An immortal moment

September 04, 2006

An immortal moment
Iwo Jima image, spirit lives on despite photographer’s death

By Josh Gibbs

When Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal climbed atop Mount Suribachi as Marines struggled to take the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima in 1945, he captured what many consider the greatest photograph of all time. As then-Navy Secretary James Forrestal proclaimed, the "flag-raising on Iwo Jima means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years."

When I learned of Rosenthal's death, I -- like every Marine I know -- was brought back to the day I learned about Iwo Jima. I have fond memories of re-enacting the flag-raising in my squad bay at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.

We piled the contents of our footlockers into the middle of the floor to create our own Mount Suribachi and used our guidon for the American flag. I didn't know it at the time, but we were re-creating one of the most pivotal and iconic moments in Marine Corps history.

Rosenthal received the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for his image of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi to signify its capture. Officially titled "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," it is the only photograph to win the award in the same year it was taken.

During the Seventh War Bond Drive in 1945, the photograph was reproduced on 3.5 million posters and helped raise more than $20 billion over six weeks. That same year, it appeared on a postage stamp, despite the Postal Service's policy of not featuring living people on stamps.

The image has graced the covers of countless magazines and newspapers and, most important for Marines, it served as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. This amazing bronze creation stands as a symbol of Marines who have given their lives in defense of their country since 1775.

As Marines, we remember the Battle of Iwo Jima for two reasons. One is that it was the costliest battle in Marine Corps history. The 6,821 Americans killed -- including 5,931 Marines -- accounted for almost one-third of Marine losses during World War II.

The other is Rosenthal's photo. His stirring image has become synonymous with Marines worldwide. With a click of his shutter, he captured not just a pivotal moment in American history, but the feeling of a nation.

The flag-raising on Iwo Jima showed the world that we could do what had previously been thought impossible. Rosenthal's photograph stands as a testament to tenacity and determination.

The volcanic island of Iwo Jima was heavily fortified by the Japanese, and the invading Allied forces suffered appalling casualties. In fact, this was the only invasion of the American offensive in the Pacific in which the Americans suffered higher casualties than the Japanese.

The island is dominated by Mount Suribachi, a 546-foot dormant volcano. From the top, the Japanese could accurately rain artillery onto the Americans -- especially those on the landing beaches. Iwo Jima was of strategic importance to the U.S. because it would provide a landing and refueling site for bombers on missions to Japan.

Iwo Jima would be the first piece of Japanese soil the U.S. would take, so it was a matter of honor for the Japanese to prevent its capture at all costs.

Marines had been battling for the high ground of Mount Suribachi since their initial landing Feb. 19, 1945. After suffering terrible losses on the black sand below, the Allies appeared to be taking the island. As Marines remember from boot camp, this was the battle about which Adm. Chester Nimitz was quoted as saying, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Staff Sgt. Lou Lowery photographed the first flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi in the late morning of Feb. 23. Later that day, it was ordered that a second and larger flag be raised.

Upon landing on the island, Rosenthal hurried toward Mount Suribachi, trying to find the Marines who had raised the first flag in hopes he could get a group picture of them beside it before it was taken down. When he was unable to locate them, he turned his attention to a group of Marines preparing to raise the second flag.

In a 1955 article for Collier's magazine, Rosenthal wrote, "Out of the corner of my eye, as I had turned toward [Marine photographer Sgt. Bill] Genaust, 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."

Rosenthal's photograph displays the stirring and unstoppable energy of six men straining toward a common goal. It has become a visual metaphor for overcoming adversity in the face of insurmountable odds.

Americans responded to it because it was an image of victory they so badly craved. In a war that America had been involved in for almost four years, we needed the assurance that we were winning. Rosenthal's image gave us that feeling and served to strengthen our support.

Rosenthal was 94 years old when he died, but his photograph became immortal in just 1/400th of a second.

The writer is a captain with the 8th Marine Corps District in Arlington, Texas.

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