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Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his immortal image of six World War II servicemen raising an American flag over battle-scarred Iwo Jima, died Sunday. He was 94.

Rosenthal died of natural causes at an assisted living facility in the San Francisco suburb of Novato, said his daughter, Anne Rosenthal.

"He was a good and honest man, he had real integrity," Anne Rosenthal said.

His photo, taken for The Associated Press on Feb. 23, 1945, became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The memorial, dedicated in 1954 and known officially as the Marine Corps War Memorial, commemorates the Marines who died taking the Pacific island in World War II.

The photo was listed in 1999 at No. 68 on a New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.

The photo actually shows the second raising of the flag that day on Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island. The first flag had been deemed too small.

"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," Rosenthal once said. "I take some gratification in being a little part of what the U.S. stands for."

He liked to call himself "a guy who was up in the big leagues for a cup of coffee at one time."

The picture was an inspiration for Thomas E. Franklin of The Record of Bergen County, N.J., who took the photo of three firefighters raising a flag amid the ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Franklin said he instantly saw the similarities with the Iwo Jima photo as he looked through his lens. Franklin’s photo, distributed worldwide by the AP, was a finalist in 2002 for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography.

The small island of Iwo Jima was a strategic piece of land 750 miles south of Tokyo, and the United States wanted it to support long-range B-29 bombers and a possible invasion of Japan.

On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines landed on the southeast coast. Mount Suribachi, at 546 feet the highest point on the island, took four days for the troops to scale. In all, more than 6,800 U.S. servicemen died in the five-week battle for the island, and the 21,000-man Japanese defense force was virtually wiped out.

Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote that he almost didn’t go up to the summit when he learned a flag had already been raised. He decided to up anyway, and found servicemen preparing to put up the second, larger flag.

"Out of the corner of my eye, 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."

"Millions of Americans saw this picture five or six days before I did, and when I first heard about it, I had no idea what picture was meant."

He recalled that days later, when a colleague congratulated him on the picture, he thought he meant another, posed shot he had taken later that day, of Marines waving and cheering at the base of the flag.

He added that if he had posed the flag-raising picture, as some skeptics have suggested over the years, "I would, of course, have ruined it" by choosing fewer men and making sure their faces could be seen.

Standing near Rosenthal was Marine Sgt. Bill Genaust, the motion picture cameraman who filmed the same flag-raising. He was killed in combat just days later. A frame of Genaust’s film is nearly identical to the Rosenthal photo.

The AP photo quickly became the subject of posters, war-bond drives and a U.S. postage stamp.

Rosenthal left the AP later in 1945 to join the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked as a photographer for 35 years before retiring.

"He was short in stature but that was about it. He had a lot of nerve," said John O’Hara, a retired photographer who worked with Rosenthal at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rosenthal’s famous picture kept him busy for years, and he continued to get requests for prints decades after the shutter clicked. He said he was always flattered by the tumult surrounding the shot, but added, "I’d rather just lie down and listen to a ball game."

Rosenthal was born in 1911 in Washington, D.C.

He took up photography as a hobby. As the Depression got under way, Rosenthal moved to San Francisco, living with a brother until he found a job with the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1930.

In 1932, Rosenthal joined the old San Francisco News as a combination reporter and photographer.

"They just told me to take this big box and point the end with the glass toward the subject and press the shutter and ‘We’ll tell you what you did wrong,"’ he said.

After a short time with ACME Newspictures in San Francisco in 1936, Rosenthal became San Francisco bureau chief of The New York Times-Wide World Photos.

Rosenthal began working for the AP in San Francisco when the news cooperative bought Wide World Photos. After a stint in the Merchant Marine, he returned to the AP and was sent to cover battle areas in 1944.

His first assignment was in New Guinea, and he also covered the invasion of Guam before making his famous photo on Iwo Jima.

In addition to his daughter, Rosenthal is survived by his ex-wife Lee Rosenthal, his son Joseph J. Rosenthal Jr., and their families.

Comments

  1. thanks, Cap’t. A very nice tribute. My Aunt Dot is a proud Marine who served during World War II and she has told me about being able to meet the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima when they toured the US after returning home. It had quite an impact on her, and she kept track of them afterwards. I’ll print this and send it to her.

  2. It seems out of a tragedy or war comes a picture that is worth a thousand words. Thank you Joe Rosenthal for your camera, may you rest in peace. My condolences to the family.

  3. If anyone has not read “Flags of Our Fathers” by the son of the corpsman that raised the flag, James Bradley, it is a hard but must read. Day after day the Marines JUST KEPT COMING until Sulfur Island was theirs.
    Semper Fi,

  4. Nice tribute from Capt B, who sometimes is Cpl M, and who sometimes is just Gomer. I’m sure thje “captain” can relate to Rosenthal, who was never a marine and whose product, stirring as it might have been, had nothing to do with the fighting and was ultimately nothing more than a bit of tinsel and public relations.
    Hey “captain,” when will you admit that you’re nothing but a phony and a wannabe?

  5. When I read the book, I couldn’t stop weeping. When I saw the film, I did the same. What these men endured on the island and when they returned must never be forgottne. I worked for H.L.MacLeod, a veteran of Iwo. One of the things he told me was unbelieveable. How the enemy had wired a naval submersable mine and how his entire platoon was wiped out, except for 5 or 6 men on the perimeter. He still had shrapnel under his skin of his arms that was never removed.

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