Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer who captured the enduring image of the American fighting man in World War II with his depiction of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a huge American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, died Sunday in Novato, Calif. He was 94.
Doug Mills/Associated Press
In 1995, Joe Rosenthal visited the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Enlarge this Image Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press
The photograph, taken on Feb. 23, 1945, became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
His death was announced by his daughter, Anne Rosenthal.
He had been rejected for military service because of abysmally poor eyesight, but in one-four-hundredths of a second — the shutter timing on his Speed Graphic camera — Joe Rosenthal took the most famous photograph of the Second World War.
His photograph of the flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, may be the most widely reproduced photo in American history. It was re-created on at least 3.5 million Treasury Department posters publicizing a massive war-bond campaign. It was engraved on three-cent Marine Corps commemorative stamps that broke Post Office records for first-day cancellations in 1945. It was reproduced as a 100-ton Marine Corps War Memorial bronze sculpture near Arlington National Cemetery. And it brought Mr. Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.
But almost from the day the photograph was emblazoned on the front pages of Sunday newspapers as a symbol of embattled patriotism, Mr. Rosenthal faced suspicions that he staged the shot, posing the Marines. He always insisted that he recorded a genuine event, and others on the scene corroborated his account.
“The picture was not posed,” Louis Burmeister, a former Marine combat photographer who was among four military photographers alongside Mr. Rosenthal as the flag went up, said in a 1993 interview for “Shadow of Suribachi,” by Parker Bishop Albee Jr. and Keller Cushing Freeman.
“If it was posed, we would have probably had their faces toward us,” Mr. Burmeister said. “You notice, in the picture, nobody’s facing us.”
That corroboration was buttressed by color motion-picture film of the flag-raising, photographed by Marine Sgt. William Genaust, a combat cameraman, at the same time from nearly the same vantage point. It shows the flag, affixed to a pipe, going up in an unbroken sequence.
Mr. Rosenthal said would say he was lucky to catch the flag-raising at its most dramatic instant, producing a masterpiece of composition acclaimed as a work of art.
“The sky was overcast, but just enough sunlight fell from almost directly overhead, because it happened to be about noon, to give the figures a sculptural depth,” he wrote in Collier’s magazine on the 10th anniversary of the flag-raising.
“The 20-foot pipe was heavy, which meant the men had to strain to get it up, imparting that feeling of action,” he wrote. “The wind just whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and at their feet the disrupted terrain and the broken stalks of the shrubbery exemplified the turbulence of war.”
“The characters create an ascending motion, but they’re frozen in time in a brilliantly precise way,” Alan Trachtenberg, the author of “Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans,” said in a 1997 interview with The New York Times. “And it’s more than just raising a flag. It’s a sense of culmination, of triumph, not just over an enemy but over the challenge of war itself. It’s become an iconic image, like Uncle Sam.”
Joseph John Rosenthal was born on October 9, 1911, in Washington, D.C., the son of Russian immigrants. He chose his first camera at age 12 from a catalogue in exchange for cigar-store coupons.
In 1930, a year after finishing high school, he was hired as an office boy by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and two years later he became a reporter-photographer for The San Francisco News. At the time the United States entered World War II, Mr. Rosenthal was a photographer in the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press.
After being declared 4-F by the armed forces because he could see only one-twentieth as well as an average person, Mr. Rosenthal joined the United States Maritime Service, taking photos of Atlantic Ocean convoys. In March 1944, he went to the Pacific on assignment for the A.P. and later photographed the invasions of New Guinea, Hollandia, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur.
On Feb. 19, 1945, Mr. Rosenthal accompanied the early waves of a 70,000-man Marine force ordered to seize Iwo Jima, a 7.5 square miles of black volcanic sand about 660 miles south of Tokyo. The island, defended by 21,000 Japanese troops, held airstrips that were needed as bases for American fighter planes and as havens for crippled bombers returning to the Mariana Islands from missions over Japan.
Although they suffered heavy casualties, by the fifth day the Marines had silenced most opposition from Japanese soldiers dug into caves on Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano 546 feet high at Iwo Jima’s southern tip.
At about 10:30 a.m., a group of Marines raised a 54-inch-by-28-inch American flag at the summit, and the ceremony was photographed by Sgt. Louis Lowery of the Marine magazine Leatherneck.
As Mr. Rosenthal later recalled the events, he and several combat photographers who were elsewhere on the mountain were soon told about the flag-raising by Sergeant Lowery. They went to the summit, where they spotted men from the 28th Regiment, Fifth Division, preparing to raise a second, larger flag — one that could be seen easily by Marines all over Iwo Jima and by sailors on the ships offshore.
Mr. Rosenthal descended just inside the lip of the volcano’s crater to gain proper focusing distance, then propped himself on rocks and a sandbag taken from an abandoned Japanese emplacement in order to peer over some brambles. He clicked his shutter as the second flag — which measured 8 feet by 4 feet, 8 inches — went up and the first flag was lowered.
The triumphant portrait, representing the first seizure by American troops of territory governed as part of the Japanese homeland, struck a tremendous emotional chord on the home front and resonated deeply as a symbol of the diversity in American life.
The Marine at the far left of the photo, Pfc. Ira Hayes, was a Pima Indian from Arizona. The man next to him, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, was a Kentuckian. Pharmacist’s Mate 2d Class John Bradley of the Navy came from the Wisconsin dairy lands, and Sgt. Michael Strank, a Pennsylvanian, was the son of Czechoslovak immigrants. (They were largely screened from view in the photo.)
Pfc. Rene Gagnon, second from the right, was from New Hampshire, of French-Canadian descent. The Marine kneeling at the far right was first identified as Sgt. Henry Hansen of Massachusetts, but the Marine Corps later maintained that it was, in fact, Cpl. Harlon Block of Texas.
The flag-raising was not the culmination of the fight for Iwo Jima. Heavy combat lay ahead before the battle ended on March 26 with the Marines having suffered almost 26,000 casualties, representing more than one-third of the invasion force. (Ninety-five percent of the Japanese defenders were killed.)
Most of these casualties came after the flag-raising. Private Sousley, Sergeant Strank, Sergeant Hansen and Corporal Block later were killed in action on Iwo Jima. So was Sergeant Genaust, the Marine photographer who took the color motion picture.
The three surviving flag-raisers were ordered home by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in late March, hailed as heroes and sent on a nationwide tour to promote war-bond sales. The men who raised the first flag — and appeared in Sergeant Lowery’s photograph of that ceremony, which appeared in Life magazine — were largely forgotten.
Ira Hayes, who died in 1955 at age 32 after a long struggle with alcoholism, was the best-remembered of the flag-raisers in Mr. Rosenthal’s photograph. Lee Marvin played him in a television movie, “The American,” in 1960 and Tony Curtis portrayed him in a 1962 Hollywood film “The Outsider.”
All the survivors of the second flag-raising participated in a re-enactment in the 1949 movie “Sands of Iwo Jima,” starring John Wayne.
After the war, Mr. Rosenthal became a photographer for The San Francisco Chronicle and remained with the newspaper until he retired in 1981.
In addition to his daughter, Anne, he is survived by a son, Joseph Rosenthal Jr., of Washington State; a brother, Mike Roth, of San Francisco; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His marriage to Lee Rosenthal, of San Francisco, ended in divorce.
On the 10th anniversary of the flag-raising, Mr. Rosenthal reflected on the renown the photograph had brought him.
“To get that flag up there, America’s fighting men had to die on that island and on other islands and off the shores and in the air,” Mr. Rosenthal wrote. “What difference does it make who took the picture? I took it, but the Marines took Iwo Jima.”