On February 19, 1945, the United States military forces invaded Iwo Jima as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. Iwo Jima originally was 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 halfway 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, weakened the Japanese early warning system, and used it as an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers.
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island, shaped like a trapezoid. Marines on the island described it as "a large, 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. 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 spot artillery accurately onto the Americans – particularly the landing beaches. The Japanese fought most of the battle from underground bunkers and pillboxes. It was common for Marines to knock out one pillbox using grenades or a flamethrower, only to experience renewed shooting from it 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.
A U.S. flag was first raised atop Mount Suribachi soon after the mountaintop was captured at around 10:20 on February 23, 1945.
Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, ordered Marine Captain Dave Severance, commander of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, to send a platoon to seize and occupy the crest of Mount Suribachi. First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier, executive officer of Easy Company, who had replaced the wounded Third Platoon commander, John Keith Wells, volunteered to lead a 40-man combat patrol up the mountain. Before the climb up, Lt. Col. Johnson (or 1st Lt. George G. Wells, the battalion adjutant, whose job it was to carry the flag) had taken the 54-by-28-inch/140-by-71-centimeter flag from the battalion's transport ship, USS Missoula, and handed the flag to Schrier. Johnson said to Schrier, "If you get to the top, put it up." Lt. Schrier assembled the patrol at 8 AM to begin the climb up the mountain.
Despite the large numbers of Japanese troops in the immediate vicinity, Schrier's patrol made it to the rim of the crater at about 10:15 AM with little or no enemy fire, as the Japanese were under bombardment at the time. The flag was attached by Schrier and two Marines to a Japanese iron water pipe found on top, and the flagstaff was raised and planted by Lt. Schrier, assisted by Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas and Sergeant Oliver Hansen at about 10:30 AM (on February 25, during a CBS press interview aboard the flagship USS Eldorado about the flag-raising, Thomas stated that he, Lt. Schrier, and Sgt. Hansen (platoon guide) had actually raised the flag). Seeing the raising of the national colors immediately caused a loud cheering reaction from the Marines, sailors, and coast guardsmen on the beach below and from the men on the ships near the beach. The loud noise made by the servicemen and blasts of the ship horns, alerted the Japanese, who up to this point had stayed in their cave bunkers. Schrier and his men near the flagstaff on top of Mt. Suribachi then found themselves under fire from Japanese troops, but the Marines quickly eliminated the threat. Schrier was later awarded the Navy Cross for volunteering to take the patrol up Mt. Suribachi and raising the American flag, and a Silver Star Medal for a heroic action in March while in command of D Company, 2/28 Marines on Iwo Jima.
Photographs of the first flag flown on Mt. Suribachi were taken by Staff Sgt. Louis R. Lowery of Leatherneck magazine who accompanied the patrol up the mountain, and other photographers. Others involved with the first flag-raising include Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg, Pfc. James Michels, Pfc. Raymond Jacobs, Pvt. Phil Ward, and Navy corpsman John Bradley This flag was too small, however, to be easily seen from the northern side of Mount Suribachi where heavy fighting would occur for several more days.
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 Second Battalion's flag flying on Mt. Suribachi 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 obtain a replacement flag. As an afterthought, Johnson called after Tuttle: "And make it a bigger one."
The photograph taken by Rosenthal was the second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, on February 23, 1945.
On orders from Colonel Chandler Johnson—passed on by Easy Companys commander, Captain Dave Severance—Sergeant Michael Strank one of Second Platoon's squad leaders, was to take three members of his rifle squad (Corporal Harlon H. Block, Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley, and Private First Class Ira H. Hayes) to raise a replacement flag on top Mount Suribachi and lay telephone wire on the way up to the top. Severance also dispatched Private First Class Rene A. Gagnon, the battalion runner (messenger) for Easy Company, to the command post for fresh SCR-300 walkie-talkie batteries.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Albert Theodore Tuttle had found a larger (96-by-56–inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship USS LST-779. He made his way back to the command post and gave it to Johnson. Johnson, in turn, gave it to Rene Gagnon, with orders to take it up to Lt. Schrier on Mt. Suribachi and raise it. The official Marine Corps history of the event is that Lt. Tuttle received the flag from Navy Ensign Alan Wood of USS LST-779, who in turn had received the flag from a supply depot in Pearl Harbor.
