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History and Heritage

An Image for the Ages

Raising that Beautiful Flag

The flag was up. Old Glory, small as she seemed, was flapping proudly in the Pacific breeze atop Mt. Suribachi, the ancient volcano on the tiny island of Iwo Jima, claimed after four days of bloody fighting in February 1945.

"The flag's already up," growled Leatherneck Magazine Photographer Sgt. Lou Lowery as he staggered down the rugged slope past Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal and Marine Photographers Pfc. Bob Campbell and Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust.

At approximately 10:30 a.m., Feb. 23, Marines from Easy Co., 2/28 raised the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, signaling the capture of the strategic position.

"The view's nice up there," Lowery added. "You should go check it out."
Shrugging off the missed photo-op, Rosenthal continued the climb with Genaust and Campbell - the view might be worth it.

It was then that Rosenthal noticed a slight-built New Hampshire Marine named Rene Gagnon scurrying up the cliffs with a large flag tucked under his arm. He had been dispatched to the summit with fresh batteries for the radioman, and to help replace the first flag with a much larger one - one that could be seen across the entire island.

Although he missed the first flagraising, Rosenthal instinctively prepared his cumbersome Speed Graphic camera in the off-chance he might get the second. "I saw a small group of Marines assembling a pole on the ground," Rosenthal remembered in a recent documentary. "I said, 'What are you doing, fellas,' and one of them responded, 'We're getting ready to put up this larger flag. The colonel down below wants it up. He also wants to make damn sure he gets that first flag back.'"

It happened to be me. It might have been any photographer, or perhaps it might never have been taken at all. But it was me...

Barely standing over five feet tall, Rosenthal built a small pile of rocks capped with a sandbag to give him a better view. Passing in front, Genaust asked, "Am I in your way, Joe?" "Nah," Rosenthal replied, making final adjustments with the Speed Graphic's viewfinder. "Wait! There it goes!" Swinging the camera to his face, Rosenthal clicked the shutter. He wasn't sure what he got, if anything at all. With the larger flag planted firmly in place, Rosenthal gathered the jubilant Marines for a group photo. He hurried back to his command ship and dutifully wrote out the captions for the images he shot that day.

What he captured in 1/400th of a second proved an enormous sensation to the public back home, and made instant celebrities out of Sgt. Mike Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, Cpl. Rene Gagnon, Cpl. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Franklin Sousley and Navy Pharmacist's Mate John Bradley.

Of the six flag-raisers, only Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon would return home alive.
Sensing the photo's mass appeal, President Franklin Roosevelt immediately printed millions of posters and plastered cities across the country with the image, kicking off the Seventh War Bond Tour. Led by reluctant celebrities Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon, the drive generated approximately $24 billion - more than any other.

Navy Photo

A mere 72 hours after seeing the Rosenthal photo for the first time, an ambitious sculptor named Felix DeWeldon completed a clay replica of the flag raising. Congress was besieged with letters from an adoring public calling for a national monument of the photo they loved. The sheer size of the sculpture reflected the scope of the project itself: it would be the largest bronze statue of any kind - the largest in the world, standing 78 feet tall. Survivors John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes modeled for DeWeldon as he created each 32-foot tall figure. Once cast in bronze, each section was shipped to Washington, D.C. where workers reassembled the massive sculpture atop a large granite base at Arlington, Va.

Inscribed on the base were the locations of major U.S. Marine Corps battles since the Revolutionary War and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz's summary of the Battle of Iwo Jima: "Uncommon Valor Was a Common Virtue."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially dedicated the United States Marine Corps Memorial Nov. 10, 1954 with Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes in attendance. It would be the last time the three survivors would be photographed together.

Of all the flag-raisers, only Bradley lived to old age. Hayes, battling severe depression and alcoholism, would die from exposure almost 10 years to the day after he helped raise the flag. Gagnon, struggling hard to capitalize on his celebrity, died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 54. Bradley, who spoke only once of the event, died at the age of 70 on Jan. 11, 1994.

The photo, reproduced millions of times since it first appeared, garnered Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize. Skepticism over the picture's authenticity gnawed at him over the years, as Rosenthal told and retold the story of the second flagraising. Genaust's motion picture footage of the event confirms Rosenthal's account.

"I feel a gratification that the use of the picture, in general, has been very good," he explained. "It happened to be me. It might have been any photographer, or perhaps it might never have been taken at all. But it was me, and I stand for any photographer who would have been in a position to get such a photo."
Rosenthal died Aug. 20, 2006.

Navy Photo