The Battle of Iwo Jima: How This Iconic Photograph Was Captured

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April 8, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIIwo JimaMarinesIwo Jima FlagMilitary History

The Battle of Iwo Jima: How This Iconic Photograph Was Captured

Never forget.

Key point: This photograph is in textbooks all across America. But the flag was not raised exactly that way as it happened in real life.

Atop 550-foot Suribachi Yama, the volcano at the southwest tip of Iwo Jima, Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Division, hoist the Stars and Stripes, signaling the capture of this key position.

Photographer Joe Rosenthal’s “photo of U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on the summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima” is certainly the most famous photographic artifact to emerge from World War II, if not of all time. When it was first published, this galvanizing photo had an immediate effect both on the home front and in the upper echelons of military leadership.

During the more than 50 years that have elapsed since the photo was taken, it has remained a crucial artifact of military history, it has served to educate the public, and it has been used to tremendous propaganda effect by the Marine Corps. This picture was the culmination of four years of hit-and-miss combat correspondence in the Pacific. The fact that photographer Joe Rosenthal had access to the battlefield is only due to certain specific differences in the way the battle of Iwo Jima was reported, and it set a standard for the future.

However, the truth that is presented in this photograph and the facts behind the flag-raising do not match perfectly. This is why the picture is an excellent starting point for the analysis of war correspondence as a genre; but just as important, it can be used to illustrate the potential for great differences between reality and public perception.

The High Cost of War in the South Pacific

The war against Japan was marked by an island-hopping campaign begun deep in the South Pacific that worked its way up through the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, through the coral islands of the Central Pacific, such as Tarawa and Peleliu. As the war’s end approached, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. troops in the South Pacific, was driving the U.S. Army north through the Philippines, while the Marines continued their campaign through the Marianas, finally reaching Iwo Jima and Okinawa, both considered Japanese Home Islands.

The Pacific campaigns are remembered for the great distances between engagements; the amphibious nature of the battles, with troops landing on heavily defended beaches; the gradual reduction of Japanese fortifications; and heavy casualties. The war in the Pacific was very expensive, both in terms of manpower and logistics. For some Americans, it seemed senseless to be at war in the Pacific, fighting for useless coral atolls. Why not devote 100 percent of the effort to Europe? After the bloody Tarawa battle in late 1943, when a thousand Marines died trying to take a two-mile-long island, it was decided that a more aggressive correspondence strategy had to be developed to preserve support for the war in the Pacific among the American people.The problems facing the information services were rather drastic in the Pacific. Of course, the sheer remoteness of the campaigns was a primary factor. Most battles were conducted in areas a week or more sailing distance from Hawaii, and aircraft at the time were relatively short-ranged. After the battering received at Pearl Harbor, followed by the fall of Wake Island, the Philippines, and Guam to the Japanese, most war reports were geared toward raising morale rather than preparing the public for war.

The general system worked out for communication between front-line correspondents and the rear was convoluted at best. The correspondent on the beach would make notes, go back out to a command ship, and type up the story. The typed copy was usually loaded aboard a hospital plane evacuating the wounded and taken to Navy press headquarters at Pearl Harbor. Every dispatch was heavily censored, and it was not uncommon for a story to be lost, cut, or sometimes simply to be old news before it had a chance to be printed. At Tarawa, for example, the battle was over before the first “on the scene” radio broadcasts made it Stateside. During the invasion of Saipan, it took eight days for photographs of the landings to reach San Francisco.

Challenging the American Public’s Perceptions of War

Of course, time delay was by no means the only source of tension between the press, the public, and the military. As the war in the Pacific heated up, the American public and the military had a serious morale problem. In order to bolster the public perception of the American war machine, war reporting was heavily propaganda-driven. To correspondent Robert Sherrod, a good deal of the problem revolved around the use of “vivid verbs,” with a small bombing raid being presented as a rain of destruction on Japan, or an impression that “any American could lick 20 Japs.” Although the stories made good reading, they did not have much bearing on reality. Said one soldier to Sherrod: “The war that is being written in the newspapers must be a different war from the one we see.” Civilians, in many cases, just had no idea of the immensity of the effort that would be required to win the war, and the ultimate price that would have to be paid in blood and men.

In order to change public perception regarding the true nature of the war, and in preparation for the invasion of Japan, for which Allied planners were forecasting up to a million casualties, a more aggressive system of combat correspondence was worked out. “It is the express desire of the Navy Department that a more aggressive policy be pursued with regard to press, magazine, radio, and photographic coverage of military activities in the Pacific Ocean Areas,” a Navy document read.

There were to be civilian as well as military correspondents at battles, subject to less censorship and allowed to publish more graphic photos. Turnaround time between a correspondent’s filing of a story and its publication in the States was to be shortened. By the time of the Iwo Jima invasion in February 1945, war correspondence in the Pacific was a completely different undertaking than it had been at the beginning of the war. There were more than a hundred correspondents present, both civilian and military. Live radio broadcasts were now possible from the beachhead, and there were five special landing craft whose only functions were to land and remove reporters and haul off film and copy. Dispatches were passed by a censor, teletyped to Guam, and then relayed to the mainland by shortwave radio. Daily, a Navy airplane would pick up still and newsreel film and fly it straight to Hawaii for processing and distribution. With this system in place, the groundwork was laid for one of the most famous photographs in history.

Five days into the conflict, Iwo Jima was cut in half. In the south, Marines were in the final stages of reducing the Japanese defenses on Mount Suribachi, while Japanese defenders still controlled most of the north. Casualties thus far had been distressingly high, and there was no easy end to the battle in sight.

“The Uproar Almost Shook the Sky”

An early-morning patrol showed that there was no visible resistance on the mountain peak, so it was decided to send a patrol to the summit to plant a flag. Visible across the island, the patrol reached the top of the mountain, and as Louis Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck magazine, took pictures, the Stars and Stripes, attached to a long pipe found in the rubble at the top of Suribachi, was raised over Iwo Jima. Six men raised the flag, and across the island Marines cheered and ships’ horns blared. In the words of Coast Guard sailor Chet Hack: “Talk about patriotism. The uproar almost shook the sky.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal declared, “This means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” Little did he know how much the future of the Corps and the flag on top of the peak would be interwoven. This is the flag-raising that meant the most to the Marines. They would later openly deride the iconoclastic image of the second flag- raising, the one that means so much to the public. To Colonel Chandler Johnson, whose troops had placed the flag, it had one immediate implication: “Some son of a bitch is going to want that flag, but he’s not going to get it. That’s our flag. Better find another one and get it up there, and bring back ours.”

As a second patrol, equipped with a much larger 56-by 96-inch flag liberated from a landing ship, headed up the slopes of Suribachi, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, along with two enlisted Marine photographers, tagged along. Originally set up for a shot of the first flag going down as the second went up, Rosenthal was unable to get that picture, so he snapped a photo only of the second flag going up. The six men in the famous photo are indistinguishable. No rank or unit insignias are visible, and each man is similarly clothed in combat jacket, helmet, and dungarees. The flag is still partially furled, although it seems that just as the picture was taken, the wind was catching it and stretching it out. Were it not for the twisted bits of wood, metal, and shattered rock at their feet, one might never know that this picture was taken in a combat zone. Technically speaking, it could be considered a bad photograph, as there are no visible faces and the viewer can barely tell how many men are involved with raising the flag. There was no identification of the men; Rosenthal did not have a chance to document that at the time. It took weeks for names to be put with the individuals pictured, by which time some of them had been injured or killed.