The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, 69 years ago, is perhaps the most iconic image of World War II.
No other picture so succinctly and evocatively captures the triumph of the Allied forces, while also highlighting the critical role that U.S. troops played in the Pacific. The picture has become an enduring symbol of the steadfastness and strength of the Marine Corps.
Joe Rosenthal, at the time an unknown Associated Press photographer, is the man behind the photo. Although it was technically the second flag raising on Iwo Jima, which shows five Marines and a Navy Corpsman, it is no less important. The first flag planted was replaced as it was too small to be seen from the coast.
Rosenthal, in an attempt to position himself properly for the shot, almost actually missed the flag raising. In a desperate attempt to capture the scene, Rosenthal shot the image without the use of his viewfinder. His gut instinct certainly hit the mark; he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his image.
Almost immediately, though, the overall quality of the framing led to accusations that Rosenthal had framed the picture.
This controversy still remains. Fortunately, an official video of the flag raising by a Marine photographer shows that the events transpired naturally, and exactly as Rosenthal had claimed.
Rosenthal’s photo has gone on to become a deeply ingrained cultural image for America. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, in Washington, D.C., is modeled after this photo. President Roosevelt also used the image to promote war bonds at the end of the war, and it was featured on stamps.
It’s important to note that, while the image evoked a feeling of American victory, it was shot only five days into the Iwo Jima campaign. The battle went on for many more weeks, and three of the Marines who raised the flag were later killed in action.
Although Rosenthal’s image has become synonymous with the courage of the Marines, many still debate the value of invading Iwo Jima.
The battle was particularly bloody, being the only battle in which the U.S. Marine Corps suffered more casualties than the Japanese Army. The Japanese were well entrenched on the island when the U.S. decided to invade. Iwo Jima’s topography, being a mountainous island, also proved extremely difficult for U.S. troops.
However, Iwo Jima proved of extreme tactical importance to the U.S. policy of island hopping to the Japanese mainland. For this, the military command decided that the 26,000 American casualties was worth the island.
This cost, and the grand accomplishment, of the campaign is forever immortalized in Rosenthal’s photograph.