February 23 – Iwo Jima Day

Posted on February 23, 2015

I sometimes avoid talking about World War II historical anniversaries, because they are so, so brutal. This one is no different.

Iwo Jima is a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. Japanese troops had taken control of the island and used it as a base to watch for aircraft heading for Japan – and then of course to warn Japan of incoming aircraft. The U.S. wanted the island to act as a base for fighter aircraft and as an emergency-landing site. The 1945 battle to take Iwo Jima from Japanese control was exceptionally bloody. But U.S. outnumbered the Japanese and did win control of the island.

The island's highest and most strategic point was Mount Suribachi. During the battle for Iwo Jima, on this date in 1945, U.S. Marines climbed to that point and raised an American flag. Marine photographer Louis Lowery was with them and took a photo:

This photo did not become amazingly famous.

The raising of the U.S. flag bolstered the courage of the fighting forces. Men cheered for and were cheered by the sight.

A few hours later more Marines headed up with a larger flag. This flag-and-pole were heavy enough that five Marines and one Navy corpsman raised it.

Joe Rosenthal, a photographer with the Associated Press, a Marine still photographer, and a motion-picture cameraman were there to record the raising of the second, larger flag.

After the flag pole was fully erect, Rosenthal took a photo of 18 soldiers around the flag. They were smiling and waving for the camera.

Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. An Associated Press photo editor saw them and picked out one of the photos – this one:

– and said, “Here's one for all time!” He immediately sent the photo to AP headquarters in New York, and soon newspapers all over were publishing the photograph.

We are used to instant digital photography and transmissions, but in 1945, it took a lot of time to send a physical roll of film to the developer, and of course to develop and print the film. The fact that this photograph was appearing in newspapers just seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it was amazingly fast, for the time.

Back on Guam, someone asked Rosenthal if he had paused “the photograph.” Rosenthal assumed that the questioner meant the waving-smiling photo and answered, “Sure!” He did not realize that the questioner meant his six-guys-raising-the-flag photo – which was NOT staged.

Rosenthal did not realize that his 
six-guys-raising-the-flag photo would become the most reproduced photograph in history. He didn't know that it would win him a Pulitzer Prize. He didn't know that people would be confused by the two flag raisings and his answer about (he thought) another photo being staged, and he didn't know that, being confused, a Time-Life correspondent would say, “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted. ... Like most photographers [he] could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” (Of course, this incorrect report was quoted over and over again and added to confusion.) Rosenthal didn't know that people would ask him if the photo was staged over and over again – and, in some cases, accuse him of staging his famous shot over and over again – for years and for decades.

It's strange that there has been so much doubt and confusion, given the fact that there was a motion-picture cameraman recording the entire event. His footage proves that Rosenthal's famous photo was not staged.

Not only has Rosenthal's photo been reproduced by everyone, everywhere, a stamp with the image was released in 1945, and a statue of the image was crafted to serve as a memorial at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

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