Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima

Video highlights from Apocalypse: The Second World War

The untold story of the iconic photograph

It’s considered one of the most powerful images of all time. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph depicts five U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor raising the American flag over the war-ravaged Japanese island of Iwo Jima.

The image was so inspiring that it went the 1945 equivalent of viral.

But that wasn’t the first flag raised that day. And Joe Rosenthal wasn’t the only one taking photos.

A Flag Is Raised – Take Two

In February 1945, Joe Rosenthal, working as an Associated Press (AP) photographer in Iwo Jima, heard Marines were climbing the mountain and decided to see what was going on.

While Rosenthal was still climbing to the summit, Sergeant Louis Lowery, a Marine photographing for Leatherneck Magazine, was already there, taking photos of the Marines raising the U.S. flag.

But when a firefight began with the Japanese forces near the mountain top, Lowery dove for cover, dropping his camera and forcing him to descend the mountain for new equipment.

First Iwo Jima Flag Raising.

Sergeant Louis Lowery's less-well known photo that depicts the first flag raising.

While one flag was already raised over the mountain, as Rosenthal reached the summit he spotted a group of marines with a second flag.

The first flag was too small to be seen so it was decided that a second, larger flag was raised.

The equipment of the time was slow and difficult to work with, so Rosenthal only had one shot to get it right. As the flag came up, he raised his camera and captured history.

"It's exquisite," says Hal Buell, a former photo editor at AP who knew Rosenthal.

"You have this strong, diagonal line made by the flag staff. You have the flag snapping in the breeze. You have the pyramid-like shape of the Marines pushing the flag up. The men obviously are separate, but they appear as one.

“The blank background enhances the action by providing no distractions. Also, the photo is gifted with a softly filtered light. A very thin haze of clouds filters the light so that the shadows aren't harsh, but there is detail in all the shadows on the uniforms and the flag."

The image was so perfect that critics have accused Rosenthal of staging the picture for more than 70 years.

Lowery, not aware of the second flag-raising, was enraged, believing his real photo had been usurped by a staged shot.

The rumours began because Rosenthal did actually stage a photo up on the summit – just not the flag one.

In the staged photo, known as “Gung Ho”, Marines are in front of an American flag, holding their rifles and helmets in the air.

It took a special meeting between editors and military officials to end the rumours.

"They came to the conclusion that the picture was not posed," says Buell. "It was an authentic news picture of the second flag being raised."

The Battle Of Iwo Jima

When American forces landed on the shores of Iwo Jima, the plan was to take the island in a matter of days.

But the fight became a protracted battle with entrenched Japanese infantrymen willing to fight to the death. 

For each square foot, Iwo Jima became one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II.

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay