Joe Rosenthal and the flag on Iwo Jima

The man who captured what is to many the defining image of World War II — and one of the great news photographs in history — was rejected for military service due to poor eyesight.

With two brothers in the U.S. Army, though, Joe Rosenthal wasn’t content to let an impediment like his notably thick eyeglasses keep him from contributing to the war effort one way or another.

“They wouldn’t let me carry a gun,” he said, “but I can pack my camera right with the boys in the front lines and show they’re fighting.”

Joe Rosenthal

Rosenthal was a photographer in the Associated Press’ San Francisco bureau when the U.S. entered the war, and after his initial efforts to join the fight firsthand went for naught, he settled for a photography assignment with the U.S. Maritime Service. That duty saw him travel to the Mediterranean and England, but he was never in the midst of the action.

He rejoined the AP in 1944 and secured a war correspondent’s assignment, shipping out to the Pacific that spring. Rosenthal followed the campaign from island to island, and on Feb. 19, 1945, he went ashore on the first day of fighting on Iwo Jima.

Thanks to the vastly improved communications apparatus in place by that point in the war, his photographs from the first few days of the invasion appeared in newspapers everywhere within a day or two. But that was nothing compared to what was to come on the Marines’ fifth day ashore, Feb. 23.

The casualties already had been horrific by that point — “the most costly fight in which the Marines have ever been engaged,” as AP correspondent Elmont Waite put it in a story filed that day. He was writing from Guam, headquarters of Adm. Chester Nimitz’s Pacific fleet, but his second paragraph mentioned what would be the enduring image of the day: “The Stars and Stripes were raised over the volcanic Suribachi fortress 97 hours after the costly invasion began.”

In this case, though, the picture truly was worth a thousand words — and then some.

Lt. Harold G. Schrier of E Company, 28th Marines, began that day with a specific assignment: take a 40-man patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi and plant a U.S. flag at the summit once you arrive. By about 10:30 a.m., he and his men had done exactly that in the face of unexpectedly light Japanese resistance.

The men tied a small flag Schrier had carried up the mountain to a length of pipe they found among the debris at the summit and raised it as ordered, drawing cheers from every U.S. serviceman who could see it. The moment was captured for posterity by a Marine Corps photographer, Staff Sgt. Louis R. Lowery.

Staff Sgt. Louis R. Lowery’s photo of the first flag on Mount Suribachi (National Archives)

There was just one problem: the flag wasn’t very imposing as it fluttered atop the 550-foot volcano. So a larger flag was sent up from LST-779 to replace it. Joe Rosenthal was making his way up the mountain at this point, accompanied by Marine Corps photographers Sgt. Bill Genaust and Pvt. Bob Campbell. They ran into Lowery on the way and he told them he’d already made photos of the flag, but there was a great view from the top, so they decided to keep going.

Upon arrival, Rosenthal became aware of the plan to exchange the flags. He considered trying for an angle that would allow him to get both the smaller flag being lowered and the larger flag being raised in the same frame, but thought there was too great a risk of missing the shot.

“I might not catch the two together, and even if I did, it would be divided actions in the photo,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1995. “A news photo has got to have a central punch to it. But what mattered was that our flag was up there and I wanted to get a picture of it.”

Rosenthal stood only 5 feet 4, so he perched himself on a makeshift pile of sandbags and rocks to get a better angle. Just as he felt like he was set, he saw movement in his peripheral vision — the replacement flag was being raised by five Marines and a Navy corpsman. Rosenthal turned his Speed Graphic camera toward the action and pressed the shutter, capturing one of the most recognizable images in the history of photography.

(National Archives)

The 33-year-old photographer couldn’t have imagined that at the time. He didn’t even know if he had made a usable picture.

“No, one can’t make an estimate like that, and one never does on any news photo that you ever shoot,” he said half a century later. “You hope it’s good. You hope your experience provides you with the opportunity. I was looking through the viewfinder as I shot it. I shot it where I thought it should be a good picture, and that’s about as far as you can go.

“I had no idea that it was a matter of being historic or that it would last for some time as a photo. Rather, I saw it as representing a turning point in the battle. The seizure of Suribachi meant that troops dedicated to the southern part of the island could be released to augment the march up to the widening part of the island.”

As a wire service photojournalist, that was the most someone like Rosenthal could hope to achieve on any given day: find a picture that helps tell the story of the moment. But this frame would far outstrip that modest goal.

