“Atop 550-foot Suribachi Yama, the volcano at the southwest tip of Iwo Jima, Marines of the Second Battalion, 28th Regiment, Fifth Division, hoist the Stars and Stripes, signaling the capture of this key position.” -Joe Rosenthal

This is the caption Joe Rosenthal attached to his photograph of the historic flag-raising during World War II that symbolized the first time an American flag had been planted on Japanese territory.

Flag-raising on Iwo Jima

Joe Rosenthal, Bettman/Corbis

Joe Rosenthal could not join the U.S. Army due to poor eyesight. The Associated Press sent him to cover the war in the Pacific. He proved to be a tremendous photographer on battlefields in New Guinea, Guam and Angaur prior to landing on Iwo Jima.

He was accompanying the first wave of Marines on February 19, 1945. The battle raged and four days later a platoon of 40 Marines went to secure the Japanese stronghold Mount Suribachi. Upon attaining the summit, a small American flag was raised becoming the first one to fly over Japanese territory. Sargeant Lou Lowrey photographed both posed and unposed pictures of the men for Leatherneck magazine. His photo appears at the end of this post. Thousands of Marines and Navy corpsmen cheered from below.

Rosenthal had learned that the flag-raising would happen but would arrive too late for the first event. When he and two other photographers arrived at the summit, a second and much larger flag was about to be raised. Rosenthal, who was short at only 5 feet 5 inches, stacked stones and a sandbag to stand on to get the best angle.

As the six Marines and a single Navy corpsman worked to hoist the flag, Rosenthal made the photo on his 4-by-5 inch Speed Graphic camera set at 1/400s at f/11. He wanted to make certain he had a usable photo so he posed the flag raisers grouped under the flag in a photo Rosenthal called a “gung-ho” image.

The battle for control of Iwo Jima continued.

The flag seen around the world

The film was shipped to Guam for processing and transmitting via radio to the mainland in time to appear on the front pages of Sunday newspapers. The photo showed up at once in retail store windows, movie palaces, banks, factories, railway stations and on billboards across the country. The men who raised the flag were ordered home for a hero’s welcome. Only three had survived to be honored. The photo headlined President Roosevelt’s Seventh War Bond Tour that raised $26 billion for the treasury.

Five months after the event it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, even though the law did not allow living persons to be so honored.

The photograph won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. It became the model for the 110 foot tall bronze Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

Rosenthal maintains that photo was not posed

Fro the rest of his life Joe Rosenthal explained that the photo was not staged that he only posed the “gung-ho” version. Renowned photojournalist and former AP photographer Eddie Adams put it this way, “It has every element … it has everything. It’s perfect: The position, the body language … you couldn’t set anything up like this — it’s just so perfect.”

The photo made little money

Rosenthal did not earn much from the photo. He did get $4200 in War Bonds from the AP, a $1000 prize from a photo magazine and around $700 for radio interviews. Sadly, his name did not even appear on the Marine Corps War Memorial statue. That changed when his name was added in 1982. Posthumously, he was awarded the Department of the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award by the Marine Corps.

Joe Rosenthal died in 2006 at the age of 94.

On Photography: Joe Rosenthal, 1911-2006
This smaller flag was the first U.S. flag to fly over Japanese territory during World War II. Photo by Sgt. Louis Lowery U.S. Navy AP.

Sources: Internation Photography Hall of Fame

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