However, the Coast Guard Historian's Office recognizes the claims made by former U.S. Coast Guardsman Quartermaster Robert Resnick, who served aboard the USS Duval County (USS LST-758) at Iwo Jima. "Before he died in November 2004, Resnick said Gagnon came aboard LST-758 the morning of February 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. Although the former Easy Company commander, Capt. Severance, had confirmed that the second larger flag was in fact provided by Alan Wood (Wood could not recognize any of the pictures of the 2nd flag raisers as Gagnon), former Second Battalion, 28th Marines adjutant First Lieutenant George Greeley Wells, who was officially in charge of the battalion's flags (including the two American flags flown on Mount Suribachi), stated in the New York Times in 1991, that Lt. Col. Johnson ordered him (Wells) to get the second flag, and that he (Wells) sent Rene Gagnon his battalion runner, to the ships on shore for the flag, and that Gagnon returned with a flag and gave it to him (Wells), and that Gagnon took this flag up Mt. Suribachi with a message for Schrier to raise it and send the other flag down with Gagnon. Wells stated that he received the first flag back from Gagnon and secured it at the Marine headquarters command post. Wells also stated that he had handed the first flag to Lt. Schrier to take up Mount Suribachi.
Gagnon, and Strank with his three Marines reached the top of the mountain around noon without being fired upon. Rosenthal, along with Marine photographers Sergeant Bill Genaust (who was killed in action after the flag-raising) and Pfc. Bob Campbell, were climbing Suribachi at this time. On the way up, the trio met Lowery, who photographed the first flag-raising, as he was coming down. They considered turning around, but Lowery told them that the summit was an excellent vantage point from which to take photographs. The three photographers reached the summit as the Marines were attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal put his Speed Graphic camera on the ground (set to 1/400 sec shutter speed, with the f-stop between 8 and 11) so he could pile rocks to stand on for a better vantage point. In doing so, he nearly missed the shot. The Marines began raising the flag. Realizing he was about to miss the action, 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.
Sgt. Genaust, who was standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosenthal about three feet away, was shooting motion-picture film during the second flag-raising. His film captures the second event at an almost-identical angle to Rosenthal's shot. Of the six flag-raisers in the picture – Ira Hayes, Harold Schultz (identified in June 2016), Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Rene Gagnon, and Harlon Block – only Hayes, Gagnon, and Schultz (Navy corpsman John Bradley was incorrectly identified in the Rosenthal flag-raising photo) survived the battle. Strank and Block were killed on March 1, six days after the flag-raising, Strank by a shell, possibly fired from an offshore American destroyer and Block a few hours later by a mortar round. Sousley was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on March 21, a few days before the island was declared secure. The 5th Marine Division left Iwo Jima on March 27, leaving other remaining Marines and the 147th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army to fight small skirmishes with the Japanese well into June when the last Japanese resistance ended.
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, Associated Press (AP) photograph editor John Bodkin exclaimed "Here's one for all time!" and immediately transmitted the image to the AP headquarters in New York City at 7:00 am, Eastern War Time. The photograph was quickly picked up off the wire 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 photograph 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. A few days after the photograph was taken, Rosenthal—back on Guam—was asked if he had posed the photograph. Thinking the questioner was referring to the 'gung-ho' photograph, he replied "Sure." After that, Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, told his editors in New York that Rosenthal had staged the flag-raising photograph. 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 photograph, or covering up the first flag-raising. One New York Times book reviewer even went so far as to suggest revoking his Pulitzer Prize. In the following decades, Rosenthal repeatedly and vociferously denied 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 that the flag-raising was not staged.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt upon seeing Joe Rosenthal's flag-raising photograph realized the image would make an excellent symbol for the upcoming Seventh War Loan Drive to help pay for the war, and ordered the flag-raisers identified and sent to Washington, D.C. after the Marines fighting on the island ended (March 26, 1945). Using a photographic enlargement, Rene Gagnon identified four other flag-raisers in the photograph besides himself, but refused to identify Ira Hayes as the sixth flag-raiser because Hayes warned him not to. Gagnon revealed Hayes' name only 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. President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. The three surviving second flag-raisers identified as Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes, met President Truman at the White House and went on the bond tour in May and June; Hayes had drinking problems during the tour and was ordered back weeks before the tours ended, to his former combat unit in Hawaii. The bond drive was a success, raising $26.3 billion, twice the tour's goal.
