Photographer of Iwo Jima flag-raising

Joe Rosenthal 1911-2006


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

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

Taken on Feb. 23, 1945, the photo 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. The photo's publication to widespread acclaim in newspapers across America 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 used the picture as a model to cast a small wax statue, a version of which would later be used to build the 32-foot-high bronze Marine memorial at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

Long after the self-effacing Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Rosenthal was forced to defend himself against accusations that he had set up the shot himself.

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

Disappointed, Mr. Rosenthal trekked across the battle-scared terrain anyway to see if he could get a shot of the flag.

On his way up the 556-foot mountain he learned that a commander 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.

Mr. Rosenthal reached the site moments before the exchange was to occur. He thought 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.

In all the activity of the moment Mr. Rosenthal almost missed the shot. But just in time, he turned and pointed his Speed Graphic toward the soldiers, who had tied the flag to a 20-foot length of heavy pipe. He waited a second or two and shot the picture.

When the 96-by-56-inch flag was up, fearing he hadn't gotten what he wanted, he asked the men to face him under the flag for a celebratory picture.

Until the film was developed, Mr. Rosenthal did not know if he had even gotten the flag-raising shot. Once AP moved the picture to client newspapers, it was clear that Mr. Rosenthal had gotten all that anyone ever could have hoped for and more. 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. So when someone asked him if he had set it up, he said, "Sure." That comment was picked up and used as evidence that he had staged the flag-raising picture.

Mr. Rosenthal spent the rest of his life trying to correct the impression that his famed picture was 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.

Mr. Rosenthal was born Oct. 9, 1911, in Washington, D.C.

After high school graduation, he moved to San Francisco, with the idea of working his way through college. But he got sidetracked and 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. He hooked up with the U.S. Maritime Service, returning in 1944 to AP when it offered him a chance to take photographs in the Pacific.

Mr. 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."

Survivors include a daughter, Anne; a son, Joseph Jr.; and several grandchildren.

Claudia Luther writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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