Was this iconic World War II photo staged? Here's the heroic true story.

The inspiring image lifted the spirits of a nation—and raised suspicions that it was too good to be true.

Published 24 Feb 2020, 10:49 GMT
After five days of ferocious fighting, U.S. Marines raise the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s highest ...
After five days of ferocious fighting, U.S. Marines raise the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s highest point on February 23, 1945. Two days later, Joe Rosenthal’s photograph was on the front page of Sunday papers across the U.S. The acclaimed image won the Pulitzer Prize that same year.
Photograph by Joe Rosenthal, Ap

On February 23, 1945, six U.S. Marines planted an American flag atop a battle-blasted hill on the island of Iwo Jima, a fiercely defended Japanese stronghold. Photographer Joe Rosenthal got lucky and captured the moment in a single, immortal image. Within weeks the photograph became the theme of the U.S. Government’s seventh War Bond drive. A postage stamp bore the image. The scene has been reenacted multiple times on screen.

Most enduringly, perhaps, a monumental sculpture of the flag raising, based entirely on Rosenthal’s Associated Press photo, stands guard above the Potomac River across from Washington, D.C.

A “Special Air and Gunnery Target Map” compiled from aerial reconnaissance photos of Iwo Jima shows Japanese airfields and fortifications. Weeks of shelling by the U.S. fleet failed to destroy the deeply dug-in defenses, including a dense network of bunkers linked by 11 miles of tunnels.

Photograph by Bridgeman Images

And it’s all because Rosenthal swung his bulky Graflex 4x5 camera in the right direction at the right split-second and snapped the shot—without even looking through his viewfinder.

The resulting photo is so perfect—in capturing an essential moment, in depicting the courage and camaraderie of fighting men, in meeting virtually every time-honoured standard of artistic composition—that for the rest of his life, Rosenthal had to rebut charges that he set up the whole thing.

In fact, on that day—five days into one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War—Rosenthal had just one thing on his mind as he scrambled up the stony, volcanic slope. “As the trail became steeper,” he later said, “I began to wonder and hope that this was worth the effort.”

It was, even though Rosenthal showed up too late, yet right on time.

Dominated by 554-foot Mount Suribachi, the island of Iwo Jima was an important midway point between Allied bomber bases and Japan. But after the battle left more than 6,000 Americans dead and 20,000 wounded, some questioned whether the tiny volcanic outpost was worth so high a price.
Photograph by W. Eugene Smith, The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Before he reached the summit of Mount Suribachi’s 554-foot volcanic cone, a team of Marines had already raised a small U.S. flag. Marine photographer Staff Sergeant Louis Lowery snapped the moment when the makeshift flagpole was erected, but the sight of that flag drew a volley of fire from Japanese troops. While diving for cover, Lowery broke his camera, so he headed down the hill to get new equipment. Along the way he met Rosenthal, still struggling to get to the top, and gave him the bad news: The flag was already up.

Still, Rosenthal pressed on, hoping to get some good shots from the summit. When he got there, he noticed a team of Marines preparing to raise a second, larger flag, on orders from Marine brass, who wanted it to be visible from all over the island.

War photographers almost never get second chances at great shots, but Rosenthal knew he had one here. Now he was in a race against time, trying to get a good vantage point in the seconds before the second flag was raised. Frantically, the five-foot-five photographer piled up some sandbags to stand on.

“I’m not in your way, Joe, am I?” asked a movie cameraman on the scene. Rosenthal turned to look at him—and nearly missed the shot of the century.

The U.S. Army had rejected Rosenthal as a photographer because he had poor eyesight. But it’s reflexes that make a war photographer, and Rosenthal’s were catlike. Through one corner of his eye he caught sight of the Marines raising the fluttering flag. In one movement he turned, raised his camera, clicked his single shot, and left the rest to fate.

Reflexes or not, Rosenthal couldn’t be sure he’d gotten his shot. The film in his camera would be flown to Guam for processing, then sent via telephoto equipment to his editors in San Francisco.

For insurance, Rosenthal got 16 Marines and two Navy corpsmen to pose triumphantly around the flag. Among them was Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American who was also in the iconic first shot. (He’s the Marine at far left whose hands have just let go of the flagstaff.)

“I had my 20th birthday on Iwo Jima,” says John “Jack” Thurman, now 94. “Some of my buddies there didn’t make it to their 19th birthdays. Now old vets like me, we live our lives for ourselves—and for them. My buddies are living through me.“
Photograph by Robert Clark- National Geographic

Among Hayes’ closest buddies was Jack Thurman, a 19-year-old Marine sniper. As Thurman, now 94, remembers it, the two had climbed the hill that morning, Hayes as part of the flag-raising unit, Thurman as a sniper to protect them.

“Hey, Jack, get down here!” Thurman recalls Hayes yelling. “I want my picture taken with you!” The resulting image is a bit fuzzy, and debate has arisen as to who, exactly, is in the photograph. But looking at it today in a sunny room of his Loveland, Colorado home, Thurman identifies himself as the Marine at extreme left, the one waving his helmet with youthful enthusiasm.

Admittedly, he says, doffing his headgear wasn’t the smartest thing to do with enemy gunfire coming from every angle. “But, you get used to it,” he says. “That stuff was flying all over the place.”

The raising of the flags on Iwo Jima had an immediate effect on Marines all over the island’s eight square miles. As the first flag was hoisted, horns sounded from the invasion fleet, and soldiers fired their guns in the air. 

After snapping the unposed flag-raising photo atop Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal asked 16 Marines—including Jack Thurman, at far left—and two Navy corpsmen to gather for this group portrait, which he later dubbed his “Gung-Ho” photo.
Photograph by Joe Rosenthal, Ap

“What a feeling that was!” recalls Bill Montgomery, 95, one of the few Marines who arrived on Iwo Jima the first day of the battle and stayed until the bitter end. “I felt ecstasy! I knew it was all over! So many of us had been killed. We made it through.”

Thurman shared that optimism with his fellow Marines, but it was a false hope. The battle of Iwo Jima would rage for another month, claiming more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,281 lives. But through it all, the flag atop Suribachi snapped in the stiff Pacific trade winds. The sight inspired the Marines through every war-weary day—and night.

“Even after dark,” says Thurman, “the artillery shells would go off, and by the flash you could see that flag up there, still waving. Still standing. I couldn’t help but think of Fort McHenry and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. The bombs bursting in air really did give proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

Two days after Rosenthal snapped his shots atop Suribachi, the Associated Press released his iconic image—a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that, to many, seemed just too perfect.

In honour of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, the flag made famous by Rosenthal’s photograph will be on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia until March 30, 2020.

Until his death at age 94 in 2006, “Joe spent the rest of his life defending what was alleged as a ‘phony picture,’” former executive AP photo editor Hal Buell said in an interview. Even after an inquiry by military officials and Life magazine editors concluded it was an authentic news picture, the rumour persisted. (Here's how National Geographic spots fake pictures.)

As for Sgt. Lowery, the military photographer who missed the shot of the century because his camera broke, for years he contended that Rosenthal’s picture must have been faked. But after the two men had an impromptu encounter at a Marine event years later, he changed his mind.

“They remained friends,” said Buell. “In fact, Joe attended Lou Lowery’s funeral.” Now, as the number of men who witnessed that flag raising first-hand dwindles, Joe Rosenthal’s photo preserves the spirit of one of World War II’s most indelible moments.

“I think of it every time I see our flag flying, even today,” says Jack Thurman. “That flag is saying to every one of us, ‘I’m still here, buddies. I’m still here.’”

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