The Truth About "Flag Raising over Iwo Jima" by Joe Rosenthal

Was the Most Famous War Photograph Staged?

1945 Iwo Jima. Joe Rosenthal (Speed Graph)
Ur Cameras/Flickr/Public Domain

On February 23, 1945, Joe Rosenthal slung his Speed Graphic camera into position for a quick photo of Marines raising a flag on top of a hill on Iwo Jima. Nearly 6,000 Marines (almost one-third of the total Marines lost in WWII) lost their lives during what is the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. 

At the time, war photographers shipped their film to central locations to be developed. They rarely knew the results of what they shot until much later.

It is because of this and the lack of quick communications that the controversy surrounding the soon-to-be-famous photograph began.

The Controversy Begins

One of the photos Rosenthal made that day was a group photo of a couple dozen marines around the base of the raised flag and he titled it "Gung Ho." When Rosenthal sent his film off to the closest processing center in Guam, he told the reporter who would write the story that the flag photos were of the second raising of the flag.

When the reporter wrote the story he too mentioned the two flags. Proving the adage that a "picture is worth a thousand words" the photo of the flag being raised by four Marines and a Navy corpsman on a shell-littered hill took the country by storm.

When Rosenthal arrived in Guam a few days later, he still had no idea which photo had been published. Shortly after arriving he was asked if he had staged "the photo." Assuming that the photo they were speaking of was the "Gung Ho" group shot (the only staged shot in the batch), Rosenthal said "yes."

It was a quick answer that would haunt Rosenthal for half a century, until his death in 2006.

Rumors of Cheating

Over the years, the rumors of the flag raising photo being staged have been repeated, exaggerated, and repeated again in various media outlets.

The first to publicize the supposed "staging" was Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent.

Sherrod wired his editors back in the states that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising image. Without any further fact-checking, Time magazine's radio show, "​Time Views the News," broadcast that "Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted. ... Like most photographers (he) could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion."

Within a few days, Time had apologized to Rosenthal and retracted the story but the idea was already planted and the story had spread.

The rumors jumped back into the spotlight in 1991 when a New York Times book reviewer, misquoted a questionable paper about the flag-raising called "Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories and the American Hero." It was also suggested that the Pulitzer Prize committee should think about taking back Rosenthal's 1945 award for photography.

Then, in 1994 syndicated columnist, Jack Anderson, told readers he would tell them "the real story" about the flag-raising and that Rosenthal had "accompanied a handpicked group of men for a staged flag raising hours after the original event." As with the original Time broadcast, Anderson later withdrew his story but the rumor was once again circulating as fact.

A Few Marines Felt Overlooked

Oddly enough, some of the most heated vitriol surrounding the photograph comes from Marines themselves.

There were two flag raisings on Iwo Jima, the first was quick and the second was done to replace the flag with a larger flag.

Some of the Marines involved with the first flag-raising (remember, only a few survived the battles) feel like they have been wrongly written out of history, only to be replaced by those photographed in the second raising.

It is important to note that neither group of Marines in the "Gung Ho" photo or the "Flag Raising over Iwo Jima" photo encountered resistance when topping the hill at the time of the second flag raising. However, at least one Marine in the "Gung Ho" portrait was involved in the first assault on the mountain.

The flag raising, however, did not mark the end of hostilities on Iwo Jima. The battle for the island actually continued for another month.

What Really Happened

According to accounts by Rosenthal (which are backed up by movie footage of the event), Joe Rosenthal hiked up the dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi.

He was accompanied by Pfc. Bob Campbell and Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust, two photographers for the Marine Corps.

Part way up the mountain, the group met Sgt. Lou Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck magazine and a few more Marines. Lowery told them that the flag was already raised but they should go on up for the view.

When Rosenthal and the others got to the top of the mountain, Rosenthal tried to find the men who originally raised the flag for a group shot with the already raised flag. When he was unsuccessful in finding them, he focused his attention on a group that was getting ready to put up a second flag.

Although the exact details aren't known, the Marine command had decided to replace the first flag with a larger one. Rosenthal originally tried to capture both flags in motion (one going up and the other down) but didn't have any luck getting the angle he wanted.

At that point, Rosenthal moved about thirty-five feet away for a wider view of the scene. Because of the slope of the ground and Rosenthal's short stature, part of his view was blocked. To get a higher angle, he piled up rocks and a discarded Japanese sandbag to stand on.

Other photographers were gathered in the same general area, including Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust who was shooting movie footage. Rosenthal snapped his photo as other photographers shot as well.

It is Staff Sgt. Genaust's video footage that shows how events unfolded and that Rosenthal had not staged the flag-raising. He had, instead, set up the obviously posed "Gung Ho" group shot. ​It was a simple misunderstanding that led to many decades of worldwide controversy.