There's this guy Lowery, see, and this guy Rosenthal. Both photographers but nice guys and they met once again at a shrine of heroes yesterday.
Louis Lowery was a sergeant photographer for the magazine Leatherneck and Joe Rosenthal was shooting for the Associated Press when both of them took pictures of the American flag raising in Iwo Jima. As some of the world remembers, that was Feb. 23, 1945.
Lowery's pictures, now enshrined along with Rosenthal's at the Marine Corps Museum at Washington Navy Yard, are hardly known to the public, though they show the first raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi after its capture from the Japanese in World War II. That is a 556-foot hill on the wretched eight-square-mile island that was once important for its location between Tokyo and Marianas.
Lowery's pictures are good enough to stir your heart chiefly because you already know what it cost in American courage and blood to take the damned hill.But they're not gorgeous pictures. Neither triumph or heroism nor impending death are necesarily photogenic.
But soon afterwards, that same day, Rosenthal shot a picture of a second flag raising there, and his picture possibly justifies, in its beauty, the extravagant label it bears in the museum: the ultimate symbol of Marine esprit.
There were two flag raisings simply because the first flag, 28 by 54 inches, was not readily seen by Marines distant from the crest. The second flag, raised when the first one was lowered, was 56 by 98 inches. The raising of the second larger flag was as legitimate a news event as the raising of the first, Marine archives show, and it was raised so the waiting Marines below the hill could see it at a distance, not to help Rosenthal shoot a great picture.
Still, confusion and even hard feelings resulted among some Marines who felt Rosenthal's endlessly reproduced shot of the second flag rather overshadowed the men who raised the first.
Yesterday the two photographers laughed and hugged ("Really, I'm pinching him") at the museum. As Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Simmons (Usmc, Ret.) observed some time ago:
"Any differences Lowery and Rosenthal might have had over the two flag raisings were resolved long ago."
I got Lowery to one side, since columnists love to make trouble for the innocent, and asked if he didn't just once in a while think it was lousy for the world to go ape over Rosenthal's picture.
"Listen, I was so glad to get out alive I didn't give a damn about any picture," he said.
"Naw. That old bum [Rosenthal] scooped me, that's all. You've had it happen to you but you don't harbor a grudge just because the guy beat you. I never had a hard feeling towards Joe in my life."
Nobly put. Whether it accords with common experience or not.
Rosenthal stirred the pot of confusion by once saying the Iwo Jima picture was posed. Marine archives and careful research show it was not posed at all.What happened was this, according to evidence sifted by Simmons in his monograph of the picture in the magazine Fortitude last year:
Rosenthal shot one picture of the peak action as Marines heaved-ho the pipe to which the flag was fastened and raised it skyward. He then shot a second picture that he was pretty sure was no good of the same action. He shot a third picture, after hollering to the Marines to wave their helmets and give us a nice gung-ho shot (which they did). His fourth shot repeated his third. That day he shot 14 other pictures and the lot was sent to Guam for processing.
An editor asked him if the pictures were posed. Rosenthal replied yes, thinking the editor meant the later posed shots, not the first ones. He had not at that time seen negatives or prints -- if he had, he could have said immediately that the flag-raising shot now famous was a news shot.
If he'd posed it, he explained, he'd have used fewer men. In the famous picture they are all bunched up, and the result may be beautiful, but it's not what war photographers usually seek in posed pictures. They want the guys grinning straight into the camera for purposes of easy identification and proud murmurs back in home towns.
Well. It was a long time ago, and not one of the Marines in the famous picture is now alive.
The last one, Rene A. Gagnon, died Oct. 12, 1979, of a heart attack at the age of 55 in the boiler room of an apartment house in Manchester, N.H., where he was a maintenance man. Earlier he had been fired (on Memorial Day) from a job as night manager of a motel. Though as he said at the time, it wouldn't have helped all that much if he'd been fired a day later.
Some of the Marines died on Iwo Jima, after the picture. Others had trouble adjusting to civilian life -- tensions, booze -- like Ira Hayes who now sleeps in Arlington.
But yesterday was Rosenthal's day. The anniversary of the landing is Feb. 19, and the flag raising was Feb. 23. Nothing special about yesterday except it was mutually convenient for Rosenthal and the museum. Joe had a cataract operation a couple of months back and still writes like hell, adjusting to new focus, but he still wears his blue beret over his white hair. Cataract operations are a sure-fire way to lose weight, he said, patting the old tum-tum.
It's about time, the museum decided after 35 years, to honor old Joe personally. They had a breadfast unique (in a city dedicated to rally outrageous Danish) for the quality of its home-baked pastries and utterly drinkable coffee.
Lt. Gen. Donn J. Robertson (USMC, Ret.) shook Joe's paw. Robertson commanded the 27th Marines. Not many made three-star. Had to have a horseshoe, he said.
Simmons said Robertson is a great gardener. Robertson said lately he has been fairly spectacular on the chain saw with tree limbs that seem to fall like apple blossoms here, only throughout the year.
"Hold your arms straight," he said and pray for the best.
Simmons said another great gardener, also shaking Joe's hand, was Maj. Gen. Donald A. Weller, who in nongardening days planned the naval gunfire for Iwo Jima.
At the moment he is in mid-agony birthing his book on naval gunfire since the 18th century and shakes his head doomfully that it will ever be done, since he's not satisfied with his present draft.But by golly, man, you have no idea how many details there are in a history, and the sad shortage of any kind of staff to help with the donkey-work.
"All you need is a few good men," he was reminded and he smiled, ruefully or murderously, and it did not seem prudent to find out which.
Later there was a lunch, some filming at the Iwo Jima sculture (which is the Marine Was Memorial), and last night an evening parade there was scheduled in Joe's honor.
"Of course, I've enjoyed it immensely. Ina way. I belong on the other end of the camera, though. I've been overpraised too long for my Iwo Jima picture.
"It's 51 years now I've been a photographer. I was a high school kid. I got a job as a stock boy where I could learn eventually that you pointed the glass thing towards the subject when taking a picture, and I learned where you put the film in.
"A photographer makes a record of events, whether big or little, that are history. He sees plenty of crooks and some heroes. The men at Iwo Jima were heroes, they are my heroes. What they did, not what I recorded, is the thing."
A boiler room is as good a place to die as any other, you might reckon, and maybe it only takes once to make a hero, so that no lack of luster afterwards ever touches the bright crownet he wore that day.
"I've got my share of ego," Rosenthal went on. Like most mortal men he basks in praise and why not? It's plain unsociable to say aw shucks and besides nobody beleives you.
"So I have this ego. Then I try to correct back, to where I really belong."