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October 16, 2018

70 years ago, a relatively-unknown photographer took the most iconic war photograph of all time

Iwo Jima Joe Rosenthal / AP

The raising of the US flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima 70 years ago is perhaps the most iconic image of World War Two.

No other picture so succinctly and evocatively captures the triumph of the Allied forces, while also highlighting the critical role that US troops played in the Pacific. The picture has also become one of the enduring symbols of the US Marine Corps.

Joe Rosenthal, at the time an unknown Associated Press photographer, is the man behind the photo. Although it was technically the second flag raising on Iwo Jima, which shows five Marines and a Navy Corpsman, it is no less important. The first flag planted was replaced, as it was too small to be seen from the coast.

Rosenthal, in an attempt to position himself properly for the shot, almost actually missed the flag raising. In a desperate attempt to capture the scene, Rosenthal shot the image without the use of his viewfinder. His gut instinct certainly hit the mar. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his image.

Almost immediately, though, the overall quality of the framing led to accusations that Rosenthal had framed the picture.

This controversy still remains. Fortunately, an official video of the flag raising by a Marine photographer shows that the events transpired naturally, and exactly as Rosenthal had claimed.

Rosenthal’s photo has gone on to become a deeply ingrained cultural image for America. The US Marine Corps War Memorial, in Arlington, Virginia, is modeled after this photo. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also used the image to promote war bonds at the end of the war, and it was featured on stamps.

USMC_War_Memorial_Night en.wikipedia.org The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial at night.

It’s important to note that while the image evoked a feeling of American victory, it was shot only five days into the Iwo Jima campaign. The battle went on for many more weeks, and three of the Marines who raised the flag were later killed in action.

Although Rosenthal’s image has become synonymous with the courage of the Marines, many still debate the value of invading Iwo Jima.

The battle was particularly bloody and was the only battle in which the US Marine Corps suffered more casualties than the Japanese Army. The Japanese were well entrenched on the island when the US decided to invade. Iwo Jima is also a mountainous island, and its topography proved extremely difficult for US troops.

Once taken though, Iwo Jima proved of significant tactical importance as the US military pursued its strategy of “island hopping” to the Japanese mainland. For pushing the US deeper into Japan’s Pacific holdings, the military command decided that the 26,000 American casualties was worth the island.

Both the cost and the accomplishment of the campaign is forever immortalized in Rosenthal’s photograph.

Iwo_Jima_Suribachi_DN SD 03 11845.JPEG Wikimedia Commons Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the site of the famous flag-raising.

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70 years ago, a relatively-unknown photographer took the most iconic war photograph of all time