Following the same procedures he had used throughout his Iwo Jima coverage, Rosenthal sent his film back to Guam via plane for processing. From there, the flag-raising photo and other selections were transmitted to the AP bureau in San Francisco over U.S. Navy radio circuits, then on to New York for worldwide distribution.

Photo editors knew a classic when they saw one, and there was no denying the brilliance of the scene Rosenthal had captured. They rushed it onto the AP’s Wirephoto service in time to make the all-important Sunday editions on Feb. 25. The photo dominated the front page of that day’s New York Times, running under type that read “Old Glory Goes Up Over Iwo,” and it received similar play from coast to coast — an instant classic.

Rosenthal had no idea. Though he had started to hear some buzz that one of his photos was making waves back home, he thought it might be another he had made after the flag was up, a posed shot of more than a dozen men that he dubbed the “gung ho” photo.

Sgt. Bill Genaust, left, and Joe Rosenthal capture the “gung ho” scene (Pvt. Bob Campbell via Wikimedia Commons)

This uncertainty was at the root of a controversy that would dog him for decades. Rosenthal caught a ride back to Guam a few days after the flag-raising photo had been published, and someone there asked him whether his picture had been posed. Assuming the questioner meant the gung ho photo, he said “Sure.” Time and Life correspondent Robert Sherrod, one of the most influential journalists in the Pacific thanks to his legendary coverage of the fighting at Tarawa, heard a version of that anecdote and sent a cable to his editors in New York saying the flag-raising photo had been staged by the photographer.

Time leveled that accusation on its radio show days later, but retracted it almost immediately and apologized to Rosenthal. That wasn’t enough; many people believe to this day that the flag-raising shot was staged. (The author spent two years as a tour guide at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where visitors would routinely state with confidence that the photo was posed.)

Regardless of the accusations that would follow and endure, the photo struck an immediate chord with the public, even inviting comparisons to works of art.

It ran across the entire front page of the Feb. 25 New York Daily News, and the caption beneath alluded to The Spirit of ’76, Archibald Willard’s iconic depiction of the American Revolution. Other outlets drew the same parallel. The Feb. 27 editions of the Oregon Statesman featured a column by Charles A. Sprague that waxed poetic on the emotions it evoked. It concluded with this:

This picture of the raising of the flag on the mountain top is the one which stirs us to the depths of our being. Here is a picture that ought to be lithographed and shown in every town hall and schoolhouse in the land. Some sculptor might well copy it in enduring bronze as a memorial to the Marines and to our fighting men everywhere. It is in truth “The Spirit of ’45.”

Sprague certainly was prescient in that assessment. Less than three months after publication, various artists’ interpretations of the photo graced millions of posters for the 7th War Loan fundraising drive, and by July of 1945 yet another version of it appeared on a 3-cent postage stamp. Oh, and Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize that spring after the committee made an exception to its usual rule that only entries created in the previous calendar year would be considered.

Before 1945 was out, Congress commissioned sculptor Felix de Weldon to use the photo as the basis for the Marine Corps War Memorial, which was finally completed in 1954 and dedicated on Nov. 10 of that year — the 179th anniversary of the Marine Corps. Rosenthal was in attendance for that ceremony, along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

(National Archives)

After the war, Rosenthal spent more than 30 years as a photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle. He also would spend the rest of his life talking about that day on Iwo Jima, and he always attempted to steer the conversation toward the men who did the fighting.

“I’m not a heroic guy,” he told the Examiner in 1995. “I hate to veer into anything that makes it sound heroic. If there’s any heroism connected with it, it’s putting up with the things that come along with being known as The Photographer of this particular picture. The photo has a good purpose in the attention it brings to what these men accomplished. Also, it helps recruiting, and it helps the spirit of the young Marines. I don’t know how many thousands of them I’ve had come up to me to talk about it. I’m aware that it means something to them, and I’m glad of it. …

“I was a very fortunate guy. I also have a lot of insight on a lot of people who were there. I have great respect for the people who were there. I don’t know, had I been accepted into the service myself, whether I could have measured up. I sure as hell would have tried.”

Both flags that were raised over Mount Suribachi that day in February 1945 are on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia. It’s a wonderful museum and well worth a visit if you’re in the D.C. area.

The second flag (National Museum of the Marine Corps)

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