The iconic image of six Marines raising an American flag over Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, is recognized around the world, credited with boosting morale at a critical moment of World War II, and generating record fundraising for war relief at home.
It’s also the first photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year it was taken.
After 72 years, though, some worry that the man who made it, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, may fade from American memory. A group of veterans and photographers want to avoid that with their longshot petition to the US Navy asking that a warship be named for him.
Rosenthal had requested the dangerous wartime assignment after he was rejected for service because of poor eyesight.
After photographing the fighting on Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur, he nearly drowned en route to Iwo Jima as he transferred from the command ship El Dorado to an amphibious landing craft the day he took the photograph.
All accounts paint Rosenthal as a hands-on practitioner of his craft, not content to sit on a ship and take photos from afar.
“He was a 33-year-old man basically volunteering for combat and not carrying a weapon, but carrying his camera,” said Tom Graves, chapter historian of the USMC Combat Correspondents Association in the San Francisco Bay Area. “He was exposed to great danger and in fact, was nearly killed several times.”
After coming ashore in Iwo Jima, Rosenthal and others learned an American flag had made it to Mount Suribachi, a volcanic cone at the southwestern tip of the island and a key objective of the Marines. Unfortunately, another photographer had already captured that image.
“I wanted a flag going up on Iwo, and I want it badly,” Rosenthal later recalled.
When he learned that a second, much larger flag was on its way to the site, he began mentally composing what would become his iconic photo: Where would the men be? Where would the flag be? How tall would it be?
He built a platform of stones and sandbags to stand on, adjusted his shutter timing and tuned his aperture. It was about noon, with the sun directly overhead and a strong wind.
“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 and secured the highest point, the most important point, perhaps, in the entire battle, the most important ground to be taken by those Marines,” Rosenthal said in a 1997 interview.
AP photo editor Jack Bodkin was the first to see Rosenthal’s picture of six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
“Here’s one for all time,” he declared as he sent the image by Navy radio to San Francisco. The image moved on Feb. 24 and appeared in newspapers on Sunday morning, 17½ hours after it was taken.
The accolades poured in.
“I think it’s the most significant photo of all time because of what it did. I think there’s more beautiful photos, I think there’s more dramatic photos,” said Graves, a commercial photographer. “You can’t glance at it and not be moved by it. Someone at the time said it captures the soul of a nation. And I think it still does today.”
Graves’ group is expected to submit its petition to the Navy on Oct. 9, which would have been Rosenthal’s 106th birthday. Graves knows it’s a longshot, but he and his group figured it was worth a try after the previous Navy secretary opened the door to naming ships for non-military people.
The legacy would be fitting, said Anne Rosenthal, the photographer’s daughter.
“There are awards and there are plaques and there are speeches, but this whole idea of the ship is so appealing, because a ship is like a living thing. It has people who spend their lives on it, or parts of their lives on it,” Anne Rosenthal said.
Her father wanted to contribute to the war and took his responsibilities seriously. And she said he was not a person who thought much about his own safety and security.
“He was good at his craft before he went to war,” his daughter said. “He wanted to tell the story. And he had very good timing … so in a certain way, he was well-skilled to capture the moment and he came through.”
Though his preference was to stay on and cover the next battles in the Pacific, Rosenthal was sent back to the United States to receive his Pulitzer and other commendations.
A tour followed for the Seventh War Loan Drive, a six-week effort that yielded a record $26 billion in sales of Treasury Department bonds. Posters featuring the Iwo Jima photo were sold for the effort. The image also appeared on U.S. stamps.
Rosenthal’s photo was so good that some believed it had been posed. Time and Life apologized to Rosenthal and the AP for its claims.
“If I had posed it, I would have ruined it. I would have fewer Marines in the picture and I would make sure that their faces were seen, and I would have their identifications so that their hometown papers would have the information,” Rosenthal said later. “I wish I could pose a picture that good, but I know that I never could.”