Joseph John Rosenthal (October 9, 1911 – August 20, 2006) was an American photographer who received the Pulitzer Prize for his iconic World War II photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima. His picture became one of the best-known photographs of the war.
Rejected by the U.S. Army as a photographer because of poor eyesight, Rosenthal joined the Associated Press (AP) and followed the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of Operations during the war as some kind of “embedded journalist” avant la lettre.
On Friday, February 23, 1945 at around 1:00 PM, five days after the Marines landed at Iwo Jima, Rosenthal was making his daily visit to the island on a Marine landing craft when he heard that a flag was being raised atop Mount Suribachi, a volcano at the southern tip of the island. Upon landing, Rosenthal hurried toward Suribachi, lugging along his bulky Speed Graphic camera, the standard for press photographers at the time. When he got about halfway up, he was told that a flag had already been raised on the summit. He continued up anyway to photograph the flag flying.
On the summit, Rosenthal discovered a group of Marines attaching a larger flag to a length of pipe. Nearby, another group of Marines stood ready to lower the smaller flag at the same instant the larger was raised. Rosenthal briefly contemplated attempting to photograph both flags, but decided against it, so he focused his attention on the group of Marines preparing to raise the second flag.
Rosenthal piled stones and a sandbag so he had something on which to stand, as he was only 5 feet and 5 inches (1.65 m) tall. He set his camera for a lens setting between f/8 and f/11 and put the speed at 1/400th second. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the group of Marines start to raise the second flag. He swung his camera around toward the action and pushed the shutter. To make sure he had a worthwhile photo to send to the AP, he took another photograph showing four Marines steadying the flag, then he gathered all the Marines on the summit for a posed shot under the flag.
In later years, when asked about the photo, he would say “I took the picture, the Marines took Iwo Jima.”
Rosenthal left the AP later in 1945 and became the chief photographer and manager of Times Wide World Photos. He then later joined the San Francisco Chronicle. He worked there as a photographer for 35 years, before retiring in 1981. On April 13, 1996, Rosenthal was named an honorary Marine by then Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak. On August 20, 2006, at age 94, Rosenthal died of natural causes in his sleep at a center for assisted living in Novato, a suburb of San Francisco.
On September 15, 2006, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal by the United States Marine Corps.
The citation, signed by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter reads:
“For exceptionally distinguished public service in support of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. On February 23, 1945, a bespectacled Mr. Rosenthal made a picture of five U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy corpsman that immortalized the American Fighting spirit during World War II and became an everlasting symbol of service and sacrifice, transcending art and the ages. Mr. Rosenthal’s poor eyesight prohibited him from serving in the armed services, so, he instead went to war summoning the craft he had practiced since the Great Depression. He bravely accompanied island-hopping forces in the Pacific as a civilian news photographer. On Iwo Jima, Japan, short of breath from climbing the 546-foot volcano, Mr. Rosenthal, in haste, stood on top of shaky rocks in search of the best graphic composition. As the six men hoisted an iron pole and the American flag unfurled in a smart breeze for all to see, Mr. Rosenthal captured the precise moment, unaware, until much later, of its significance. Since that very day, his iconic photo has stood as a testament to the perseverance, esprit and dedication of American Marines. In recognition of his own service and dedication, Mr. Rosenthal is posthumously awarded the Department of the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.”
The 2006 Hollywood film titled Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood which tells the life stories of the flag raisers, depicts Rosenthal’s involvement in the events that led up to his taking the iconic flag raising photograph.
Rosenthal was portrayed by actor Ned Eisenberg in the film.