Here’s To You, Joe

Since we’re celebrating great February events (the births of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12, 1809 and George Washington on Feb. 22, 1732), I’d like to add one more: Feb. 23, 1945.

That’s the 68th anniversary of the most iconic photo ever taken in American history. That’s the day Joe Rosenthal snapped a photo of five Marines and a Navy corpsman planting a U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima, marking the costliest battle of the war, a battle that claimed the lives of 5,931 Marines — a third of all Marines killed during World II.

How did Joe get “the shot?” The short answer is, he got it because he was prepared and persistent, and when a break came his way, he knew exactly what to do with it.

Rosenthal was an unlikely hero. He was of one five sons of Russian immigrants. He stood 5-foot-5. By comparison, Lincoln was 6-foot-4 and Washington was 6-foot-2. After Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), he tried to enlist, but his eyesight was too poor.

With one avenue closed he pursued another, hitching his faintly rising star with the Associated Press (AP). In 1944, the news service offered him a chance to take photographs — a fantastic assignment if you valued taking great action shots, not so great if you value living to a ripe old age. Subsequently, he covered U.S. invasions of Guadalcanal, New Guinea and Guam before arriving at Iwo Jima.

Of the horrific battle that followed his arrival on Iwo Jima, he said, “No man who survived that beach can tell you how he did it. It was like walking through rain and not getting wet.”

Rosenthal was always clicking away to record history — that was his job, after all — but when the first flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi occurred, he missed it. Disappointed at missing the photo, Rosenthal set out across the battlefield for a lesser memento — a simple, unadorned image of the stars and stripes flying over the island.

Scaling the 556-foot mountain, he learned that a commander on the shore had ordered the original flag be taken down and a second, much larger flag be raised so that it could be seen across the island and from the sea.

After reaching the summit, he realized he was poorly positioned to get a full perspective of the new flag going up, so he scrambled back down the hill about 25 or 35 feet, perched himself on a pile of rocks and a Japanese sandbag to lift him high enough to get the angle he wanted. He then set the lens of his Speed Graphic camera at an f8 to f11 and the speed at 1/400th of a second and began shooting.

With the second raising already under way, he furiously clicked images of soldiers mounting into the ground a 20-foot length of pipe to which a 96-by-56-inch flag had been attached. After the planting of the flag, he asked the men to face him under the flag for a celebratory photo.

He sent his roll of film off to darkroom technicians in Guam for development, with the caption: Marines “hoist the Stars and Stripes, signaling the capture of this key position.”

Once the AP moved the photo to client newspapers, the image took on a life of its own. It appeared on postage stamps, posters, outdoor panels and cards that helped sell more than $200 million in U.S. war bonds with the slogan, “Now … All Together.” The self-effacing Rosenthal downplayed his role in capturing the Marines’ struggle and sacrifice that day.

“No photographer could have ever asked for a better break,” he recalled. “The sun was just right. The wind was right to flow the flag. The pipe — it must have weighed 100 pounds — was so heavy the guy holding it was struggling, typifying the struggle the Marines had in securing the island.”

Indeed, the shot was so perfect than many detractors later accused him of staging the shot.

In his defense, Rosenthal said that had the photograph been rigged, he would have used fewer men and had them face the camera so AP’s clients would be more inclined to use the picture in hometown newspapers.

“Had I posed the shot, I would, of course, have ruined it,” he said.

Rosenthal got the shot because, like the Marines, he didn’t give up. After missing the first flag-raising, he didn’t sulk back at the military base. He ventured out again, hopeful of catching something … anything. I guess he knew that you don’t get a second chance unless you seek a second chance.

He figured one more try was better than one more alibi.


There is a sad postscript to this story. When Rosenthal reached the summit that fateful day, Marine Sgt. William H. “Bill” Genaust was already shooting a color motion picture of the unfolding events. Indeed, one of the frames from his film is similar to Rosenthal’s famous photo. Nine days later, Genaust died in battle on Iwo Jima’s Hill 362.

Rosenthal, blessed with a long and hearty life, lived another 61 years after Iwo Jima. He died in 2006 at age 94.

Why God elects some of us to live long lives and others to live abbreviated ones is another of life’s mysteries. As human beings, we should ponder less and wander more. Wherever that path leads, we should never take our eyes off of the summit or give up trying to reach it.

Life is never fair, but that is hardly reason for despair.

My best,

Peter Bennett

Publisher, La Verne Online; Author, Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject

PS, People keep asking me what Life Lessons is all about. Every day, I have a new answer. It’s about tearing down every wall holding back your success; it’s about HIGHERING yourself when the world isn’t hiring; it’s about things known and unknown. It motivates you to ask more questions.

Here’s one: Most people know who lives at 10 Downing Street in London. The Prime Minister, right?

Well, who lives next door at 11 Downing Street. Shouldn’t we make his or her acquaintance, as well? Be curious!

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