Daily Archives: 22 August 2006

Remembering Iwo Jima, Both Victors and Vanquished

Joe Rosenthal has died. By a stroke of good luck, he was able to capture an image of victory after one of the most hard-fought battles of the Pacific War.

Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer who captured the enduring image of the American fighting man in World War II with his depiction of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a huge American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, died Sunday in Novato, Calif. He was 94….

His photograph of the flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, may be the most widely reproduced photo in American history. It was re-created on at least 3.5 million Treasury Department posters publicizing a massive war-bond campaign. It was engraved on three-cent Marine Corps commemorative stamps that broke Post Office records for first-day cancellations in 1945. It was reproduced as a 100-ton Marine Corps War Memorial bronze sculpture near Arlington National Cemetery. And it brought Mr. Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.

But almost from the day the photograph was emblazoned on the front pages of Sunday newspapers as a symbol of embattled patriotism, Mr. Rosenthal faced suspicions that he staged the shot, posing the Marines. He always insisted that he recorded a genuine event, and others on the scene corroborated his account.

“The picture was not posed,” Louis Burmeister, a former Marine combat photographer who was among four military photographers alongside Mr. Rosenthal as the flag went up, said in a 1993 interview for “Shadow of Suribachi,” by Parker Bishop Albee Jr. and Keller Cushing Freeman. [It’s amazing how persistent that rumor is in newsrooms that can’t spot photographs that are not just posed, but photoshopped, from current war zones.–J.] …

After being declared 4-F by the armed forces because he could see only one-twentieth as well as an average person, Mr. Rosenthal joined the United States Maritime Service, taking photos of Atlantic Ocean convoys. In March 1944, he went to the Pacific on assignment for the A.P. and later photographed the invasions of New Guinea, Hollandia, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur.

On Feb. 19, 1945, Mr. Rosenthal accompanied the early waves of a 70,000-man Marine force ordered to seize Iwo Jima, a 7.5 square miles of black volcanic sand about 660 miles south of Tokyo. The island, defended by 21,000 Japanese troops, held airstrips that were needed as bases for American fighter planes and as havens for crippled bombers returning to the Mariana Islands from missions over Japan.

By coincidence, the Japan Times [registration required] recently ran a fascinating profile of Gen. Kuribayashi, who commanded the Japanese forces on the island.

The warrior Japan chose to lead this fight to the last in the spring of 1945 was a mercurial, contradictory man: a samurai descendant and loyal servant of the Emperor who detested much of Japan’s authoritarian, military culture; a fanatical Imperial warrior devoted to his family; an elite graduate of Japan’s top military academy who read Shakespeare, spoke fluent English and narrowly opted for the army over a career in journalism.

“The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight,” Kuribayashi wrote in a letter home days before his doomed forces inflicted massive casualties on U.S. forces landing on the 22.4-sq.-km (7-sq.-mile) island.

The tensions in Kuribayashi’s character, and his reluctance to go to war with the U.S., slowed his rise through the ranks of Japan’s military, says grandson, Yoshitaka Shindo. “My grandfather was sidelined because he didn’t fit in with military thinking. He had friends in America and respected the country.”

According to colleague Army Capt. Kikuzo Musashino, “The general spoke about his years in America, saying they had enormous industrial resources. He said: ‘When war comes, they can convert all that ability into military use. The people who planned this war in Japan know absolutely nothing about this. Whatever way you look at this war, we can’t win.’ “

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Filed under Japan, Pacific, U.S., war