By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Joe Rosenthal, 94, a World War II news photographer whose dramatic picture of servicemen raising the U.S. flag atop Iwo Jima's summit was one of the most reproduced images of the period, died Aug. 20 at Atria Tamalpais Creek assisted living center in Novato, Calif.
No cause of death was reported, but he had undergone heart bypass surgery in recent years.
Mr. Rosenthal won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for the photograph showing five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman planting the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi that Feb. 23, during one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific. The photo's likeness appeared on the 3-cent stamp and on millions of posters for the war-bond drive, bringing Mr. Rosenthal immediate celebrity.
It later inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington and Thomas E. Franklin's photograph of three firefighters raising a flag atop the rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Hal Buell, a retired Associated Press photography executive who has written a book about the Iwo Jima picture, said Mr. Rosenthal managed "almost a perfect photograph. It shows teamwork, everyone in unison. It has a strong diagonal line with the flag that divides the picture, and the perfect flat background with soft light that gives it a postcard quality."
More than that, Buell said, it appeared in U.S. newspapers when Americans were tiring of the war. While the European campaign neared completion, war in the Pacific continued to create "staggering casualties at places you couldn't find on the map. Along comes this picture, and in this context it literally made people think, 'At last, our guys are working together.' It said victory more than it said anything. It captured the way America saw itself."
Mr. Rosenthal was a native Washingtonian who had spent his early photojournalism career in San Francisco. A diminutive, nearsighted man who wore thick bifocals, he had been classified 4-F at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. A friend in the U.S. Maritime Service managed to waive the eye exam, and Mr. Rosenthal spent a year as a warrant officer, photographing shipboard life in Europe and North Africa.
By spring 1944, he persuaded the Associated Press to give him credentials as a war photographer. He shipped out to the Pacific and was present at the invasions of Peleliu, Angaur and Hollandia.
On Feb. 19, 1945, he landed at Iwo Jima several hours after the first wave of Marines had come ashore. Four days later, he and several other cameramen ran into Louis Lowery, a photographer for the Marine publication Leatherneck who had shot the first raising of the flag atop Suribachi. Lowery recommended that they hike to the peak for the view alone.
"The 550-foot climb took us a half-hour," Mr. Rosenthal told The Washington Post in 1945. "We had to sidestep Jap mines and circle the pillboxes the Marines were still clearing out." (The combat continued on Iwo Jima through March, ending with nearly 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese dead.)
In the time it took for Mr. Rosenthal and his companions to scale Suribachi, Marine Corps commanders decided to replace the initial flag with a much larger one that could be viewed from offshore.
"The Marines on top were still looking for the best place to plant the flag when I got there, with my Speed Graphic," Mr. Rosenthal told The Post. "I'm too short to get the full picture, so they waited until I piled up rocks and sandbags" from a pillbox, or bunker, "and shot from the top of the pile. Then they stuck her in, in the face of a breeze. That's all there was."
He took other pictures that day, including one showing the servicemen cheering in front of the flag, which he called his "gung-ho" picture.
He sent his film to an AP bureau in Guam not thinking that he had captured anything special. Yet the Iwo Jima flag-raising proved a sensation when it appeared on the front page of nearly every newspaper, an immediate symbol of battle-scarred triumph in the final push toward Japan.
Mr. Rosenthal was congratulated by his bosses, but he said he was uncertain which picture seemed to have pleased them. When a reporter asked whether his shot had been staged, Mr. Rosenthal said he thought the journalist was referring to the "gung-ho" picture and said it had been planned.
This began a debate about whether Mr. Rosenthal's picture of the flag-raising was authentic. Lowery, whose picture all but disappeared from notice, was among those who accused Mr. Rosenthal of staging the photo.
Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, was planning a story about the allegedly manufactured shot, and the Associated Press threatened to sue. Mr. Rosenthal was exonerated by color movies taken at Mount Suribachi by Marine Sgt. William H. Genaust.
For all the attention given to the Iwo Jima shot, Mr. Rosenthal said he was far fonder of a picture he took shortly after landing at Iwo Jima. He was deeply impressed that no matter how many Marines fell to their death around him, more kept coming.
To illustrate this, he took a picture of two dead Marines on the beach, one with his face exposed to the sun, the other his face ground into the sand. A third Marine walks toward the sacrifice of his comrades.
In his book "Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II," art scholar Frederick S. Voss writes: "Despite the forethought that went into that beach picture, the resulting image did not seemed contrived, which is probably one of the chief reasons why Rosenthal took special pride in it.
"On the other hand, his picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi four days later -- which, in its compositional perfection, did seem contrived and led to conjectures by some that it had to have been carefully posed."
Joseph J. Rosenthal was born Oct. 9, 1911, to Russian immigrant Jews; he converted to Catholicism as a young man.
After graduating in 1929 from McKinley Technical High School, he joined an older brother in San Francisco. He found work as an office boy at the Newspaper Enterprise Association and, after getting darkroom experience, became a news photographer covering waterfront strikers and other stories.
He became San Francisco bureau manager of Wide World Photos, a picture service where he said his more accurate job title was "janitor and vice president in charge of licking stamps." The New York Times sold Wide World to the Associated Press in 1941.
After the war, Mr. Rosenthal turned down several offers to run AP bureaus in Europe and began a 35-year career as a general assignment photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
His marriage to Dorothy Lee Walch Rosenthal ended in divorce.
Survivors include two children and several grandchildren.