Norman "Norm" Hatch, 91, poses for a portrait near the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The battle had raged for four days, and would continue for 31 more, a marathon of sand and heat and unrelenting death. But at that moment there was an order from the brass: Get a bigger flag up there. The small American flag fluttering atop Mount Suribachi, the volcanic peak on the island, was too small to be seen by the troops fighting below.

From his makeshift command post near a captured Japanese airstrip, a 24-year-old Marine combat photographer named Norm Hatch began to scramble.

The next few hours, and the days immediately following, would thrust Hatch into the story of one of the most famous photographs in history, taken 68 years ago this week on the speck of rock in the Pacific Ocean called Iwo Jima. The Alexandria resident, the last man living directly involved in its creation, helped ensure the image’s place in perpetuity.

Hatch corralled two men, Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust and Pfc. Bob Campbell, and ordered them to join the Marine detachment trudging to the summit of Suribachi with a larger flag. On the uneventful trek, Genaust and Campbell encountered a diminutive, bespectacled photographer for the Associated Press named Joe Rosenthal. Campbell knew Rosenthal from their days working at the San Francisco Chronicle; Rosenthal decided to join the party clambering up the mountain.

“Rosenthal said he thought [the peak] looked like a good place to take a picture,” says Hatch today, sitting in the basement den of the home he has lived in for 62 years with his wife, Lois, now 92. He is a hearty 91, razor-sharp of mind and slowed only by leg troubles that have forced him to rely on a cane. “He got there just in time.”

The Marines reached the top unmolested by the Japanese defenders and a few took down the smaller flag while another group of five, joined by a Navy corpsman, began to hoist a larger one attached to a length of heavy pipe. Campbell snapped away in the foreground. Genaust cranked his 16mm movie camera.

Rosenthal, hurriedly assembling some rocks and sandbags to create a better vantage point, swung his Speed Graphic still camera and hit the shutter.

In 1/400th of a second, he captured something timeless.

Within 36 hours, his photo was on the front page of hundreds of newspapers. The image of teamwork, grit and conquest helped galvanize a war-weary nation. The photo won Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize and was reproduced millions of times for a massive War Bond drive (an event chronicled in “Flags of Our Fathers,” the book and Clint Eastwood-directed movie). The Marines eventually built their memorial in Arlington according to the photo’s triangular geometry, a tableau as classic as any created by the Greeks or Romans.

“It was the perfect picture at just the right time,” said Charles “Chip” Jones, the author of “War Shots,” a biography of Hatch and his fellow combat cameramen.

The photo might not have assumed its place in American history without Hatch’s involvement.

Soon after the photo’s publication, a story began to percolate that Rosenthal had staged the famous scene, that he had posed the men just so. The story followed Rosenthal to his death in 2006. It is whispered in various forms to this day.

Hatch can set you straight on this, just as he has been setting people straight for nearly 70 years.

Hatch enlisted in the Marines in 1939 and worked his way into its photographic unit. In late 1943, some 15 months before Iwo Jima, Hatch had waded ashore with the American invaders at Tarawa, carrying a hand-cranked 16mm camera.

Hatch’s footage of that battle became the core of the 1944 documentary “With the Marines at Tarawa,”which shocked audiences with its unprecedented scenes of Marines lying dead in the surf. It would win an Academy Award for best short documentary.

Hatch came in with the first wave at Iwo Jima, a battle that killed nearly 6,000 Marines.

From that day to this one, he insists there was nothing posed about the flag photo. Though the events occurred a lifetime ago, Hatch speaks about them as if they were fresh in his memory. Hatch can swear like, well, a Marine, and he brooks no argument about what happened that day and thereafter.

“One of those two [Genaust and Campbell] would have told me that the picture was posed if it had been,” he says, surrounded by medals and memorabilia in his cluttered basement. “But I don’t think the thought ever entered their mind.”

Hatch’s account is corroborated by research conducted by several people, including Jones and Walt Ford, a retired Marine colonel who publishes Leatherneck, the magazine of the Marine Corps.

Genaust, who died at Iwo Jima, was standing steps away from Rosenthal and recorded the scene just as Rosenthal had shot it. (Genaust’s footage was used by many TV stations throughout the 1950s and ’60s at the end of their daily broadcasts).

