The flag on Iwo Jima: 100 years of a legendary AP photographer
October 9, 2011 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 10:22am
The man who photographed five Marines and a Navy corpsman lifting the American flag over the summit of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, creating the most memorable image of the fight that was World War II, was born exactly 100 years ago — on Oct. 9, 1911.
In an oral history for the AP Corporate Archives in 1997, Joe Rosenthal recalls leaving his native Washington, D.C. and heading to San Francisco in 1929 seeking any kind of work — and he found it as an office boy at the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
“They showed me the front end and the back end of a camera, and encouraged me, and it wasn’t very long before I was off shooting,” he recalled. His first assignment was to photograph rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Rosenthal was a photographer at the AP bureau in San Francisco. After the Army declined to take him into service due to his bad eyesight, he joined the United States Maritime Service. In March 1944, he went to the Pacific for AP, landing alongside the Marines and Infantry divisions as they fought to retake New Guinea, Guam, Angaur and Peleliu.
Apart from surviving, his chief aim during these assaults was the protection of his camera.
On Feb. 23, 1945, Rosenthal had been on Iwo Jima for four days. Progress up the mountain had been measured in inches. There was no pathway, only chewed up ground. Caves had to be dynamited to subdue the enemy before troops could proceed.
As he reached the brow of the hill, he recalled, “I swung my Graphic around, close up to my face, and held it, watching through the finder, to see when I could estimate what’s the peak of the picture.”
A full week elapsed before he saw what the finder had seen. “Hey, there’s a good shot,” was his modest appraisal.
What he was not muted about was his respect for the effort it took to get to Suribachi in the first place. “I see what had to be gone through before those Marines, with that flag, or with any flag, got up to the top of that mountain.”
Joe Rosenthal died in Novato, Calif., on Aug. 20, 2006. He was 94.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Watch these video clips of Rosenthal describing his experiences with Iwo Jima, and with his famous shot.
- How he got to the top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, and what he found when he got there.
- The Marines’ preparations for the flag-raising and his emotional response to the image.
- Details about the shot itself, including the camera, the technical expertise required and Marines’ response to the moment.
Valerie Komor is the director of the AP Corporate Archives.
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