Gagnon misidentified Cpl. Harlon Block as Sgt. Henry O. "Hank" Hansen in Rosenthal's photo (both were killed in action on March 1). Initially, Bradley concurred with all of Gagnon's identifications. On April 8, 1945, the Marine Corps released the identification of five of the six flag raisers including Hansen rather than Block—Sousley's identity was temporarily withheld pending notification of his family of his death during the battle. Block's 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 upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. on April 19, Hayes noticed the incorrect identification in the photograph. When he was interviewed about the identities in the photo by the Marine colonel assigned to the flag-raisers and told him that it was definitely Harlon Block and not Hansen in the photograph, the public relations officer then told Hayes that the identifications had already been officially released, and ordered Hayes to keep silent about it (during the investigation, the colonel denied Hayes told him about Block). Block, Sousley, and Hayes, were close friends in the same squad of Second Platoon, E Company, while Hansen (helped raise the first flag) was a member of Third Platoon, E Company.
In 1946, Hayes hitchhiked to Texas and informed Harlon Block's father and mother that Harlon had, in fact, been one of the six flag raisers. Block's mother, Belle, immediately sent a letter that Hayes gave her explaining the error to her congressional representative Milton West. West, in turn, forwarded the letter to Marine Corps Commandant Alexander Vandegrift, who ordered an investigation. John Bradley (formerly in Third Platoon with Hansen) and Hayes, upon being shown the evidence (Hansen a former Paramarine, wore his large parachutist boots in an exposed manner on Iwo Jima), agreed that it was probably Block and not Hansen. In January 1947, the Marine Corps officially concluded and announced it was Block in the photo and not Hansen.
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 [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.
The Marine Corps made a public announcement on June 23, 2016 stating that Marine Cpl. (then Pfc.) Harold Schultz was in the Rosenthal photograph of the flag-raising and Navy Corpsman John Bradley was not (Schultz is now in Franklin Sousley's named position in the photo and Sousley is in Bradley's named position in the photo). Schultz and John Bradley were both present at both the first and second flag raising and Sousley only the second raising.
Bradley who died in 1994, did few interviews in his lifetime at times saying that he raised the flag, pitched in to raise the flag, raised the second flag (he also said he was on, and not on Mt. Suribachi when the first flag was raised). Bradley was usually tight-lipped after the war (did not attend Iwo Jima veterans reunions) about his wartime experiences including both flag raisings. He often deflected 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 Bradley family, it was considered a taboo subject and when they received calls or invitations to speak on certain holidays, they were told to say he was away fishing at his cottage. One of the few interviews he did was in 1985 at the urging of his wife who had told him to do it for the sake of their grandchildren. Following his death in 1994, his family went to Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1997 and placed a plaque in memory of John Bradley "Flag Raiser" (made of Wisconsin granite and shaped like that state) at the spot where the flag-raising took place. At the time of Bradley's death, his son James claimed he knew almost nothing from his father about his wartime experiences. James Bradley spent four years interviewing the families of all the flag raisers, and in 2000, 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. Schultz died in 1995.
Photographic comparisons gathered on the first and second flag-raising which was made public in November 2014 by Eric Krelle, a history buff and collector of World War II-era Marine Corps memorabilia, strongly suggested that John Bradley was not one of the actual six flag raisers. According to this research, Franklin Sousley was in the fourth position (left to right) instead of John Bradley, and Harold Schultz of Los Angeles (originally from Detroit) was in the second position, previously attributed to Franklin Sousley. Initially, Marine Corps historians and officials, and others were not willing to accept these findings. On May 2, 2016, the Marine Corps announced that it was investigating the possibility that Bradley was not one of the flag raisers and Schultz is. James Bradley has also stated that he no longer believes that his father, John Bradley, was one of the six American service members in the Rosenthal photograph.
