The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and came to be regarded in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time.
Of the six men depicted in the picture, three (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, and Michael Strank) did not survive the battle; the three survivors (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) became celebrities upon their identification in the photo. The picture was later used by Felix de Weldon to sculpt the USMC War Memorial, located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C.
On February 19, 1945, as part of their island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan, the United States invaded Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was originally not a target, but the relatively quick fall of the Philippines left the Americans with a longer-than-expected lull prior to the planned invasion of Okinawa. Iwo Jima is located half-way between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station, radioing warnings of incoming American bombers to the Japanese homeland. The Americans, after capturing the island, deprived the Japanese of their early warning system, and used it as an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers, saving many American lives.
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island, shaped like a trapezium. Marines on the island described it as "a gray pork chop". The island was heavily fortified, and the invading United States Marines suffered high casualties. The island is dominated by Mount Suribachi, a 546 foot (166 m) dormant volcanic cone situated on the southern tip of the island. Politically, the island is part of the prefecture of Tokyo—the mayor of Tokyo is the mayor of Iwo Jima. It would be the first Japanese homeland soil to be captured by the Americans, and it was a matter of honor for the Japanese to prevent its capture.
Tactically, the top of Suribachi is one of the most important locations on the island. From that vantage point, the Japanese defenders were able to accurately spot artillery onto the Americans - particularly the landing beaches. The Japanese fought most of the battle from underground bunkers and pillboxes. It was not uncommon for Marines to knock out one pillbox using grenades or a flamethrower, only to have it begin shooting again a few minutes later after more Japanese infantry slipped into the pillbox using a tunnel. The American effort concentrated on isolating and capturing Suribachi first, a goal that was achieved on February 23, 1945, four days after the battle began. Despite capturing Suribachi, the battle continued to rage for many days, and the island would not be declared "secure" until 31 days later, on March 26.
The famous picture taken by Rosenthal actually captured the second flag-raising event of the day. A U.S. flag was first raised atop Suribachi soon after it was captured early in the morning (around 10:20) of February 23, 1945. 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson ordered Captain Dave E. Severance to send a platoon to go take the mountain. Severance, the commander of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division), ordered First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier to lead the patrol. Just before Schrier was to head up the mountain Commander Chandler Johnson handed him a flag saying, "if you get to the top put it up." Johnson's adjutant, second lieutenant Greeley Wells, had taken the 54-by-28 inch (137-by-71 cm) American flag from their transport ship, the USS Missoula (APA-211). The patrol reached the top without incident and the flag was raised, and photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a photographer with Leatherneck magazine. Others present at this first flag raising included Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sergeant Henry O. "Hank" Hansen, and Private First Class James Michels. This flag was too small, however, to be seen easily from the nearby landing beaches.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, had decided the previous night that he wanted to go ashore and witness the final stage of the fight for the mountain. Now, under a stern commitment to take orders from Howlin' Mad Smith, the secretary was churning ashore in the company of the blunt, earthy general. Their boat touched the beach just after the flag went up, and the mood among the high command turned jubilant. Gazing upward, at the red, white, and blue speck, Forrestal remarked to Smith: "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."
Forrestal was so taken with fervor of the moment that he decided he wanted the Suribachi flag as a souvenir. The news of this wish did not sit well with 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson, whose temperament was every bit as fiery as Howlin Mad's. 'To hell with that!' the colonel spat when the message reached him. The flag belonged to the battalion, as far as Johnson was concerned. He decided to secure it as soon as possible, and dispatched his assistant operations officer, Lieutenant Ted Tuttle, to the beach to scare up a replacement flag. As an afterthought, Johnson called after Tuttle "And make it a bigger one.
The roar of the Marines on the islands and ship horns blasting away alerted the Japanese who up to this point had stayed in their cave bunkers. The Americans quickly found themselves under fire from Japanese troops but were able to quickly eliminate the threat with the only casualty being Lowery's camera.
On orders from Colonel Chandler Johnson, passed on by Captain Severance, Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon H. Block, Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley and Private First Class Ira H. Hayes spent the morning of the 23rd laying a telephone wire to the top of Suribachi. Severance also dispatched Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon, a runner, to the command post for fresh SCR-300 walkie-talkie batteries.
Meanwhile, according to the official Marine Corps history, Tuttle had found a larger (96-by-56 inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship LST 779, made his way back to the command post, and given it to Johnson. Johnson, in turn, gave it to Gagnon with orders to take it back up Suribachi and raise it. The official Marine Corps history of the event is that Tuttle received the flag from Ensign Alan Wood of LST 779, who in turn had received the flag from a supply depot in Pearl Harbor. However, the Coast Guard Historian's Office supports claims made by Robert Resnick, who served aboard LST 758. "Before he died in November 2004, Resnick said Gagnon came aboard LST-758 the morning of Feb. 23 looking for a flag. Resnick said he grabbed one from a bunting box and asked permission from commanding officer Lt. Felix Molenda to donate it. Resnick kept quiet about his participation until 2001. The flag itself was sewn by Mabel Sauvageau, a worker at the "flag loft" of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The Marines reached the top of the mountain around noon, where Gagnon joined them. Despite the large numbers of Japanese troops in the immediate vicinity, the 40-man patrol made it to the top of the mountain without being fired at once, as the Japanese were under bombardment at the time.
