Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Joe Rosenthal, 94, Captured "The Soul of a Nation"

Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer famous for capturing the iconic image of American Marines hoisting the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi in February, 1945, died Sunday in the Northern California town of Novato. Today's Chicago Tribune had a moving editorial in memorial of Rosenthal's achievement:

Mt. Suribachi, all of 546 feet tall, was the highest point on Iwo Jima. The Pacific island, 750 miles south of Tokyo, would be a steppingstone for B-29 bombers during a U.S. invasion of Japan. So on Feb. 19, 1945, some 30,000 Marines began an assault on 21,000 Japanese defenders.

On day five of the five-week onslaught, when victory was still an aspiration rather than an achievement, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal missed the first flag-raising atop Suribachi. But someone in the military decided that first flag was too small. Rosenthal arrived to find a cluster of five Marines and a Navy corpsman preparing to raise a bigger flag. "Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up," he wrote 10 years later. "I swung my camera and shot the scene."

The action he captured -- a fleeting one-400th of a second -- became the best-known, most enduring photograph of World War II. The image of muscles straining, of hands letting go as the 100-pound pole rose, of a breeze filling Old Glory, inspired an America eager for World War II to conclude. The photo drew power from its composition--its triangles project strength and stability--but especially from its faceless Marines: To their countrymen they were the unknown, individually undistinguished soldiers who were triumphing over tyranny.

The fight for Iwo Jima cost nearly 7,000 Americans--and most of the Japanese defenders--their lives. Joe Rosenthal, who died Sunday outside San Francisco at age 94, never confused his role as chronicler with that of the American heroes who captured one of their enemy's best-fortified strongholds. "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."

The editors of US Camera magazine were more succinct: "In that moment, Rosenthal's camera recorded the soul of a nation."

A magazine correspondent's assertion that Rosenthal staged the photo--he did pose a different shot of Marines cheering the flag--is remembered better than the accuser's later retraction.

This image of the struggle for Iwo Jima inspires us still. A great story, told briefly and well.
Click here for Rosenthal's Los Angeles Times obituary. For the iconic image of the Marines' flag-raising atop Mt. Suribachi, click here.

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