Iwo Jima Photo Analysis Essay

Tuesday marks 71 years since Joe Rosenthal captured the iconic picture of five U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor raising an American flag over the battle-scarred Japanese island of Iwo Jima.

The image was so inspiring that, by 1945 standards, it went viral. It triggered a wave of national hope that Japanese forces would soon be crushed and peace was near. It spurred millions of Americans to buy war bonds to keep the nation on solid financial footing. Basically, this simple photo was so powerful it helped win World War II.

But Rosenthal was just one of several cameramen on the island's Mount Suribachi that day. Their images reveal the entire story behind the famous picture. They provide clues into the anger and ugly rumors over whether the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was staged.

Hal Buell, a former executive newsphoto editor at the Associated Press, knew Rosenthal. Buell shared with CNN the inside story surrounding the photo.

"The most surprising thing to me is ... that even today there are many people who believe that the picture was posed," Buell said. "It still comes up over and over again."

On February 23, 1945, Rosenthal, an AP photographer covering the battle for Iwo Jima, had heard Marines were headed up the mountain. He decided to make the climb and see what was going on.

But Sgt. Louis Lowery, a Marine photographer for Leatherneck magazine, had beat him to it. Lowery was already on the summit snapping photos of Marines proudly raising the American flag.

For miles around, the sight of Old Glory atop the mountain set off whistles, gunfire and celebrations. The noise stirred up a firefight with Japanese soldiers near the summit. Lowery dove for cover and fell 50 feet, smashing his camera.

Lowery decided to descend the mountain to get new equipment. On the way, he ran into Rosenthal coming up with two Marines: Pfc. Bob Campbell, who was also a photographer, and Sgt. William Genaust, who was a motion picture photographer.

According to Buell, Lowery said, "Hey, you're late fellas, there's already a flag up there." Lowery told Rosenthal that he should keep going to experience the breathtaking view.

As Rosenthal got closer to the summit, the flag began to come into view.

"He stopped and was struck by a wave of emotion about what it cost to put that flag up there," Buell said. Rosenthal thought about all the bloody fighting and the Marines who sacrificed their lives to capture the mountain.

Reaching the top, Rosenthal, Campbell and Genaust spotted a group of Marines holding a second flag. The Marines said they'd been ordered to replace the first flag with a bigger one so more people could see it below.

Suddenly Rosenthal knew he had a second chance to photograph an important moment on the summit.

Let's stop a minute and remember that this was long before today's sophisticated cameras and digital technology. Photographers took one picture at a time, often with only one opportunity to get the perfect shot.

Rosenthal had to quickly decide whether to shoot both flags simultaneously -- one rising while the other lowered -- or to photograph the second flag as it was being raised.

He chose to focus on the second flag.

Rosenthal's choice made all the difference.

"Joe did not pose that picture," Buell said.

He explains what happened: "While the photographers were taking their positions to get the shot, Genaust -- the motion picture photographer -- asked Joe, "I'm not in your way, am I?' Joe turned to look at Genaust, who suddenly saw the flag rising and said, 'Hey, there she goes!' "

Up came the flag.

Just in time, Rosenthal raised his camera to his eye and took the shot.

There it was: a genuine moment in history, artfully captured for all time.

"Like any good, experienced and talented photographer, there's a sense of anticipation and a sense of shooting a picture at peak action -- and Joe got it," Buell said. "You couldn't have captured the action at a better peak. A moment earlier, and the flag would have been too low. If it had been a second later, the flag's staff would have been straight up and the photo wouldn't have had that strong diagonal line."

This is our cue to talk about the photo's amazing composition.

"It's exquisite," Buell said. "You have this strong, diagonal line made by the flag staff. You have the flag snapping in the breeze. You have the pyramid-like shape of the Marines pushing the flag up. The men obviously are separate, but they appear as one. The blank background enhances the action by providing no distractions. Also, the photo is gifted with a softly filtered light. A very thin haze of clouds filters the light so that the shadows aren't harsh, but there is detail in all the shadows on the uniforms and the flag."

Think about it: At the exact moment that Genaust cued Rosenthal, sunlight, shadows, wind and the Marines all converged perfectly.

What were the chances?

"I hate to use the word accident," Buell joked. "Let's call it serendipity."

But what about Lowery's flag photo? How was the composition of his image?

"It was perfectly serviceable," Buell said, because it showed the first flag. The photo shows a Marine in the foreground holding a rifle. In the background is the first flag, snapping in the breeze.

But it's just not a memorable picture, Buell said, which is likely why it never gained fame. It didn't have the same powerful visual message and photographic excellence of Rosenthal's image.

"There's just no comparison," Buell said. "I mean, we're talking about the difference between diamonds and glass."

On the other hand, Rosenthal's "picture captured the heroism of the whole World War," Buell said. "It captured a moment during a ferocious battle and it looked to the future -- to victory and the end of the war."

In fact, the image was so good that critics accused Rosenthal of staging it -- a myth he fought for more than 60 years.

The rumor started for a good reason. Rosenthal actually did stage a photo on the summit. But the photo he posed was a different picture that was taken after the famous flag-raising. In the staged photo, Marines posed in front of the flag, victoriously holding their helmets and rifles in the air.

That image is referred to as Rosenthal's "Gung Ho" Iwo Jima photo.

Before he even saw his photos, Rosenthal sent his film by plane to Guam, where it was developed and edited. The famous photo was transmitted by radiofax to San Francisco before it was shared with newspapers across the nation and around the world.