Rosenthal, along with Marine photographers Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust (who was killed in action nine days after the flag raising) was climbing Suribachi at this time. On the way up, the trio met Lowery (the man who photographed the first flag raising). They had been considering turning around, but Lowery told them that the summit was an excellent vantage point from which to take pictures.
Rosenthal's trio reached the summit as the Marines were attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal put down his Speed Graphic camera (which was set to 1/400th of a second shutter speed, with the f-stop between 8 and 16) on the ground so he could pile rocks to stand on for a better vantage point. In doing so, he nearly missed the shot. Along with Navy Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John H. Bradley, the five Marines began raising the U. S. flag. Realizing he was about to miss it, Rosenthal quickly swung his camera up and snapped the photograph without using the viewfinder. Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote:
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.
Bill Genaust, who was standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosenthal about thirty yards from the flag raising, was shooting motion-picture film during the flag-raising. His film captures the flag raising at an almost-identical angle to Rosenthal's famous shot.
Of the six men pictured — Michael Strank, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, and Harlon Block — only three (Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley) survived the battle. Strank was killed six days after the flag raising when a shell, likely fired from an offshore American destroyer, tore his heart out; Block was killed by a mortar a few hours after Strank; Sousley — the last of the flag-raisers to succumb — was shot and killed by a sniper on March 21, a few days before the island was declared secure.
Following the flag raising, Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed and printed. George Tjaden of Hendricks, Minnesota, was likely the technician who printed it. Upon seeing it, AP photo editor John Bodkin exclaimed "Here's one for all time!" and immediately radiophotoed the image to the AP headquarters in New York at 7:00 a.m., Eastern War Time. The photograph was picked up off the wire very quickly by hundreds of newspapers. It "was distributed by Associated Press within seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it—an astonishingly fast turnaround time in those days."
However, the photo was not without controversy. Following the second flag raising, Rosenthal had the Marines of Easy Company pose for a group shot, the "gung-ho" shot. This was also documented by Bill Genaust. A few days after the picture was taken, back on Guam, Rosenthal was asked if he had posed the photo. Thinking the questioner was referring to the 'gung-ho' picture, he replied "Sure." After that, Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, told his editors in New York that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising photo. Time's radio show, 'Time Views the News', broadcast a report, charging that "Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted... Like most photographers [he] could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion."
As a result of this report, Rosenthal was repeatedly accused of staging the picture, or covering up the first flag raising. One New York Times book reviewer even went so far as to suggest revoking his Pulitzer Prize. For the decades that have followed, Rosenthal repeatedly and vociferously refuted claims that the flag raising was staged. "I don't think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing... I don't know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means." Genaust's film also shows the claim that the flag-raising was staged to be erroneous.
Upon seeing the photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the picture would make an excellent symbol for the upcoming 7th war bond drive, and ordered the Marines identified and brought home. The Marines were brought home at the conclusion of the battle. Using a photo enlargement, Rene Gagnon identified the others in the photograph, but refused to identify the sixth man (Hayes), insisting he had promised to keep the man's name a secret. Gagnon had promised not to discuss Hayes's identity only because Hayes—who despised Gagnon—had threatened to kill him. After being brought to Marine Corps headquarters and informed that he was being ordered by the President to reveal the information, and that refusing an order to reveal the name would be a serious crime, Gagnon finally revealed Hayes's name.
Gagnon also misidentified Harlon Block as Sergeant Henry O. "Hank" Hansen, who had not survived the battle (but who had, incidentally, participated in the first flag raising). Initially, John Bradley concurred with all of Gagnon's identifications. On April 8, 1945, the Marines Corps released the identification of five of the flag raisers (including Hansen)—Sousley's identity was withheld pending notification of his family of his death during the battle.
The three survivors went on a whirlwind bond tour. The tour was a success, raising $26.3 billion, twice the tour's goal.
Questions lingered about the misidentification of Harlon Block. His mother, Belle Block, refused to accept the official identification, noting that she had "changed so many diapers on that boy's butt, I know it's my boy." Immediately on arrival in Washington, D.C. on April 19, Hayes noticed the misidentification in the photo, and noted this to the Marine public relations officer who had been assigned to him. The public relations officer told Hayes that the identifications had already been officially released, and ordered Hayes to keep silent about it.
Over a year and a half later, amidst the depression and alcoholism that would characterize the rest of his life following the war, Ira Hayes hitchhiked to Texas to inform Block's family that Block had, in fact, been the sixth flag raiser.
