Saluting the Man Who Snapped a Flapping Flag

The six U.S. fighting men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi left us long ago. Now photographer Joe Rosentthal, who captured that simple gesture in a memorable World War II photo, has joined them.


My stepfather gave me something in a frame that I hang near my writing desk. It says, One picture is worth a thousand words. Give me a thousand words and I can have the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Hippocratic Oath, a sonnet by Shakespeare, the preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and I'd have enough left over for just about all of the Boy Scout Oath, and I wouldn't trade you for any picture on earth.

But Joe Rosenthal, who died this week at the age of 94, took that rare picture that words cannot equal. Joe Rosenthal, who'd been classified 4-F because his eyesight was so bad, took the picture of U.S. Marines and a sailor raising the flag affixed to a long pipe on Mount Suribachi on February 23rd, 1945, the fifth day for the Battle of Iwo Jima.

The picture won the Pulitzer Prize for Joe Rosenthal. It's since been reprinted on millions of posters, tens of millions of stamps, and recreated as a 100 ton bronze sculpture near Arlington National Cemetery. No photograph of Abraham Lincoln looking brooding and mournful, John F. Kennedy waving confidently, or plumes of smoke rising from the Twin Towers has been so widely reproduced.

Joe Rosenthal once wrote for Collier's Magazine that a series of uncoordinated incidentals seemed to give the picture its poetic details and power. The sky was overcast, he said, but just enough sunlight fell from almost directly overhead to give the figures a sculptural depth. The 20-foot pipe was heavy, which meant the men had to strain to get it up, imparting that feeling of action. The wind just whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and exemplified the turbulence of war.

The names of the young men, carried in captions, also seemed to capture some of the diversity of America in the '40s. The Marine at the far left reaching up for the flag was Pfc. Ira Hayes, an Arizona Pima Indian. Pfc. Franklin Sousley was from Kentucky. Sergeant Michael Strank was the son of Czechoslovak immigrants from Pennsylvania. Pharmacist Mate John Bradley was from Wisconsin. Pfc. Rene Gagnon was a French-Canadian from New Hampshire. The Marines at first identified the man kneeling as he strained to lift the flag forward is Sergeant Henry Hansen of Massachusetts. He was later identified as Corporal Harlon Block of Texas. By the time the photo was famous around the world, both Sergeant Hansen and Corporal Block had been killed in Iwo Jima. So had Private Sousley and Sergeant Strank. So had 20,000 Japanese and 6,800 other Americans. The picture was at once a tribute to bravery and a reminder that the lives that appear so vibrant and stirring in the single instance of a photograph are fragile and fleeting.

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. Joe Rosenthal once said of his shot seen round the world, What difference does it make who took the picture? The Marines took Iwo Jima.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. JO STAFFORD (Singer): (Singing) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces, all day through in that small café.

SIMON: Jo Stafford. This is NPR News.

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