On February 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines landed on Iwo Jima an eight-square-mile volcanic island about 650 nautical miles south of Tokyo. The grim, bloody, pitiless battle that followed finds few rivals in the annals of war and sacrifice.
Slowly but relentlessly, the Marines climbed up the slopes of Mount Suribachi, fighting with flamethrowers and grenades for every last yard. They gained the summit on February 23rd, and raised the American flag. A month of grim fighting still lay ahead, but the highest point on the "Hot Pork Chop" now belonged to the Americans.
A young Associated Press photographer named Joe Rosenthal was on Iwo Jima with the Marines. When he heard about the flag raising at the summit, he very nearly didn't go up. But for some reason, and fortunately for him and for history, he decided to go ahead and make the climb. The Marines decided they needed to hoist a bigger flag, and Rosenthal arrived just as they were attaching the flag to a length of pipe. He started to pile up some rocks to stand on for a better vantage point; but when he realized that the moment was about to pass him by, he picked up his camera, swung it around and aimed it without even looking through the viewfinder. The shutter opened just in time to catch Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank and Rene Gagnon planting the Stars and Stripes into the inhospitable volcanic soil they had fought so hard to wrest from the enemy. The photograph would win Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, and become one of the best-known images of all time. Rosenthal's photograph was used as the model for the U.S. Marine Corps war memorial near Arlington National Cemetery, pictured above.
The young photographer who had captured an icon of World War II and a Pulitzer without half trying went on to have a long career with the San Francisco Chronicle. On August 20, 2006, at the age of 94, Joe Rosenthal was reunited with the six men who hoisted the flag on Mount Suribachi.