Ira remembered what Rene Gagnon and John Bradley could not have remembered, because they did not join the little cluster until the last moment: that it was Harlon [Block], Mike [Strank], Franklin [Sousley] and himself [Hayes] who had ascended Suribachi midmorning to lay telephone wire; it was Rene [Gagnon] who had come along with the replacement flag. Hansen had not been part of this action.Block's mother, Belle, immediately composed a letter to her congressional representative Milton West. West, in turn, forwarded the letter to Marine Corps Commandant Alexander Vandegrift, who ordered an investigation. Both Bradley and Gagnon, upon being shown the evidence, agreed that it was probably Block and not Hansen.
Rosenthal's photo won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Photography, the first and only photograph to win the prize in the same year it was taken. Following publication of the photograph,
News pros were not the only ones bedazzled by the photo. Navy Captain T.B. Clark was on duty at Patuxent Air Station in Maryland that Saturday when it came humming off the wire. He studied it for a minute, and then thrust it under the gaze of Navy Petty Officer Felix de Weldon. De Weldon was an Austrian immigrant schooled in European painting and sculpture. De Weldon could not take his eyes off the photo. In its classic triangular lines he recognized similarities with the ancient statues he had studied. He reflexively reached for some sculptor's clay and tools. With the photograph before him he labored through the night. By dawn, he had replicated the six boys pushing a pole, raising a flag.
Starting in 1951, de Weldon was commissioned to design a memorial to the Marine Corps. It took de Weldon and hundreds of his assistants three years to finish it. The three survivors posed for de Weldon, who used their faces as a model. The other three who did not survive were sculpted from pictures.
Most people are unaware that the flag raising Rosenthal photographed was the second that day. This led to resentment from those marines who took part in the nearly-forgotten first flag raising. Charles W. Lindberg, who participated in the first flag raising (and who was, until his death in June 2007, the last living person depicted in either flag raising) complained that he "was called a liar and everything else. It was terrible."
The photograph is currently in the possession of Roy H. Williams, who bought it from the estate of John Faber, the official historian for the National Press Photographers Association, who had received it from Rosenthal. Both flags (from the first and second flag raisings) are now located in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.
Following the war, plagued with depression brought on by survivor guilt, Hayes became an alcoholic. His tragic life was memorialized in the country song "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", written by Peter LaFarge and recorded by Johnny Cash in 1964. Bob Dylan later covered the song, as did Kinky Friedman. The song notes that after the war,
- Then Ira started drinkin' hard
- Jail was often his home
- They'd let him raise the flag and lower it
- Like you'd throw a dog a bone!
- He died drunk early one mornin'
- Alone in the land he fought to save
- Two inches of water in a lonely ditch
- Was a grave for Ira Hayes.
Likewise Rene Gagnon's last years were bitter and alcoholic before his death in 1979 at 54. Following the war, Bradley was staunchly tight-lipped about his experiences, often deflecting questions by claiming he had forgotten. During his 47-year marriage, he only talked about it with his wife Betty once, on their first date, and never again afterwards. Within the family, it was considered a taboo subject. He gave exactly one interview, in 1985, at the urging of his wife, who had told him to do it for the sake of their grandchildren. Following Bradley's death in 1994, his family went to Suribachi in 1997 and placed a plaque (made of Wisconsin granite and shaped like that state) on the spot where the flag raising took place. At the time of his death, Bradley's son, James Bradley knew almost nothing of his father's wartime experiences. As a catharsis, James Bradley spent four years interviewing the families of all the flag raisers, and published Flags of Our Fathers, a definitive book on the flag raising and its participants. This book inspired a 2006 movie of the same name, directed by Clint Eastwood.
The Iwo Jima flag raising has been depicted in other films including 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima (in which the three surviving flag raisers make a cameo appearance at the end of the film) and 1961's The Outsider (a biography of Ira Hayes starring Tony Curtis).
In July 1945, the United States Post Office released a postage stamp bearing the image. The US issued another stamp in 1995 showing the flag raising as part of its 10-stamp series marking the 50th anniversary of World War II.
The composition of the photo has since been replicated in other facets of popular culture — such as an appearance in the cover artwork for Terry Pratchett's novel Monstrous Regiment, and the logo of the NetBSD operating system from 1994 to 2004.
A similar photograph was taken by Thomas E. Franklin of the Bergen Record in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Officially known as "Ground Zero Spirit", the photograph is perhaps better known as "Raising the Flag at Ground Zero", and shows three firefighters raising a U.S. flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center shortly after 5pm on September 11, 2001. Painter Jamie Wyeth also painted a related image titled "September 11th" based on this scene. It illustrates rescue workers raising a flag at Ground Zero.
The image has also been appropriated and used in anti-establishment works of art. An example is the tableaux sculpture by the American artist Edward Kienholz entitled "Portable War Memorial" (1968). In this installation, Kienholz depicted faceless Marines raising the flag on an outdoor picnic table in a typical American consumerist environment of the 1960s. A plaque near the Marines reads "A Portable War Memorial Commemorating V_ Day 19__". Kienholz was a lead figure in the pop art movement and his psychologically-charged work addresses the Iwo Jima image's media saturation and consumer society's response.