Joe Rosenthal, The Associated Press photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his immortal image of World War II servicemen raising an American flag over battle-scarred Iwo Jima, has died. He was 94. He was found dead August 20, 2006 in his bed at his home in the Atria Tamalpais Creek assisted living center in Novato. He died of natural causes, said his daughter, Anne Rosenthal. "He was a good and honest man, he had real integrity," she said.
Rosenthal's iconic photo, shot 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 image is still regarded as a symbol of the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps.
It 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 was 33-years-old at the time.
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.
When Rosenthal and a squad of Marines climbed to the top of Mount Suribachi on the fifth day of fighting, he was disappointed to find a small American flag already flying over the 546-foot volcano's summit. He missed the picture of the first flag-raising a few hours earlier, but then he saw five Marines and a corpsman hoisting another, larger flag that could be seen all over the 7 1/2-square-mile island. It was that flag-raising, caught at high noon in 1/400 of a second, that electrified the nation and won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945.
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 go up anyway, and found servicemen preparing to plant 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. The Pulitzer Committee in 1945 described the photo as "depicting one of the war's great moments," a "frozen flash of history." The picture was used as an inspirational symbol for a War Bond drive in 1945 that raised $26.3 billion. Altogether, Rosenthal thinks he made less than $10,000 from the picture.
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.
Rosenthal photographed Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Army fighting in the jungles of New Guinea. He cruised into battle in the South Pacific aboard a cruiser, a battleship and an aircraft carrier. He flew with Navy dive-bombers attacking enemy targets in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. He hit the beaches with the first waves of Marines landing under fire on the islands of Guam, Peleliu, Angaur and Iwo Jima.
Rosenthal left the AP later in 1945 to join the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked as a photographer for 35 years before retiring in 1981. "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. O'Hara said Rosenthal took special pride in a certificate naming him an honorary Marine and remained spry and alert well into his 90s.
Rosenthal's famous picture kept him busy for years, and he continued to get requests for prints decades after the shutter clicked. In his retirement, Rosenthal spent much of his time organizing his papers and photographs and reading the news and World War II history with a thick magnifying glass. His knowledge of the Pacific war was vast and personal. He kept a framed certificate declaring him an honorary Marine, which he said was his proudest possession.
"He was the best photographer," said friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Nick Ut of The Associated Press, who said he spoke with Rosenthal last week. "His picture no one forgets. People know the photo very well." Ut's 1972 image of a little girl, naked and screaming in agony as she flees a napalm bomb attack during the Vietnam War, stoked anti-war sentiment. But Rosenthal's photo helped fuel patriotism in the United States. "People say to me, yours is so sad. You see his picture and it shows how Americans won the war," Ut said. 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.
Rosenthal was president of the San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild in 1951, twice president of the San Francisco Press Club, and three times president of the Bay Area Press Photographers Association.
In addition to his daughter, Rosenthal is survived by his ex-wife Lee Rosenthal, his son Joseph J. Rosenthal Jr., and their families
Joe Rosenthal was posthumously awarded a Navy medal for distinguished public service Friday. Presenting the medal to Rosenthal's daughter, Anne Rosenthal, and son, Joseph Rosenthal, Jr., along with a pair of flags from the Marine Corps War Memorial, inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert said the iconic photograph still inspired generations of Marines.
Rosenthal, who was 94 when he died on Aug. 20, created "a true representation of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity and death," Lehnert said.
Other Marines, fellow Pulitzer Prize winners and family members also tried capturing in words what Rosenthal's most famous work caught with the click of his shutter on Feb
. 23, 1945, as a 33-year-old combat photographer for The Associated Press.
With the black-and-white image projected on a screen, former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly read tribute letters from two former presidents who served during World War II, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Bush, who recalled seeing the flag-raising photo in the newspaper as a Navy pilot, said that without the shot of pride it instilled, the war might have dragged on even longer. "I wonder if Joe fully appreciated what this photograph meant, and what it still means to the American people," Bush wrote. Kennerly said that even though Rosenthal disliked the limelight and humbly continued working as a photojournalist for 33 years after the war, his mentor's "one iconic tableau, frozen in time" cast a big shadow. "That picture has been there at every stage of my career, whispering in my ear, 'You can shoot far bigger and far better,'" he said. "It is the Gettysburg Address of photos. ... That photo hangs in the hearts of us all."