Image: Iwo Jima citizenship
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
U.S. Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, left, talks with Mary Pero, and Marine Corps Col. Gregg Sturdevant, after Pero was presented with a posthumous certificate of citizenship for her brother, Marine Sgt. Michael Strank, at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. on Tuesday. Strank is the right most Marine in the memorial statue. He was a native of Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, who came to the United States in 1922 at age 3.
updated 7/29/2008 9:22:38 PM ET 2008-07-30T01:22:38

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.

What's more, the Marines' official biography of Strank mistakenly described him as a born U.S. citizen. The error will be corrected, officials said.

During a ceremony Tuesday at the Iwo Jima Memorial, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Jonathan Scharfen presented citizenship papers to Strank's younger sister, Mary Pero.

Scharfen said the ceremony was important to recognize Strank's service and that of all immigrants who have served in the military.

"Sgt. Strank is part of a larger and more important history," said Scharfen, himself a former Marine. Scharfen said the rules have changed recently to make it easier for men and women in the military to become citizens. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, more than 40,000 men and women in the military have become U.S. citizens.

The oversight in Strank's case was discovered by a Marine gunnery sergeant, Matt Blais, who began researching Strank's life while stationed at the U.S. embassy in Bratislava. Blais initially concluded that Strank had never been granted citizenship. But it turned out that while citizenship had been granted, Strank never received his citizenship certificate.

Attempts to reach Blais through a Marine Corps spokesman were not successful.

'He wouldn't have wanted the fame'
Strank was killed fighting the Japanese on northern Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945, just six days after the flag-raising that was immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

While the government was confused about Strank's status, Pero said the family was not. They knew well that Strank came to the U.S. as a small boy, and the family had always assumed he was a citizen regardless of the paperwork.

Pero was surprised when immigration authorities called her to arrange a presentation of Strank's citizenship certificate.

"We didn't realize he didn't have the papers, said Pero, now 75, who still lives near Johnstown, Pa., where she and her brother grew up.

Michael Strank moved away to join the Civilian Conservation Corps when Pero was just 3, so her recollections of him come largely through her siblings' stories.

But she is convinced that Strank, just like the flag raisers who survived and reluctantly became national heroes, would have been uncomfortable with the attention being paid to him.

"He wouldn't have wanted the fame," Pero said. "He would have said he was just doing his job."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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