In Clint Eastwood’s new film “Flags of Our Fathers,” moments after the stars and stripes are raised atop Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal is asked if he “got it.”
“I don’t know,” replies Rosenthal, played by Ned Eisenberg. “I wish I could have seen their faces.”
Rosenthal, of course, did more than “get it.” His photograph has become one of the most famous, most distributed pictures ever — an iconic image of WWII and American perseverance.
“Flags of Our Fathers,” adapted from the 2000 book of the same name by James Bradley with Ron Powers, is the story of the six men who raised the flag, three of whom died on the small Pacific island 750 miles south of Tokyo, where one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Marine Corps was fought in 1945.
Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize for his image, and left AP later in 1945 to join the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked as a photographer for 35 years before retiring. Rosenthal died of natural causes in August at age 94.
“About a month or two ago, I thought, ‘I can’t wait to show this to Joe Rosenthal,'” says Eastwood. “I’d heard he was in ill health, and the next day, I picked up the paper and saw the obit on him.”
Rosenthal was forever modest about his accomplishment, not unlike the three troops cast as national heroes for erecting the flag. Bradley, whose father John was one of the flag-raisers, thinks the men were similar in their humility.
“I realized later that Joe and my dad kind of resonated because both were very humble and they always gave credit where credit was due — to the guys that didn’t make it back,” Bradley says.
Rosenthal had tried to enlist, but was rejected, ironically, for poor eyesight. He was later reclassified and served in the Merchant Marine, traveling by ship for about 18 months.
“Joe was a patriot,” says Hal Buell, the former head of AP’s international photo service and author of “Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue: Iwo Jima and the Photograph that Captured America.” “His parents were Jewish immigrants from (the Russia-Poland border) and Joe had a great love for America.”
During World War II, when Rosenthal was traveling through San Francisco, he stopped into the AP bureau to visit some friends, having worked there before the Merchant Marine. He heard of an opportunity to photograph in the Pacific, jumped at it and resigned his post as warrant officer.
In the war in Iraq, photographers and journalists were generally embedded in military units, but during World War II photographers like Rosenthal had great freedom of movement. Buell says access was a negotiation with the Navy where photographers would request which battle they’d like to shoot, and would normally be accommodated if there was space.
Rosenthal probably wasn’t specifically assigned to Iwo Jima, but was following the action. He had previously photographed assaults on Guam, Peleliu and Anguar.
For the beach invasion on Iwo Jima, Rosenthal went in with the second wave of Marines. The Japanese, though, didn’t start firing on the advancing troops until just before Rosenthal arrived.
“Yes, I would hate to have been badly wounded, but it wouldn’t have meant so much had I been killed. Lots of guys were,” Rosenthal told Buell for “Uncommon Valor.”
He took many harrowing photos of the bloody invasion, where fire rained down from the Japanese dug-in position on the steep slope of Suribachi, a 556-foot-tall volcano. In all, Rosenthal shot 65 photos on Iwo Jima; he was just one of 90 photographers there, though most were from the military.
On Feb. 23, 1945, the fifth day of the invasion, Marines raised a flag atop Suribachi, but Rosenthal wasn’t there. Soon, though, it was decided to raise a second, larger flag and Rosenthal saw a chance to snap the photo he had missed. He later compared photographing the flag raising to shooting “a football play.”
“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene,” Rosenthal said a decade afterward. “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.”
“Serendipity is part of every photograph,” says Buell, noting that Rosenthal was nevertheless careful in composing it — picking his angle and planning enough overhead space for the rising flag pole.
Rosenthal also took a photo of a group of Marines standing around the flag once it was up. When he was later asked if he had staged the photo, Rosenthal, not knowing how the first had turned out, assumed the latter had been distributed. “Sure,” he replied, inadvertently beginning a false rumor that the photo was staged.
That day, Rosenthal had his film flown to the Wartime Still Pictures Pool in Guam, where it was processed by editor Jack Bodkin, who was the first to see the photo out of the water.
Taking one look at it, Bodkin exclaimed: “Here’s one for all time.”
It was transmitted by Navy radiophoto circuits to San Francisco, and then distributed over the AP wire on Saturday, Feb. 24. George Sweers, the AP wirephoto operator in Kansas City remarked upon seeing it, “It looks like a statue” — a prescient observation considering President Eisenhower would in 1954 dedicate a memorial statue of the image.
The next day, the photograph ran on front pages of Sunday newspapers across the country, immediately transfixing America. It was a very quick turnaround at that time, when photos sometimes took five or six days to reach presses.
“It was like Beatlemania,” says Bradley of the nation’s reaction.
In early 1945, much of the home front was weary of years of war, where daily headlines read of mounting casualties in far-off places.
“Then right in the center of the page is this picture from Joe Rosenthal,” says Buell. “It just said victory so clearly. And it just turned.”
The three living flag-raisers became heroes at home, where they were immediately recruited for a staggeringly successful war bond drive that raised over $24 billion (in 1945 dollars).
“The beauty of the photo is not that these guys are so above and beyond, it’s that they are us, just ordinary Americans doing their duty,” says Bradley. “My father never said he raised the flag, he said he put up a pole.”
But despite all the fame from the photograph, Rosenthal’s modesty never wavered.
“I took the picture,” he said. “The Marines took Iwo Jima.”