When Lowery saw Rosenthal's photo, Lowery "was pissed off," Buell said. Lowery had missed the second flag-raising, so he didn't know what happened. All he knew was that Rosenthal's photo was on the front page of virtually every newspaper in America, and Lowery's photo was being ignored.

Lowery alleged that Rosenthal's picture must have been posed. According to Buell, "someone asked Joe if he posed his picture, and Joe -- thinking they meant the 'Gung Ho' photo -- said yes."

Minutes later, Rosenthal realized what photo they were talking about and immediately tried to correct his error.

Too late. Damage done. Any journalist knows that "the correction never catches up with the error," Buell said. "Joe spent the rest of his life defending what was alleged as a 'phony picture.' "

It took a special meeting in Washington between military officials and editors at Life magazine and AP to put the controversy to rest.

"They came to the conclusion that the picture was not posed," Buell said. "It was an authentic news picture of the second flag being raised."

“I said, ‘My gosh, Harold, you’re a hero.’ He said, ‘No, I was a Marine.’ ”

“After he said that, it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “He was a very self-effacing Midwestern person. He was already sick, and died two or three years later.”

The investigation was opened in response to questions raised last year by producers working on a documentary, “The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima,” to be shown July 3 on the Smithsonian Channel, in what was the latest controversy about the photograph. It was taken on Feb. 23, 1945, by Joseph Rosenthal of The Associated Press as the Marines battled the Japanese on the strategically important island in the Pacific.

Just days later, the image appeared on the front pages of major national newspapers, quickly becoming a symbol of the sacrifices American service members at war were willing to make. Ultimately, 6,800 American service members were killed on the island, and the image became the inspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., which depicts six 32-foot-tall figures in the same positions as the men in the photograph.

But in 1946, the Marines conducted a similar investigation in response to claims that the service had misidentified one of the flag raisers, concluding that the man in the far right of the photograph was actually Harlon Block, not Henry Hansen. (Both men had died on Iwo Jima.) In the decades since, the Marines and Mr. Rosenthal have fended off accusations that the photograph was staged.

Matthew Morgan, a retired Marine who worked as a producer for the show’s production company, Lucky 8 TV, said it first approached the Marines last year citing evidence that the men in the photograph were misidentified.

Mr. Morgan said the Marines were initially not interested in looking into the claim. But in January, the production company provided the chief historian of the Marines, Charles Neimeyer, with detailed evidence that laid out the case for mistaken identity.

Other photographs of the men on Iwo Jima that day, along with forensic analysis of them, showed that the gear Mr. Bradley was wearing was different from that worn by the man who was identified as Mr. Bradley in the photograph. Facial recognition technology used on the photographs also showed that the man was not Mr. Bradley.

“Over the years, people have claimed they were in the photo, but there was nothing besides their word to back that up,” Dr. Neimeyer said. “I thought that maybe they are on to something, maybe they are right.”

In March, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, appointed a retired three-star general to lead a panel of eight active and retired Marine commissioned and noncommissioned officers, including Dr. Neimeyer, to investigate the photograph.

The panel began meeting secretly the next month at Marine offices in Quantico, Va., where it painstakingly examined Mr. Rosenthal’s photograph. After six days, the panel voted unanimously to endorse findings that it was Mr. Schultz, not Mr. Bradley, who had participated in the raising of the flag.

Mr. Bradley’s role that day was at the center of the book “Flags of Our Fathers,” written by his son, James, and Ron Powers, which was published in 2000 and was on the New York Times best-seller list for 46 weeks.

But in May, shortly after it was publicly disclosed that the Marines were investigating the photograph, James Bradley said that he no longer believed that his father, who is deceased, was in the image. He said that his father had participated in an earlier flag-raising and mistakenly believed that it had been the one captured by Mr. Rosenthal. Mr. Bradley declined to participate in the documentary, according to Mr. Morgan.

Mr. Bradley, who did not return an email seeking comment, said in May that he had become convinced of this in 2014, after reading an article in The Omaha World-Herald that told how amateur historians had discovered the incorrect identifications. But he said that it took him a year to examine the evidence in the article because he had been working on a book in Vietnam, and then had become ill.

Days after the photograph was taken in 1945, Mr. Schultz sustained wounds to his arm and stomach, and he was sent home. Several months later, Mr. Schultz, who was originally from Michigan, was discharged from the Marines.

The federal government helped him get a job in Los Angeles as a mail sorter for the Postal Service. He was single until age 60, when he married Ms. MacDowell’s mother, who lived next door in his apartment building and shared a porch. But he never moved in with her and rarely discussed his time in the military, according to Ms. MacDowell.

Why Mr. Schultz apparently never disclosed that he was in the famous picture remains a mystery.

Many Marines who had fought on Iwo Jima suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but little was known about the condition at the time.

To cope, many Marines simply never talked about their military experience.

One of the other men pictured in the flag-raising, Ira Hayes, had asked men in his unit not to identify him as being in the photograph, but they could not keep it secret.

“I think Hayes and Schultz believed that if they were identified as flag raisers, not a day would go by without them being reminded of combat and being on Iwo Jima,” Dr. Neimeyer said.

On Wednesday, General Neller called Ms. MacDowell to tell her of the findings about her stepfather.

“I’m delighted he has gotten the recognition, but I wish it happened when he was alive,” she said afterward. “He was a kind and gentle man.”

General Neller said in a written statement that “although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been.”

He added: “Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our corps — what they did together and what they represent remains most important. That doesn’t change.”

The Marines will now alter any places where they refer to the flag raisers, substituting Mr. Schultz’s name for Mr. Bradley.

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