His career in photography spanned over half a century; the images he has captured on film have touched the lives of many, but what he was most remembered for on Sept. 15 was his humbling demeanor and gentle nature.
Joseph J. Rosenthal was named a honorary Marine April 13, 1996, by former commandant, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, for his world-renowned photograph of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American Flag high atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima Feb. 23, 1945.
On Sept. 15, Rosenthal was honored again by his fellow Marines in a ceremony at the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco to posthumously award him with the Distinguished Public Service Medal.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Larry Snowden, the master of ceremonies for the event, welcomed those who came to honor Rosenthal’s memory.
In his opening remarks he stated, “I was on Iwo Jima when Joe Rosenthal took the picture that would become the most famous picture of that war, and perhaps, the most viewed picture in history. That picture would become synonymous with the United States Marine Corps.”
At the time the photograph was taken, Rosenthal was a 33-year-old war correspondent working for the Associated Press, but assigned to the Marine Corps. He missed the opportunity to photograph the initial flag-raising, which was taken a few hours earlier by Sgt. Lou Lowry. Subsequently, as luck would have it, orders came down for a second flag to be placed at the top of Mount Suribachi, so it would be seen by the entire fleet. Moments later Rosenthal saw a group of Marines preparing to hoist the flag up the mountain and accompanied them.
It took only 1/400 of a second to snap the photograph that would become a symbol of hope for an entire nation. Rosenthal’s flag-raising picture won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945.
“Of all the images that have captured Pulitzer Prizes, none is more memorable than Joe Rosenthal’s raising of the flag on Iwo Jima,” said Sig Gissler, an administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes for Columbia University.
Rosenthal had practically secured his place in history because of his photograph, but when asked what he thought about the notoriety he received, he would say he took a picture, the Marines took Iwo Jima.
Several photographs of Rosenthal were on display during the ceremony. They chronicled the story of his life and career. In addition, guests were treated to a short film produced specifically for the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Following the program, on behalf of Gen. Michael W. Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West, posthumously awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal, to Rosenthal for service to the Marine Corps and his country.
The medal was accepted by his daughter, Anne Rosenthal. She and her brother, Joseph J. Rosenthal Jr., were also presented with American flags, which were flown over Arlington National Cemetery and letters from the Secretary of the Navy.
“My father lived a long and abundant life,” said Anne. “We should not be sad for him. He had wonderful friends and was admired by so many people.”
Echoing the sentiments of his sister, Rosenthal Jr. acknowledged that as an honorary Marine, his father and family had experienced the camaraderie of the Marine Corps. This led to Rosenthal Jr.’s personal understanding that Marines live up to their motto, ‘Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.’
To Joseph Rosenthal for services set forth in the following citation:
"For exceptionally distinguished public service in support of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. On February 23, 1945, a bespectacled Mr. Rosenthal made a picture of five U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy corpsman that immortalized the American Fighting spirit during World War II and became an everlasting symbol of service and sacrifice, transcending art and the ages. Mr. Rosenthal’s poor eyesight prohibited him from serving in the armed services, so, he instead went to war summoning the craft he had practiced since the Great Depression. He bravely accompanied island-hopping forces in the Pacific as a civilian news photographer. On Iwo Jima, Japan, short of breath from climbing the 546-foot volcano, Mr. Rosenthal, in haste, stood on top of shaky rocks in search of the best graphic composition. As the six men hoisted an iron pole and the American flag unfurled in a smart breeze for all to see, Mr. Rosenthal captured the precise moment, unaware, until much later, of its significance. Since that very day, his iconic photo has stood as a testament to the perseverance, esprit and dedication of American Marines. In recognition of his own service and dedication, Mr. Rosenthal is posthumously awarded the Department of the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award”.