campaign of World War II. It is an exact replica of the 60-foot-tall Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetary in Virginia.
Both the replica and the original were created by Felix de Weldon, who was inspired to sculpt the memorial after seeing AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitizer Prize picture of the actual flag raising that took place on February 19, 1945. In fact, within days of seeing the photograph, de Weldon had crafted a tiny statuette out of clay that eventually won him a commission to create the 60-bronze that stands today just outside the Arlington National Cemetary on the southern shores of the Potomac River.
The Cape Coral replica stands proudly on the southern edge of Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, within view of traffic motoring by on Veterans Parkway. At 20 feet from base to the tip of the steel flagpole, it is roughly one-third the scale of the memorial in Arlington. The sculpture weighs a whopping 67,000 pounds, and was made out of concrete poured over a superstructure consisting of rebar and steel.
Depicted are Pfc. Rene A. Gagnon, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pharmacist Mate Second Class John Bradley, Pfc. Harlon Block, Sergeant Mike Strank and Pfc. Franklin Sously. Block, Strank and Sously died within days of the flag raising, in combat on the northern end of the island. De Weldon sculpted them using their photographs and measurements. Hayes was also sent to the northern end of the island and was wounded in a mortar attack. But he survived, as did Gagnon and Hayes. All three survivors modeled for de Weldon’s tribute to all Marines who have died in action since 1777.
To create the statue, de Weldon first built the figures’ bone structures with a steel framework. He then put muscles and skin over this framework. The strain of the soldiers’ muscles dramatically show through their uniforms, which were added later.
History of the Cape Coral Iwo Jima Memorial
Felix de Weldon made two 20-foot-tall studies in preparation for casting the Arlington memorial. The Cape Coral replica is not one of them. It was made nearly 10 years later for Gulf American Corporation, which commissioned the piece in 1964 for inclusion in The Rose Garden, Cape Coral’s first tourist attraction.
Gulf American was owned by two flamboyant brothers, Julius (left) and Leonard Rosen. In 1957, the Rosen brothers set out from Baltimore, Maryland for southwest Florida with the shared dream of building a city in Florida where people of modest means could live like millionaires. They bought an uninhabited piece of land along the Caloosahatchee River, hired an engineer named Tom Weber, and assembled the greatest sales and marketing team the world had ever seen. They then set about creating Cape Coral, Florida.
To entice visitors and have a place at which to entertain prospects, Leonard and Julius Rosen decided to build a park that would be one part Cypress Gardens, one part Waltzing Waters and one part Sea World. They called their attraction The Rose Garden,
and it was situated in southwest Cape Coral on the site that is now Tarpon Point
The the park featured Gunter Przystawik’s “Waltzing Waters” dancing fountain shows, porpoise shows, animal exhibitions, a reflection pond, a mini Mount Rushmore and, beginning in 1964, the Iwo Jima Memorial. Planted throughout the grounds were more than 40,000 rose bushes, tropical vegetation and thousands of coconut and other palm trees.
The attraction closed in 1970 amid rising expenses, and both the park and the Iwo Jima statue were abandoned. Both quickly fell into disrepair.
The statue was finally moved in 1989 to a bank on the corner of Del Prado Boulevard and Viscaya Parkway. After the bank took possession, they contacted noted Fort Myers sculptor D.J. Wilkins to restore the sculpture to its former majesty. Wilkins said at the time that it was more like a salvation project than a restoration due to its condition.
In 1998, the statue was moved to its permanent home in the Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve known to locals as Eco.
A second restoration of the statue began on March 19, 2011 to repair more than 200 feet of cracks (depicted left) that developed in the statue due to expansion and contraction of the concrete as a result of the temperature extremes prevalent in southwest Florida. In addition, the base of the statue was crumbling. (Because of the thickness of the mix, the concrete poured into the plaster cast never made it to the bottom of the soldiers’ legs.) Thickness of the plaster mold created even further long-term challenges to the integrity of the structure.
Sculptor D.J. Wilkins (shown on left in picture to the right) was again chosen to save the memorial from decay. This time, he assembled a restoration team that included Don Meek, an expert with 30 years of experience in repairing concrete structures, Dale Shook (far right) and George Colom (center), commandant of the Marine Corps League responsible for care of the memorial.
Wilkins gained fame in southwest Florida for several of Fort Myers’ most beloved sculptures, including Uncommon Friends
(depicting winter residents Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone gathered around a campfire), Clayton
(a tribute to the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops and all the black soldiers who died during the Civil War) and the Florida Panther
that graces the median on Monroe Street adjoining the Harborside Event Center.
The first item on the restoration team’s ambitious agenda was to shoot water under pressure through the structure in order to clear out sludge that had accumulated in pockets inside the statue as a result of leaks and seepage that rusted rebar and dissolved some of the cement over time.
Don Meek recommended that the restoration team use epoxy to bind the cracks and strengthen the structure. Wilkins and his crew were required to drill 255 holes into the figures and base in order to deliver the epoxy to the correct locations. Plastic ports were inserted into the holes, and the epoxy was injected deep into the statue via tubes that resembled IV lines.
This part of the project consumed two and a half weeks and 15 gallons of epoxy. Said Wilkins afterwards, “Now it is structurally stronger than it has ever been, including when it was created.”
