Saturday, February 23, 2008

Raising the Flag On Iwo Jima

Possibly the most famous photograph of World War II, and possibly of all time, was Joe Rosenthal's masterpiece, Raising the Flag On Iwo Jima. It depicts 6 American men (5 Marines, 1 Navy Corpsman) struggling to lift the flag atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, signaling the high-water mark of one of the fiercest battles of World War II in the Pacific.

Due to its proximity to Japan, the island of Iwo Jima was used as a Japanese early warning station to help prevent Allied-led surprise attacks on the mainland. It is situated near the halfway point between Japan and the Mariana Islands, a staging point for American long-range bombers. Any planned attack on Japan from the Pacific would almost inevitably be spotted by Japanese installations on Iwo Jima.

As America tightened the net on Japanese forces, Iwo Jima became a ripe target. If the U.S. could take and hold Iwo Jima, they would gain a foothold for launching further attacks. Thus the battle for Iwo Jima became a critical point in the battles of the Pacific.

On February 19, 1945, U.S. forces began fierce bombardment of key positions on Iwo Jima, as a means to soften Japanese resistance. After a lull in fight, American Marines landed on the island and were barely able to withstand the Japanese onslaught. The heavily reinforced Japanese inflicted high casualties upon the landing Americans. One hundred thousand men fought on an island with a total areas of 7.5 square miles.

Mount Suribachi is the highest point on Iwo Jima. Capturing the mountain, and its strategic birds-eye view of the island would go a long way toward ending the battle. On February 23, U.S. forces took control of the mountain and raised a small flag on top of it which was hardly visible from the islands beaches. Later that day, a larger flag was lifted in the second flag-raising on the mountain. It was this flag-raising that was immortalized by the photograph by Joe Rosenthal.

The photo was an immediate success. It was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in Photography, the only photo to win in the same year that it was taken. It also became the subject of a 1945 U.S. stamp commemorating the event. It was an extremely popular stamp issue and holds the distinction of being one of the few U.S. stamps to depict living individuals. The U.S. Postal Service currently waits a minimum of five years after a person's death (one year for U.S. Presidents) before using their image on a stamp, although this rule has sometimes been overlooked, such as one the Heroes of 9/11 stamp issued in 2001, pictured at right.

Of the six men raising the flag, only three made it home alive -- Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley. Two of the men, Mike Strank and Harlon Block, died within hours of each other less than a week after the famous photo was taken. Franklin Sousley, the last one to die on Iwo Jima, died three weeks later.

Rosenthal's photo was later used as the basis for the United States Marine Corps Memorial statue at the Arlington National Cemetery.

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