The Death of Joe Rosenthal and the Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi 8-21-06

The Death of Joe Rosenthal and the Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi


Richard J. Garfunkel

August 21, 2006



Joe Rosenthal, a wartime photographer for the Associated Press, who was one of the last survivors of the Battle of Iwo Jima, died yesterday on August 20th, 2006. He was 94 years old. Rosenthal, who at age 33, had been rejected by the Armed Forces because of his poor eyesight, volunteered to be a combat photographer. He had covered many of the ferocious battles of the War in the Pacific, and took many memorable combat photos in the campaigns from Guadalcanal to New Guinean and through Iwo Jima. The following is the story of his most memorable one, and the one that inspired the Marine Corps Monument in Washington.


On February 23, 1945, the adjutant of the Second Battalion, 28th Regiment, Fifth Marine Division, Lt. G. Greeley Wells, carried the first flag, which was relatively small, only measuring 54” by 28” that was raised on Mount Suribachi, the 545-foot high extinct volcano that dominated the skyline of Iwo Jima. When his unit was activated at Camp Pendleton, California, the commanding officer had his staff explain their jobs to the officers of the battalion. Lt. Wells’ duty was to “Carry the flag.”  When his battalion hit the beaches of Iwo Jima, he procured a flag from their transport USS Missoula and put it in his map case. (Iwo Jima, one of the last major battles fought in World War II, was fought between February 16th and March 26th of 1945.)


When the marine assault reached the top of Suribachi, he gave the flag to Lt. Harold G. Schrier. When the marines secured the top of that ghastly mountain, Louis Lowery, the Marine Corps photographer took a number of pictures of all the men on the crest with the newly hoisted flag. Hundreds of ships in the fleet that observed the flag saluted it with salvoes, as did excited marines all over the island. Of course this was the first foreign flag in four thousand years to ever fly over Japanese territorial soil.


Secretary of Navy, James V Forrestal, (1882-1949, Secretary of the Navy 1944-7) who was with the fleet, was at that time, landing with the Marine Commander, General Howland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith (1882-1967, called the father of the modern amphibious warfare). As they were landing, the flag went up, was spotted immediately from the beach and the mood amongst the high command turned to unmitigated excitement and joy. Not long after the flag-raising Forrestal sent word to division headquarters to relay to the flag-raisers that he wanted the flag. Forrestal remarked also to General Smith: “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” 


The 2nd Battalion commander, Colonel Chandler W. Johnson, whose temperament was as fiery as the legendary Smith’s, said that the original flag was for the men of our battalion and ordered Lt. Wells to get another flag to replace the first flag. Wells said he sent his company runner, Rene Gagnon, (later to be a flag raiser) to the beach to get a flag from one of the many crafts that were wrecked and littered along the beach. Interestingly, Col. Johnson later recalled that he had sent Lt. Ted Tuttle to the same beach to get the replacement flag. Johnson called after Tuttle and said, “And make it a bigger one.” While Lt. Tuttle was looking for a replacement flag, Gagnon, who had also been sent to the beach, reached Colonel Johnson’s command position. Tuttle took a large 96” by 56” American flag to the Colonel that he had obtained from LST-779. This flag had been found in a salvage yard at Pearl Harbor and had been rescued from a sinking ship on December 7th. He handed it to the Colonel, who in turn gave it to Gagnon. He told Gagnon, and others with him “You tell (Lt.) Schrier to put this flag up, and I want him to save the small flag for me.”


By the time Gagnon got back to the top, Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer, had arrived. A long pole was found, and because it was long and heavy it took quite a few men to hoist it to the site of where the first flag was planted.


Ironically, when Rosenthal had disembarked from the command ship, he had slipped on a wet ladder and had landed in the ocean between that ship and a landing craft. He had to be fished from the water. He was lucky his bulky, but durable 35mm Speed Graphic was in a waterproof bag. After he landed he was able to get a few shots of Smith and Forrestal disembarking from their landing craft. He and another reporter had heard that the Marines were approaching the top of Suribachi. Along with Rosenthal, was Bill Hipper, a magazine correspondent, and combat photographers Private Bob Campbell, who worked with a still camera and Sergeant Bill Genaust, who had a movie camera loaded with color film.


As their party started to work their way up to the mountain, Gagnon had reached the summit and had given the larger flag to Lt. Schrier. The accompanying sergeant told the Lieutenant “Colonel Johnson wants this flag run up high so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it.” Rosenthal, at about the same time, met Sgt. Lou Lowery who was descending from the crater at the top of the extinct volcano that was Suribachi.  Lowery said that he had already taken pictures of the flag raising, but that they should continue to go up because there were great views of the harbor.


As Rosenthal approached the top shortly after noon, he noticed a couple of marines hauling a long heavy iron pole.  The pole the marines were dragging was a length of drainage pipe and weighed more than a hundred pounds. As the three photographers milled around, the first flag was lowered, some photos and movies were taken, and the marines got set for the almost simultaneous raising of the second and larger flag. The Marines wanted the replacement of the smaller flag with the larger one to be seamless. Rosenthal set his camera down and piled up some stones and a sand bag to stand his short five foot five inch frame upon. His camera was set a 1/400th of a second with an f-stop between 8 and 16.