As for the exterior, Wilkins and his team had to do a full restrike of the statue. That process began with sandblasting the surface completely off. Then they had to put the skin, or details, back on the statue. For guidance, they consulted one of the other replicas, a copy made of cement and plaster over a steel skeleton that is owned by Rodney Hilton Brown, a Manhattan mortgage broker who collects historical artifacts as a hobby.
In the course of adding back the details to the finish of the Cape Coral piece, Wilkins and his team encountered a number of their own unique challenges. For example, all of the heroes’ hands had been severely damaged over the years by a combination of lightning strikes to the metal flag pole and vibration caused by the fabric flag whipping continually in the stiff gales typical to southwest Florida. Not only did Wilkins find it necessary to re-sculpt the hands, he fit a rubber sheath between them and the flag pole in order to prevent a recurrence of this damage in the future.
Wilkins and his team also noticed that the soldiers were missing some equipment and that the shrinking of the concrete over time had left depressions which cast unsightly shadows over the surface of the monument. So they did some research, added the missing items to the soldiers, and removed the depressions, dimples and unwanted indentations as they replaced the statue’s exterior skin. (Notice the detail in the photo to the left. The man on the right with the rifle slung over his left shoulder is Pfc. Ira Hayes.)
To restore the monument’s rich, dark luster, the restoration team then painted the figures and volcanic rock with two coats of a special bronze paint. And to prevent fading in southwest Florida’s intense ultraviolet sunlight and weathering in the heat, rain and humidity, they coated the surface of the entire monument with a special polyurethane sealant.
The breadth and scope of the repairs, restoration and repainting required Wilkins and his team to erect two stories of scaffolding around the statue. The scaffolding obscured the statue for nearly six months, but it finally came down on September 19, 2011, revealing a memorial that is as beautiful as it was when it was delivered to the Rose Garden back in 1964 … and more structurally sound than it has ever been.
The next part of the restoration involved fitting the base with a new black granite skirt. That task fell to Granite & Marble Family, Inc. of Fort Myers. According to Vice President Scott E. Furlan (depicted far right with Don Meek (center) and Michael Gordon of Gatewood Glass), the granite panels and corner pieces were fabricated in the shop and then attached to each other and the breathable concrete base with a combination of pins, clips, rods and springs which allow the panels to expand and contract as the temperature changes. The combination is so strong that it prompted Furlan to effuse, “This thing won’t ever come apart. Not even in an earthquake. It’ll be here long after I’m gone.”
To keep water out, the seams between the panels are sealed with a non-absorbent, closed-cell polyethylene backer rod covered by silicone caulking. The combination prevents the caulk from sagging and cracking in the sun, heat and humidity characteristic of southwest Florida summers. It is yet another example of the kind of attention to detail that has been the hallmark of the entire restoration process.
The Memorial will be re-dedicated on February 25,2012, the first Saturday following the 67th anniversary of the actual flag raising on February 19, 1945.
- The Iwo Jima Memorial, also known as the U. S. Marine Corps War Memorial, honors the Marines who have died defending the United States since 1775.
- The flag raising depicted by the memorial and related Pulitzer Prize winning photograph was actually the second one to occur on Mount Suribachi on the morning of February 19, 1945. A smaller flag was erected on the summit several hours earlier by Platoon Sergeant Ernest “Boots” Thomas of Tallahassee, Florida, but at 54 by 28 inches, the flag was too small to be seen.
- One of the studies that de Weldon while preparing the cast for the bronze memorial in Arlington is owned by Manhattan mortgage broker Rodney Hilton Brown. It is presently in Paris Island, after having been on display since 1995 in a museum maintained aboard the retired aircraft carrier, USS Intrepid (which is docked at Pier 86 on Manhattan’s West Side).
- Brown obtained his copy directly from de Weldon in exchange for a violin that De Weldon believed to be a Stradivarius, a sword and an undisclosed amount of cash. He then had it restored and coated with a bronze-tinged finish.
- The other study was carved from limestone and sent to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. According to Fort Myers sculptor D.J. Wilkins, the Quantico replica is so severely damaged as to be beyond repair.
- The iconic photograph of the flag raising upon which De Weldon based the memorial and its replicas is currently missing. It was part of a personal album of photographs from the battle of Iwo Jima that the photographer sold to an Air Force major. The major sold it to Rodney Hilton Brown in 1990 for $5,000, and Brown loaned it to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, but the photo and seven others were missing when the museum returned the collection to Brown in November of 2006. The missing photos were valued by an appraiser at $175,000.
- AP photographer Joe Rosenthal died in 2006.
- Felix de Weldon died on June 3, 2003 at the age of 96.
- The 1966 musical comedy The Fat Spy, which was filmed entirely in Cape Coral, and had some footage shot in the original Rose Garden. Notable stars in the movie included Jayne Mansfield and Phyllis Diller. The film bombed at the box office and was named in 2004 as one of the 50 worst movies ever made.
- Today, the Rose Garden name lives on in a Southwest Cape Coral neighborhood just north of the site of the original tourist attraction. The subdivision features single-family homes with gulf sailboat and boating access.
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