The first casualty

Joe Rosenthal’s photo from one battle condemned him to another that raged his whole life.

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As bloodbaths go, Iwo Jima was a singular hell. To the US military, it was one of the last two footsteps of a long island-hopping campaign to seize the Pacific back from Japan. To the Japanese, it was the first homeland soil they’d had to defend. And they did so with a devout fatalism. After six weeks, 6800 US marines lay dead on the island, a featureless 21 square kilometres of sand, except for Mt Suribachi, an old volcanic cone.

The Americans took Suribachi on February 23, 1945, just four days after landing, though at a terrible cost. That day at 8am, a patrol of 40 men was sent to secure Suribachi’s crater rim, where they erected an American flag, sending their brothers in arms below—still suffering huge losses—a much-needed morale boost.

When Navy Secretary James Forrestal saw the flag go up on Suribachi, he declared he would have it as a souvenir. On hearing this, Commander Chandler Johnson, who believed the flag was the symbolic property of his battalion, told his assistant operations officer, Lieutenant Ted Tuttle, to retrieve it and replace it with another. As an afterthought, goes the history, Johnson called after him: “And make it a bigger one.”

A Marines runner took the replacement flag to the summit, arriving about noon, shortly before photographers Joe Rosenthal, Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust. The trio clambered over the rim to find a party fixing the flag to an old water pipe. Rosenthal decided he needed a higher angle, so put his Speed Graphic down and started piling rocks atop a Japanese sandbag to make a platform. But the Marines didn’t wait for him: they had already started hoisting the makeshift flagpole, and Rosenthal was forced to quickly grab his camera and shoot the scene from the hip.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”

Thus, Rosenthal nearly missed the picture that won him a Pulitzer that same year, the image that became the symbol of victory in the Pacific. It was immediately seized upon by Franklin Roosevelt as a defining publicity image to support his War Bonds drive—the photo appeared on 3.5 million posters, and helped net US$26.3 billion. It was solidified as a memorial sculpture, and borne on two stamp issues and a silver dollar.

Before leaving the top of Suribachi, Rosenthal posed the men of Easy Company for a group shot. His film was then sent back to Guam for processing, and when Associated Press (AP) picture editor John Bodkin saw the flag-raising shot, he said: “Here’s one for all time!” He wired it to AP headquarters in New York, and it claimed front pages all over the world. Rosenthal had no inkling of this when he arrived back on Guam a few days later, so when a reporter asked him if he had staged “the photo”, he thought the reference was to the posed group shot. Unthinkingly, he said yes.

And so it was that Rosenthal stood serially accused of fakery for the next 60 years. A Time-Life stringer wired the misconstrued comment to his editors, who went to air with a recrimination that “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted… Like most photographers [he] could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” Days later, Time retracted and apologised, but the myth was sown. In 1991, a New York Times reviewer even suggested Rosenthal should be stripped of his Pulitzer.

Before his death in 2006, Rosenthal said: “I don’t think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing… I don’t know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means.”