The second flag raising happened within seconds as the men, Ira Hays, Frank Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank and Rene Gagnon carried the flag and started to plant it into the ground. As they approached Rosenthal spotted their movement, grabbed his camera, and got set. Genaust who was about three feet away asked Rosenthal if he was in his way. Rosenthal said. “Oh no,” and later said “Hey Bill, there it goes.” Everyone got what they wanted, the first flag going down and the second larger flag going up. Rosenthal wasn’t even sure that the shot would come out. After a few moments Rosenthal did what Lowery had done, he called several marines to cluster around the pole for a standard shot. Eventually 18 marines would be in this casual shot. They were laughing, waving their arms and helmets. The replacement flag raising was so casual that it was never even reported in the 2nd Battalion’s “Action Report.”


Of course the events of this day were big news back in the states. Joe Rosenthal’s film was sent back to the fleet where it was put on a mail plane headed for Guam, a thousand miles south across the Pacific. The film would eventually be sent to technicians who would develop the pictures and discard the ones that would be deemed rejects or mistakes. Eventually, the prints that they decided were worthwhile would be sent by radiophoto to the United States. By February 25th the photo was published in the States and the affect was electric. It hit newspapers all over the States. Because Rosenthal worked for the Associated Press his photo reached the States sooner than the military pictures. Because the first flag raising had been reported, and there were few pictures or any real identification of the flag raisers, there was a natural confusion over the events that surrounded both flags. In fact, the second flag raising was never really mentioned because it involved a replacement flag. Again to the marines on Iwo this event was meaningless. The original flag raising had lifted the Corps’ and the fleet’s morale, and all deemed the second event as anti-climactic.


This confusion regarding the first and second raisings of the flag would inadvertently cause a future controversy. Part of the problem was that most people thought that 4574 casualties and the raising of the flag signaled the end of the battle for Iwo Jima. In fact, it only marked really the beginning. The bloodletting and slaughter would continue for four and one half weeks more and would not end until March 26th.


When Joe Rosenthal left Iwo Jima and landed on Guam, he had, by accident, created the myth that the flag raising was “staged.” As he walked into the press headquarters he was congratulated for the flag raising shot.  He was asked whether the shot was posed? Rosenthal, thinking that they were talking about the other shots involving the group of 18 marines, said, “Sure.” At that moment Rosenthal had no idea what they were talking about. He was totally unaware of the excitement generated by his picture, and he even was unaware that any of his later photos had survived.


Of course when he saw the “shot” they were all talking about, he said that that shot was not staged, and “if he had tried to arrange that shot I would have ruined it.” He was still unaware of the importance of the “shot” and was for sure did not conceive that his idle remark would cause such future controversy. Unfortunately, many of the correspondents who had overheard Rosenthal’s remarks, claimed that he had said that the picture was staged. This would haunt Rosenthal for the rest of his life. The first flag raising photos taken by Lou Lowery, and delayed in transmission were basically ignored. The other photos by Rosenthal’s colleagues, who stood on the crest of Suribachi, were also ignored.


Also, this slur about the “reality” of the photo was repeated and embellished by some of the rival photographers, who felt their work had been eclipsed by this photo. So it was a mixed blessing for Rosenthal, who was eventually honored with the Pulitzer Prize for his effort. On one hand he became famous for being in the right place at the right time, but on the other hand, he became the focus of this ongoing 60-year myth regarding the photos spontaneity. Ironically Bill Genaust, who took the color movies of the flag raising, was killed three days after the event. When his camera discovered and eventually the film was processed, the true visual evidence re-affirmed Rosenthal’s version of the story.


There was much more to this battle of course. According to James Bradley, in his great book, Flag of Our Fathers, Iwo Jima took a great and savage toll on the American marines who fought there. “Of the original eighteen men photographed around the second flag raising fourteen were casualties. Of Colonel Johnson’s 2nd Battalion: 1400 boys landed on D-Day; 288 replacements were provided as the battle went on, a total of 1688. Of these, 1511 had been killed or wounded. Only 177 walked off the island. And of the 177, 91 had been wounded at least once and returned to battle.” One of the stark facts is that it took 22 crowded transports to bring the 5th Division to Iwo and the survivors fit easily into 8 as they left. The Battle of Iwo Jima incurred, for the first time in the Pacific War, more casualties on the attacking American force than on the defending Japanese. The Americans lost approximately 6800 men along with over 20,000 wounded. The Japanese lost over 20,000 men with only a few hundred captured.


Rosenthal, who left the AP in 1945, and worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for 35 years, battled the so-called controversy through out his long life. His greatest antagonist, the famous Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod, claimed that Marine Corps photographer Lou Lowery had told him that it was staged. Also Jack Anderson had repeated that same story. Both men eventually apologized for their mischaracterization of both Rosenthal and the event. There was also bitterness from a number of marines who were pictured in the first flag raising. They objected to the photo being called the “flag raising at Iwo Jima.” Charles Lindberg, not the flier, who was a retired electrician, and the last survivor of all the men photographed at either flag raising, always felt bitter that the first group of 18 were mostly forgotten.


On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Rosenthal in 1989 and getting his autograph on the accompanying picture of the “Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi.” In the best tradition of our country’s sense of volunteerism, this man, though rejected by our armed forces, still sought to contribute to our great effort, and went to the heart of the action. His contribution was not demanded but was freely offered. We are better for his and the sacrifice of uncounted others.


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