Joe Rosenthal died. He took the photo of the U.S. flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima that became an icon of the Pacific War, of dedication to duty, and of the deeper, sometimes darker currents of war and life in the U.S.
The Los Angeles Times captured the basics of the story, noting that the photo Rosenthall took was the second raising of a larger flag, a smaller one having been raised a bit earlier. (Other worthwhile stories include those in the Seattle Times, Scotsman.com, and The San Francisco Times.)
Mt. Suribachi, though little more than a large mound on the island, is the highest point there and visible all around the island. The raising of the flag on that spot was a morale booster for U.S. troops and a morale-buster for holdout Japanese troops engaged in one of the nastiest, bloodiest battles of a nasty, bloody war. As the LA Times noted, a third of all U.S. Marines to die in the war died on Iwo Jima: 5,931. Nearly 7,000 U.S. servicemen died, in total — and, fighting to the death from deeply hidden tunnels, nearly all of the Japanese defenders died.
A photo becomes an icon: Again, from the LA Times:
The photo’s publication to widespread acclaim in newspapers across America helped instill pride and hope in Americans yearning for an end to the war.
Within months, the flag-raising image had been engraved on a 3-cent stamp and emblazoned on 3.5 million posters and thousands of outdoor panels and car cards that helped sell more than $200 million in U.S. war bonds with the slogan, “Now All Together.” Navy artist Felix de Weldon recognized its symbolism and used the picture as a model to cast a small wax statue, a version of which would later be used to build the 32-foot-high bronze Marine memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
There is something about the photo that reaches out to pique the interest of a viewer. I have used it in the classroom as a launch pad for discussions about the drive to end World War II in the Pacific, culminating in the use of two atomic weapons on Japan and the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor.
Much has been written about the photo. Several of the Marines pictured died in later fighting. Two of the stories stick with me.
Johnny Cash had a 1964 country music hit of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” composed by Peter LaFarge, and others covered it. James Brady knew his father, John Brady, was the last survivor of those pictured, but did not realize the entire meaning of the event until after his father’s death — Flags of Our Fathers is a stirring tribute from a loving son, and the final chapter revealed to me exactly why my uncle, a veteran of those South Pacific island assaults, was who he was, and how he was, years later. The book should be required reading for presidents whenever they contemplate going to war.
The photo was the icon of a war-bond effort that raised a record amount of money from the U.S. public. It was enshrined in bronze at the Marine Memorial outside of Washington, D.C., and in celluloid by John Wayne. Rosenthal’s photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Rosenthal was a long-time photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, after the war.
Here is part of the account, from The Scotsman:
The then president, Franklin D Roosevelt, immediately realised the propaganda value of the picture and ordered the soldiers be identified, brought home and sent on a tour of the US.
The bond-raising tour collected $23.3 billion, twice as much as hoped.
After the war Rosenthal was proud of having taken the iconic image, saying: “What I see behind the photo is what it took to get up to those heights – the kind of devotion to their country that those young men had, and the sacrifices they made. I take some gratification in being a little part of what the US stands for.”
Yet he never saw himself as a great photographer, but liked to call himself “a guy who was up in the big leagues for a cup of coffee at one time”.
Of the men who were a part of the historic shot only three survived the war: 20-year-old Harlon Block, 24-year-old Mike Strank and 19-year-old Franklin Sousley were all killed by Japanese snipers before the end of the battle on 27 March.
John Bradley, 21, never talked about the war, but a box of his papers found by his son James became the basis for a best selling book Flags of our Fathers.
Rene Gagnon, 19, went on to appear in the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima, but he had little further success in movies and died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 54.
Saddest of all was Ira Hayes, a 21-year-old Pima Indian from Arizona, who was ordered to go back to the US to take part in fundraising drives, although he had signs of suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Hayes became an alcoholic and died on the Gila River Indian reservation in January 1955, two months after attending the dedication of the US Marine Corps War Memorial by President Dwight D Eisenhower. He often told interviewers: “How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the beach with me and only 27 walked off alive.”
The Ballad of Ira Hayes told the story and was covered by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman. The song recalls:
“Ira started drinkin hard, Jail was often his home, They’d let him raise the flag and lower it, like you’d throw a dog a bone.”
The Marine Memorial featuring the bronze statue based on Rosenthal’s photo, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. It is visible at night, lighted with the U.S. flag waving, from much of Washington, D.C.
(A tip of the old backscrub brush to Milo’s Rambles.)