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Negatives Aside, Photographer of Iwo Jima Fame Feels Worthwhile : Pacific: He captured World War II's most memorable image, then had to fight off bitter accusations that he'd staged it.

February 12, 1995|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — Fifty years ago this month, a young Associated Press photographer named Joe Rosenthal shot the most memorable photograph of World War II, a simple, stirring image of six Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

It took but a sliver of time: 1/400th of a second.

It has consumed the past half-century of Joe Rosenthal's life.

He has been called a genius, a fraud, a hero, a phony. He has been labeled and relabeled, adored and abused, forced to live and relive, explain and defend that day atop Mt. Suribachi on each and every day that has followed, more than 18,000 and counting.

"I don't think it is in me to do much more of this sort of thing," he said during an interview--his umpteen-thousandth--about Iwo Jima. "I don't know how to get across to anybody what 50 years of constant repetition means."

Rosenthal is 83 now, nearly blind, a pudgy man with a dapper white mustache and a horseshoe of white hair curving around the back of a largely bald head. He lives alone in San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, in a little apartment largely given over to stacks of correspondence and documentation related to Iwo Jima.

In 1945, he was 33, too nearsighted for military service, short and athletic, with a brushy brown mustache and a head full of tight brown curls.

As an AP photographer assigned to the Pacific theater of the war, he had already distinguished himself--and shown a streak of bravado--in battles at New Guinea, Hollandia, Guam, Peliliu and Angaur.

No one remembers Rosenthal for those pictures now.

There is only Iwo. Bloody Iwo. It is the battle that Joe Rosenthal will fight until he dies.

We remember Iwo Jima for two good reasons:

One is that it was the costliest battle in Marine Corps history. Its toll of 6,821 Americans dead, 5,931 of them Marines, accounted for nearly one-third of all Marine Corps losses in all of World War II.

The other is Joe Rosenthal's picture.

It has been called the greatest photograph of all time. It may well be the most widely reproduced. It served as the symbol for the Seventh War Loan Drive, during which it was plastered on 3.5 million posters. It was used on a postage stamp and on the cover of countless magazines and newspapers. It served as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., a symbol forever of the valor and sacrifices of the U.S. Marines.

As a photograph, it derives its power from a simple, dynamic composition, a sense of momentum and the kinetic energy of six Marines straining toward a common goal, which for one man has slipped just out of grasp.

"It has every element. . . . It has everything," marveled Eddie Adams, a former AP photographer who took another picture that helped sum up a war--one of a South Vietnamese policeman executing a suspect.

Of Rosenthal's picture, he added: "It's perfect: the position, the body language. . . . You couldn't set anything up like this--it's just so perfect."

And therein lies the problem. Some people think Rosenthal's picture is too perfect.

For 50 years now, Rosenthal has battled a perception that he somehow staged the flag-raising picture, or covered up the fact that it was actually not the first flag-raising at Iwo Jima.

All the available evidence backs Rosenthal. The man responsible for spreading the story that the picture was staged, the late Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod, long ago admitted he was wrong. But still the rumor persists.

In 1991, a New York Times book reviewer, misquoting a murky treatise on the flag-raising called "Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories and the American Hero," went so far as to suggest that the Pulitzer Prize committee consider revoking Rosenthal's 1945 award for photography.

And just a year ago, columnist Jack Anderson promised readers "the real story" of the Iwo Jima photo: that Rosenthal had "accompanied a handpicked group of men for a staged flag-raising hours after the original event."

Anderson later retracted his story. But the damage, once again, had been done.

Rosenthal's story, told again and again with virtually no variation over the years, is this:

On Feb. 23, 1945, four days after D-Day at Iwo Jima, he was making his daily trek to the island on a Marine landing craft when he heard that a flag was being raised atop Mt. Suribachi, a volcano at the southern tip of the island.

Marines had been battling for the high ground of Suribachi since their initial landing on Iwo Jima, and now, after suffering terrible losses on the beaches below it, they appeared to be taking it.

Upon landing, Rosenthal hurried toward Suribachi, lugging along his bulky Speed Graphic camera, the standard for press photographers at the time. Along the way, he came across two Marine photographers, Pfc. Bob Campbell, shooting still pictures, and Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust, shooting movies. The three men proceeded up the mountain together.

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