Localman connects with Iwo Jima

Published on Thu, Feb 24, 2005 by Jack Kintner

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Local man connects with Iwo Jima

By Jack Kintner

One of the best-known WW II photographs shows six soldiers raising a large American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. The 60th anniversary of that flag raising was yesterday, February 23.

The man who took the photograph, Joe Rosenthal, is still alive, and a poster-sized print from the original glass plate negative hangs on a wall in his friends John and Dolores Bennitt’s house in Blaine. A carefully hand-written note on the left side of the print says, “Best Wishes to John H. Bennitt, from Joe Rosenthal.”

Rosenthal, now in his ’90s and living in San Francisco, was rejected by the military because of poor eyesight but managed to become a combat photographer for the Associated Press. He completely missed the original flag raising by the troops who actually captured the top of 550-foot Mount Suribachi, but the image he made of the five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a larger replacement flag quickly became one of the most popular images of the war. It remains the only photograph to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the same year in which it was made, and it inspired everything from a John Wayne movie to the largest statue at that time in the world, a bronze rendering of the photograph weighing more than 100 tons that towers more than 100 feet over Arlington National Cemetery.

Though shot less than six months before the end of the war in the Pacific, at the time it was taken the end was hardly in sight. Most Americans expected that Japan would be defeated in much the same way that Germany would be, by an invasion that could last for years if resistance was stiff.

The battle for Iwo Jima that many thought would last just a few days took nearly a month and claimed 25,851 U.S. causalities. Almost 7,000 Marines and all 22,000 Japanese defenders died on this first small piece of the Japanese homeland to fall, giving the allies an air base within 750 miles of the large Japanese city of Yokohama. The photo was taken on the fourth day, February 23, but the battle was to last until March 17.
James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers, published in 2000, tells the story of the photo and the men in it in great detail; the man second from the right, whose profile is visible, a Navy corpsman who was asked to help the five Marines raise the heavy steel pipe used as a flagpole, was Bradley’s father. That flag, that had survived Pearl Harbor, replaced an earlier small flag raised by the first patrol to ascend the hill.

The original flag raising was shot by another photographer, Bill Lyons of United Press. Rosenthal was late getting to the beach, having fallen off the ladder into the ocean when transferring from the ship he was on to a waiting landing craft. His camera, fortunately, was in a waterproof bag.

The boatswain who was piloting the landing craft told Rosenthal that he’d just heard on the radio that a Marine patrol was climbing up Suribachi, so when he got to the beach that’s where he headed. Other photographers told him he was too late but the climb was worth it for the view of the island.

When he finally got to the top of Suribachi, Bradley’s book quotes Rosenthal as saying “I tell you, I still get this feeling of a patriotic jolt when I recall seeing our flag flying up there.”

When Rosenthal saw that a bigger flag was about to be erected, he got ready but then nearly missed the shot when distracted by another photographer’s question. He swung his camera around and shot as the pole was being raised.

“By being polite to each other we damn near missed the scene,” Bradley quotes Rosenthal as saying, “I swung my camera around and held it until I could guess that this was the peak of the action, and shot.”
The photo quickly came to symbolize the long difficult struggle toward victory that most Americans felt lay ahead of them in the Pacific Theater. In a little over two months the three surviving soldiers of the six who raised the flag in the photo were personally ordered back to the U.S. by President Roosevelt for a war bond tour. A goal many considered too high at $14 billion was set, but the tour raised over $26 billion in pledges at a time when the entire U.S. budget was only $56 billion.

In May the news came that Germany was about to surrender. Then in August President Truman authorized dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and within days the war in the Pacific was over as well.

“I was introduced to Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer who took the picture, by Roy Steinfort when we both worked for the AP in New York,” Bennitt said. Steinfort was a Navy corpsman assigned to the Marines and was on Iwo Jima as well, fairly close to the flag raising.

“Rosenthal used a four by five Speed Graphic,” Bennitt said, “at probably a four-hundredth of a second with the f-stop between f8 and f16. His negative was later archived by being sealed between two thin glass plates in the AP’s New York library.”

Bennitt, a Montana native, served in several different cities in the 20 years he worked as a reporter for the AP.

“Rosenthal would come to visit his old friends in the New York office,” Bennitt said, “and that’s when I got to know him, spend some time listening to his stories. He was a bit of a character and had been fired by the AP, but that wasn’t all that unusual in that line of work.”