Marine in famous Iwo Jima photo misidentified for seven decades

QUANTICO, Virginia -- It's possibly the most famous photograph in American history, and certainly the most famous in Marine Corps history: six Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

In today's terms, says retired Marine Colonel Mary Reinwald, it went viral -- and stayed viral.

"When you see the American flag, the framing of that picture, it shows victory. It shows the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps," Reinwald said.

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Six-thousand Marines lost their lives in the battle for Iwo Jima, including three of the men identified in the photo. Three others were brought home on orders of President Roosevelt.

"The photo had become so famous that he wanted the flag raisers to go out on a war bond tour to help raise money for the war bond effort," Reinwald explained.

One of them was John Bradley, a Navy Corpsman who fought alongside the Marines. Now, seven decades later, the Marine Corps has made an astonishing discovery about the men in the photo, reports CBS News' David Martin.

John Bradley was not one of the flag raisers.

The proof is in photos taken that day and analyzed by forensic specialist Michael Plaxton for an upcoming documentary on the Smithsonian Channel.

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John Bradley, third from left with his left hand on the flag pole, is seen on the same day of the iconic photo -- but raising a different flag. Marine Corps

"The 'ah-ha' moment was almost the instant I looked at the two pictures side-by-side," Plaxton said.

Bradley was wearing pouches in which he carried his medical equipment, and the cuffs of his pants were rolled up. But the Marine in the famous photo is wearing standard infantryman's gear, and the cuffs of his pants are rolled down over his boots.

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"If John Bradley is not in that picture, that raises the obvious question of who is the sixth person in that picture?" Martin wondered.

"This was the more difficult part of the exercise," Plaxton told him.

A freeze frame taken from a film of the flag raising provided the first clue.

"And the first thing that I noticed about this man was that his helmet liner strap is hanging down beside his face. It's swinging back and forth, and it's very evident when you see it in the film," Plaxton explained.

There was only one Marine there that day with a strap like that, according to Plaxton -- Harold Schultz. He survived the war, but for the rest of his life never claimed publicly he was in the picture.

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Harold Schultz is seen in a photo taken the day of the iconic the flag raising. Marine Corps

"Which is incredible in today's world, today's fame driven world," Reinwald told CBS News.

Bradley, who was later wounded and received the Navy cross, did raise a flag that day -- but two hours later it was replaced by the larger, more visible one which became immortal.

That flag is on display at the Marine Corps museum. Bradley's name will come off and Schultz's will go on.

"It's part of our ethos," Reinwald explained. "We want to make sure it's correct."

The record stands corrected, but the truth of shared struggle and ultimate victory captured in that split second remains unchanged.