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Matinee: Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

14 June 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the thirty-seventh in our series of Saturday matinees today: Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima in three parts.

There isn't a documentary on Rosenthal's career as a photojournalist. But we were able to find some short clips that explain why he's important, starting with a popular quiz show.

To Tell The Truth was a game show in the pioneering days of television. In this nine-minute segment, three men claim to be the photographer Joe Rosenthal and the panel of four celebrities (including Tom Poston, Betty Furness, a very young Johnny Carson and Peggy Cass) asks a few questions before voting for the one they believe to be the man.

Only one of them guesses correctly. Play along and see how you do. We'll give you a couple of hints first.

Rosenthal was an Associated Press photographer who was born in Washington, D.C. to Russian Jewish immigrants. He converted to Catholicism in his youth and was a graduate of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution.

He took up photography as a hobby when he moved to San Francisco and stayed with his brother during the Great Depression. When the U.S. entered World War II, he had tried to enlist in the Army as a photographer but was rejected because of his poor eyesight, a condition that afflicted him his whole life.

That's one clue that should help you figure out who the real Joe Rosenthal is.

Instead, Rosenthal joined the Associated Press and was assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater.

On Feb. 19, 1945, the Marines hit the beach at Iwo Jima, held by the Japanese. He was among the first ashore. "The situation was impossible," he recalled. "No man who survived the beach can tell you how he did it. It was like walking through rain and not getting wet."

A few days later, on Feb. 23, 1945, he climbed Mount Suribachi in time to catch the five Marines and a Navy corpsman raise a large American flag to replace a smaller one. He had to stand on a makeshift pile of stones and a sandbag to enhance his 5-foot 5-inch view.

Which is your second clue.

His photo of that moment is the most famous photograph of the Second World War and perhaps the most reproduced image in American history, printed on the front page of the nation's Sunday papers of Feb. 25, 1945, recreated on at least 3.5 million war bond posters, engraved on a three-cent stamp and cast into bronze as a 100-ton Marine Corps War Memorial. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year of its publication.

In this segment, he tells the story himself:

The 33-year-old Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic, standard issue press photographer gear at the time, set at 1/400 second with the aperture between f8 and f11 for the midday shot. One push of the shutter button, no continuous mode on those old beasts. The film was developed in Guam.

In this silent movie clip by Marine Sgt. William Genaust, a combat cameraman, you can see the event from nearly the same perspective at about the 2:29 mark. It happens fast. Bad eyesight notwithstanding, Rosenthal made a remarkable capture.

He captioned it, "Atop 550-foot Suribachi Yama, the volcano at the southwest tip of Iwo Jima, Marines of the Second Battalion, 28th Regiment, Fifth Division, hoist the Stars and Stripes, signaling the capture of this key position."

That wasn't the only shot Rosenthal took that day. Once the flag was up, he got the guys together for a group shot. Not all of them made it off that island as the fight continued another 31 days.

In fact, a third of all Marine Corps losses in the war were suffered at Iwo Jima, 5,931 Marines among the total 6,821 Americans. Another 20,000 of the 70,000 U.S. force were wounded. About 20,000 Japanese also lost their lives on Iwo Jima, with only 216 taken prisoner. It was the only battle of the war in which Marine casualties exceeded the Japanese.

That "gung-ho" photo was posed, of course, but the flag raising shot was not. It was the second flag raising but Rosenthal didn't fake it. When Ronsental made it back to Guam, he was asked if the photo had been posed and Rosenthal, assuming he was being asked about the group shot, said, "Sure."

But the flag raising shot?

"It was not posed," Rosenthal would insist whenever asked about it in later years. "I gave no signal and didn't set it up. I just got every break a photographer could have wished for. If I set it up, I probably would have ruined the shot. I was lucky."

Four military photographers were with him when he took that shot and one of them, Louis Burmeister, later confirmed Rosenthal's claim. The silent clip above bears witness to Rosenthal's story as well.

After the war, he joined the San Francisco Chronicle where he worked as a photojournalist for 35 years before retiring in 1981. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 94.

He estimated he made about $10,000 from the photo, including a $4,200 bonus in war bonds from the Associated Press and a $1,000 prize from a camera magazine, plus appearance fees.

And, no doubt, the prize money won on that episode of To Tell The Truth. Were you able to pick him out?

We had an unfair advantage in that contest.

We knew what Joe Rosenthal looked like. On one occasion or another at the San Francisco Press Club, our father, who like Rosenthal served as president of that institution (and had himself served in the Marines in World War II), had pointed him out to us as the photographer of that famous image. A print of his famous photo hung by the stairs in the lobby.

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