Joe Rosenthal, 94; AP Photographer Shot Marine Flag-Raising on Iwo Jima

Special to The Times

Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer whose dramatic picture of servicemen raising a giant, wind-whipped American flag atop Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi during World War II became an indelible image of courage and fortitude, has died. He was 94.

Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his photograph, died Sunday morning at the Atria Tamalpais Creek assisted-living facility in the Northern California community of Novato.

Photographed on Feb. 23, 1945, the image of five Marines and a Navy corpsman marked the Marines' costliest battle of the war. In the fierce fighting on the small island 750 miles south of Tokyo, 5,931 Marines died, a third of all Marines killed during World War II. (In all, more than 6,800 U.S. servicemen died on Iwo Jima.)

The photo's publication to widespread acclaim in newspapers across the United States helped instill pride and hope in Americans yearning for an end to the war.

Within months, the flag-raising image had been engraved on a 3-cent stamp and emblazoned on 3.5 million posters and thousands of outdoor panels and car cards that helped sell more than $200 million in U.S. war bonds with the slogan, "Now ... All Together."

Navy artist Felix de Weldon recognized its symbolism and used the picture as a model to cast a small wax statue, a version of which would later be used to build the bronze Marine memorial at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, writing in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in 2002, said the Rosenthal photo had "become the single most powerful image of democratic solidarity in our culture.... "It has set the standard for collective action: There they are, the 'greatest generation,' individuals working together, rising as one to unexpected obligation, and mutely, without question or hint of cynicism."

So powerful is the Iwo Jima image that it echoes through time to other tragic events, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Among that terrible day's most memorable photos was one of three firefighters raising an American flag over the rubble.

The photographer, Thomas E. Franklin of the Record newspaper in northern New Jersey, said that as soon as he took the photo, "I realized the similarity to the famous image of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima -- it had drama, spirit and courage in the face of disaster."

Long after the self-effacing Rosenthal had returned from the war and joined the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked until his retirement in 1981, he was repeatedly interviewed about the picture that would secure his place in photographic history.

Many of the questions arose from the circumstances in which the photo was taken. Because, as Rosenthal and everyone else involved in the picture knew, the image he captured was not of the initial flag-raising in which one group of Marines was involved but of the second flag-raising with a different set of servicemen.

For years Rosenthal was forced to defend himself against accusations that he had set up the shot.

The AP photographer was actually one of two cameramen who captured the flag-raising; Marine Sgt. William H. "Bill" Genaust was a few feet from Rosenthal shooting a color motion picture of the unfolding scene. One of the frames of his film is similar to Rosenthal's photograph. Nine days later, Genaust died in battle on Iwo Jima's Hill 362.

After several days on Iwo Jima photographing the gruesome assault against the well-defended Japanese, Rosenthal missed the raising of the first small flag commemorating the Americans' taking of Mt. Suribachi.

Disappointed at missing his chance at the photo, Rosenthal trekked across the battle-scarred terrain to see if he could get a shot of the flag flying over the island.

On his way up the 556-foot mountain, he learned that a commander on the shore had ordered the original flag be taken down and a second, much larger flag raised so that it could be seen across the island and from the sea.

Rosenthal reached the site moments before the exchange was to occur. He thought that he might be able to get a shot of one flag coming down and the other going up, but he couldn't get the right angle.

He quickly stepped 25 or 35 feet down the hill to get a full perspective of the new flag going up. Rosenthal, who was under 5 feet 5, needed a pile of rocks and a Japanese sandbag to lift him high enough to get the angle he wanted. He set his lens at an f8 to f11 and the speed at 1/400th of a second.

In all the activity of the moment -- which also included Genaust three feet away filming the scene in color -- Rosenthal almost missed the shot. But just in time, he turned and pointed his Speed Graphic camera toward the soldiers, who had tied the flag to a 20-foot length of heavy pipe. He waited for the right moment and shot the picture -- the 10th on his roll of film.

After the 96-by-56-inch flag was in place, and fearing that he hadn't gotten what he wanted, Rosenthal asked the men to face him under the flag for a celebratory picture.

Until the film was developed later by AP darkroom technicians in Guam, Rosenthal did not know if he had gotten the flag-raising shot. Before sending the film off, he wrote a general caption in which he said that Marines "hoist the Stars and Stripes, signaling the capture of this key position."

Once AP moved the picture to client newspapers, however, it was clear that Rosenthal had gotten the image he had hoped for. But he still didn't know it.

When the congratulations came flowing in for the picture, he thought people were talking about what he called the "gung-ho" photo taken afterward, not about the flag-raising. So when someone asked him if he had set it up, he replied, "Sure."

That comment was picked up and used as evidence that he had staged the flag-raising picture.

Rosenthal spent the rest of his life trying to correct the impression that his famed picture had been manufactured, even after Robert Sherrod, the Time-Life correspondent who raised doubts with his editors in New York about the circumstances of the photograph, admitted he had made an error and that he "should have been more careful."

Rosenthal often said that had the photograph been his to set up, he would have used fewer men and had them face toward the camera so AP's clients would be more inclined to use the picture in hometown newspapers.

In other words, he said, the shot "would have been ruined."

Rosenthal was born Oct. 9, 1911, in Washington, D.C., one of five sons of Russian immigrants.

After graduating from high school, he moved to San Francisco, where his brothers lived, with the idea of working his way through college. But he got sidetracked and, after a couple of years, began working for a photo service that was later acquired by the Associated Press.

After Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist, but his vision was too impaired. Instead, he joined the U.S. Maritime Service, returning in 1944 to AP when it offered him a chance to take photographs in the Pacific as part of the Wartime Still Pictures Pool.

He was at Guadalcanal and covered invasions of New Guinea, Guam and other islands before arriving on Iwo Jima, where the Marines were staging a major assault in hopes of capturing the island, which was needed to support long-range bombers flying missions against key Japanese cities.

"I preferred going with the Marines because of the types of pictures that were available," Rosenthal was quoted as saying in a 1981 AP article. "Assault landings appealed to me. All you had to do was screw up your courage and go with them."

Of the brutal battle that followed his arrival on Iwo Jima, Rosenthal told journalist W.C. Heinz in an interview published 10 years later in Collier's magazine, "No man who survived that beach can tell you how he did it. It was like walking through rain and not getting wet."

Rosenthal took modest pride in taking his famous photo.

"No photographer could have ever asked for a better break," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "The sun was just right. The wind was just right to flow the flag. The pipe -- it must have weighed 100 pounds -- was so heavy the guy holding it was struggling, typifying the struggle the Marines had in securing the island."

Somewhat embarrassed by the hoopla caused by his photo, Rosenthal repeatedly said that he was not the story, that the Marines were the story.

"What difference does it make who took the picture?" he said in Collier's. "I took it, but the Marines took Iwo Jima."

Rosenthal is survived by a daughter, Anne Rosenthal; a son, Joseph Rosenthal Jr., and several grandchildren.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°