Hatch recalls that the photo was questioned for several reasons. One is confusion over the nature of the two flag-raisings; some suspected the second one was orchestrated just for the photo (“Not true,” he says bluntly). Another is the role played by wartime journalists Lou Lowery and Robert Sherrod. Still a third is Rosenthal’s own mistake.

Lowery, a staff sergeant who was a photographer for Leatherneck, had shot the first flag-raising that morning and was coming down Suribachi as Rosenthal and the second party were headed up. Lowery hadn’t seen Rosenthal at the first flag-raising and was unaware that a second had taken place.

Days after the photo had caused a sensation, Hatch says Lowery told Sherrod, the legendary war correspondent for Time and Life magazines, that he thought the Marines had set the whole thing up. Sherrod relayed his concerns to his bosses in New York.

Before the confusion could be sorted out, Time prepared a story for its radio program, “Time Views the News.” It reported: “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted. . . . Like most photographers, [he] could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.”

Rosenthal muddied the water further when he was asked at a news conference if he had staged any shots. He replied that he had — referring not to the flag-raising but to a photo of the Marines exulting after the fact.

In the decades that followed, Rosenthal would tirelessly explain all this.

“Had I posed that shot, I would of course have ruined it,” he is quoted as saying in Jones’s book. “I’d have picked fewer men. . . . I would have made them turn their heads so they could be identified [and] nothing like the existing picture would have resulted.”

Time eventually retracted its radio story and apologized to Rosenthal, and Sherrod later acknowledged the photo’s authenticity.

Hatch played a role in clearing away some of the controversy, and inadvertently played a key role in ensuring that the image would become part of American lore.

Hatch left Iwo Jima with Genaust’s film about two weeks after Rosenthal’s photo had become a worldwide sensation. He arrived in Washington five days later and was whisked to a meeting with the Marine commandant, Gen. Alexander “Archer” Vandegrift, and senior executives from Time-Life and the Associated Press.

Hatch vouched for the photo’s legitimacy, prompting Vandegrift to ask the AP man, Alan J. Gould, for permission to use the image in the Marines’ recruiting efforts.

Gould’s response “was typical,” Hatch says. “He said, ‘You can have two duplicate negatives and every print will cost you $1,” an impossibly costly rate for the Marines. “There was dead silence in the room.”

Vandegrift asked Hatch for his opinion. Hatch responded with an audacious bluff.

“I said that we have [Genaust’s] film of the flag-raising, and we could blow that up to 8 by 10 [inches] and make a print of it. And, yes, we’d lose some definition that way, but the footage belonged to us and so we wouldn’t need to pay” AP to license Rosenthal’s photo.

Gould didn’t know that Hatch had never seen Genaust’s film. It hadn’t been processed at that point. “We had no idea if it was ruined, scratched, underexposed or damaged in some way,” Hatch says.

Given that the Marines possessed an alternative to the Rosenthal photo, Gould “decided to give us the negative and told us we could use it in perpetuity,” Hatch says.

Hatch says the story of Rosenthal’s photo wouldn’t be the same without a mysterious third man.

Rosenthal’s image had been a horizontal composition; the full frame showed not just the Marines and the flag, but dirt and rocks in the foreground and an enormous expanse of sky. An anonymous photo editor or lab technician on Guam, where Rosenthal’s film had been sent for processing, cropped the image so that the men were framed tightly, turning the horizontal photo into a vertical one. The editing improved the composition, emphasizing the exertions of the men, Hatch says.

Six months after the end of the battle for Iwo Jima, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star, Hatch would become part of the American occupation force in Japan. His assignment was Nagasaki, where he photographed the devastation from the second atom bomb.

He would serve 41 years in the Marines and spent 15 years as the audiovisual adviser to the secretary of defense. He retired in 1980 and opened a photographic consulting business.

Hatch says Rosenthal’s photo endures for a simple reason: “It’s a picture that tells a story. It shows the urgency of getting that flag up. It’s got a feeling in it.”

It also suggests that in photography, as in war, it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Few know that better than Norm Hatch.