The photo that said it all

Horace Johns | GCA News

This past Saturday, my wife and I attended a Veterans Day celebration.  It was inspiring, as usual.  However, my article this week is inspired most by what some say is the most famous, perfectly composed news photo of all time. Personally, I call it “The Photo That Said It All,” because it depicts the spirit, the best in America:  the courage, sacrifice, and pride in defending freedom throughout the world and defeating tyrannies more terrible than war itself.


Flag Raising on Iwo Jima – Joe Rosenthal, photographer. General Photographic File of the Department of Navy, 1943 – 1958

It is the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Associated Press (AP) photographer Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, in World War II. The image was so inspiring that, as we say now, it went viral. First appearing in Sunday newspapers two days later on February 25, it triggered a wave of national hope that Japanese forces would soon be crushed and peace was near.  It spurred millions of Americans to buy war bonds to keep the nation financially sound to fund the war effort. In essence, this simple photo was so powerful it helped win World War II.

Hal Buell, a former executive news photo editor at the AP, knew Rosenthal and many years later said: “There’s a sense of anticipation and a sense of shooting a picture at peak action – and Joe got it.  You couldn’t have captured the action at a better peak. A moment earlier, and the flag would have been too low.  If it had been a second later, the flag’s staff would have been straight up and the photo wouldn’t have had that strong diagonal line (which would have deprived it of that thrilling sense of ascendancy). “It’s exquisite,” added Buell, referring to the exact moment that sunlight, shadows, wind, and the Marines all converged perfectly. Accident?  Serendipity?  Fate? Or as I like to think – God’s hand in helping good defeat evil.

Buell further said:  “The picture captured the heroism of the whole World War. It captured a moment during a ferocious battle and it looked to the future – to victory and the end of the war.”  In so doing, this bloody encounter cost more than 6,000 American lives and 17,000 wounded.

The picture became almost an unofficial symbol of the Marine Corps and World War II in the Pacific. The Marines embraced it by transforming the photo into a memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia.  Hollywood movies have been made about the flag-raising. The U.S. Postal Service featured it on a stamp.

There are six flag raisers in the famous photo – four in the front line (Private First Class [PFC] Ira Hayes, PFC Franklin Sousley, PFC Harold Schultz, and Corporal Harlon Block) and two in the back (Sergeant Michael Strank and PFC Rene Gagnon). Strank, Block, and Sousley were killed in action over the next few days;  the other three returned home as heroes but had little success in putting their lives back together after the war.  It is altogether fitting to the American ideal that all six were just plain enlisted men, not officers.

Before Rosenthal died in 2006 at age 94, he told Buell that as he looked back on his life, he was glad his photo came to represent the bravery and sacrifice of the men he called “my Marines.”

As a veteran myself, I can say if that photo doesn’t send patriotic shivers up your spine, nothing will.
Acknowledgement is given to CNN’s 2016 feature, “The Inside Story of the Famous Iwo Jima Photo,” for information in my column.