San Francisco home to the photographer of iconic Marine war photo

22 Aug 2011 | I Marine Expeditionary Force Public Affairs

It’s the iconic photo of Marines - Five Marines and one Navy corpsman. They raised a flag on the top of a volcano hundreds of miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

And there to capture it all, in just 1/400th of a second, was a photographer who called San Francisco his home.

Joseph J. Rosenthal was a 33-year-old photographer for the Associated Press that February morning when he tagged along a small band of Marines who were climbing the steep slopes of Mt. Suribachi, the volcano that formed the dominant feature of Iwo Jima.

The Marines climbed the mountain, tied a small flag to a metal pole and jammed into the earth, leaning it vertically until it whipped in the wind. Rosenthal was there. He snapped the frame and in an instant, brought the rest of the world into the battles of World War II.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said Rosenthal was “as gallant as the men going up that hill.”

The image of those Marines, their hands reaching skyward, the Stars and Stripes being raised over enemy territory, became so symbolic of the Marine fighting spirit, it was cast in bronze and now stands as a memorial to all Marines in Rosslyn, Va.

Rosenthal was born Oct. 9, 1911, in Washington D.C. He graduated McKinley High School in 1929 and moved to San Francisco, according to the Marine Corp’s History Division. There, he started his career in news, first taking a job as an office boy with the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

His photographic career started just three short years later. Rosenthal worked for several years as the chief photographer and manager in the city he called home for the Times Wide World Photos before it was later joined with the Associated Press.

But the coming World War was brewing. In 1943, Rosenthal answered his nation’s call to service, joining the U.S. Maritime Service as a photographer. He saw service off the coast of Britain and North Africa. A year later, he returned to San Francisco working for the Associated Press.

His wartime service didn’t end, though. Rosenthal crossed the Pacific Ocean as a war correspondent. He captured photos of action in Guam and Peleliu before he landed with Marines on Iwo Jima.

It was there, in an instant of time, he grabbed the image that would embody not just the 36-day battle that would claim the lives of 6,621 Americans and leave another 19,217 wounded. It would come to symbolize the entire war effort.

Rosenthal’s image so captured the spirit of the fighting Marine, that it would be used in war bond drives. It’s been since reproduced into posters, stamps, newspapers and magazine covers, and of course, the memorial in Arlington, soaring more than 100 feet into the air, a flag hoisted atop the pole, snapping in the breeze.

The photo captured more than the hearts of Marines. It was the photo that shot Rosenthal to fame. Of all photos he took in more than 40 years as a photographer, none was as regarded as the one in top Mt. Suribachi.

The photo was so well regarded, Rosenthal was award the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. The committee labeled the photo a “frozen flash of history” that was “depicting one of the war’s great moments.”

Still the photo has its detractors. Some thought the photo was staged, the composition of the photo too perfect to have been taken during the heat of battle.

“No,” Rosenthal said, according to a news article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper where he worked for more than 35 years. “It was not posed. I gave no signal and didn’t set it up. I just got every break a photographer could have wished for. If I set it up I probably would have ruined the shot. I was lucky.”

Rosenthal and the Marine Corps didn’t part company at the end of the battle or the war. Although he returned to San Francisco in 1945, he continued to call his Marines just that -- “his Marines.”

In 1996, Rosenthal was made an Honorary Marine at the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s annual ball in Chicago.

According to the Chronicle’s article, he framed the certificate, stating it was his proudest possession.

On Aug. 20, 2006, at the age of 94, Rosenthal died of natural causes at his home in Novato, Calif. His remains were cremated as ashes scattered in the San Francisco Bay area.

He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal by the Marine Corps on Sept. 15, 2006.