Rosenthal's photograph won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Photography, the only photograph to win the prize in the same year it was taken.
News pros were not the only ones greatly impressed 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 in 1945. 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. Within 72 hours of the photo's release, he had replicated the six boys pushing a pole, raising a flag. Upon seeing the finished model, the Marine Corps commandant had de Weldon assigned to the Marine Corps until de Weldon was discharged from the navy after the war was over.
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. Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley, posed for de Weldon, who used their faces as a model. The three Marine flag raisers who did not survive the battle were sculpted from photographs.
The flag-raising Rosenthal (and Genaust) photographed was the replacement flag/flagstaff for the first flag/flagstaff that was raised on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. There was some resentment from former Marines of the original 40-man patrol that went up Mount Suribachi including by those involved with the first flag-raising, that they did not receive the recognition they deserved. Staff Sgt. Lou Lowery who took the first photos of the first flag flying over Mt. Suribachi, Charles W. Lindberg, who helped tie the first American flag to the first flagpole on Mount Suribachi (and who was, until his death in June 2007, one of the last living person depicted in either flag-flying scenes), complained for several years that he helped to raise the flag and "was called a liar and everything else. It was terrible" (because of all the recognition and publicity over and directed to the replacement flag-raisers and that flag-raising), and Raymond Jacobs, photographed with the patrol commander around the base of the first flag flying over Mt. Suribachi, complained until he died in 2008, that he is still not recognized by the Marine Corps by name as being the radioman in the photo.
The original Rosenthal 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.
Ira Hayes, following the war, was plagued with depression brought on by survivor guilt and became an alcoholic. His tragic life and death in 1955 at the age of 32 were memorialized in the motion picture The Outsider starring actor Tony Curtis as Hayes in 1961, and the folk 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. According to the song, after the war:
Rene Gagnon, his wife, and his son, visited Tokyo and Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during the 20th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima in 1965. He worked at Delta Air Lines as a ticket agent, opened his own travel agency, and was a maintenance director of an apartment complex in Manchester. He died at work in Manchester in 1979 at the age of 54.
Rosenthal's photograph has been reproduced in a number of other formats. It appeared on 3.5 million posters for the seventh war bond drive. It has also been reproduced with many unconventional media such as Lego bricks, butter, ice, Etch A Sketch and corn mazes.
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 Postal Service released a postage stamp bearing the image. The U.S. issued another stamp in 1995 showing the flag-raising as part of its 10-stamp series marking the 50th anniversary of World War II. In 2005, the United States Mint released a commemorative silver dollar bearing the image.
A similar photograph was taken by Thomas E. Franklin of the Bergen Record in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 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 5 pm. Painter Jamie Wyeth also painted a related image entitled September 11th based on this scene. It illustrates rescue workers raising a flag at Ground Zero. Other iconic photographs frequently compared include V–J day in Times Square, Into the Jaws of Death, Raising a flag over the Reichstag, and the raising of the Israeli Ink Flag.
The highly recognizable image is one of the most parodied photographs in history. Anti-war activists in the 1960s altered the flag to bear a peace symbol, as well as several anti-establishment artworks. Edward Kienholz's Portable War Memorial in 1968 depicted faceless Marines raising the flag on an outdoor picnic table in a typical American consumerist environment of the 1960s. It was parodied again during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to depict the flag being planted into Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's behind. In the early 2000s, to represent gay pride, photographer Ed Freeman shot a photograph for the cover of an issue of Frontiers magazine, reenacting the scene with a rainbow flag instead of an American flag.Time magazine came under fire in 2008 after altering the image for use on its cover, replacing the American flag with a tree for an issue focused on global warming. The British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association likewise came under criticism in 2010 for a poster depicting employees raising a flag marked "BASSA" at the edge of a runway.
The photograph also received another brief parody in July 2015 in the Syfy television movie Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, when Fin, April, the President of the United States and a few others hold up the American Flag at the White House in a similar way to the real photograph to impale an incoming shark, with Fin reciting "God bless America."