Joe Rosenthal, Iwo Jima Photographer, Dies at 94

Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Joe Rosenthal, who took the iconic WWII image of soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima, died Sunday at the age of 94.

Rosenthal captured the black-and-white image of five battle-weary but triumphant Marines on Feb. 23, 1945, the fifth day of a 36-day battle for the strategic island 750 miles south of Tokyo that left 6,800 U.S. servicemen and nearly 21,000 Japanese defenders dead.

His photo not only won the then-33-year-old Associate Press photographer a Pulitzer Prize, it also became the model for the Iwo Jima Memorial (officially named the Marine Corps War Memorial) near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, as well as innumerable stamps, calendars and other memorabilia.

"Probably more than any other 20th Century photographer, Joe Rosenthal was responsible for the concept of the photographic icon," says Dirck Halstead, former White House photographer for Time Magazine and editor and publisher of The Digital Journalist. "His photograph of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi transcended the literal visual recording of history, to fix one particular moment that would become a national symbol."

The Marines in Rosenthal's photo are actually raising the second U.S. flag over the island. The photographer almost didn't climb to the summit after hearing a flag had already been raised. Deciding to ascend anyway, he glimpsed the soldiers raising a much larger flag, and snapped what became one of the most famous images of the war -- and the century.

In fact, the shot captured America's indomitable spirit so perfectly that many questioned whether it had been staged. Long cleared of this accusation, Rosenthal is often quoted as insisting that setting up that shot would "have ruined it."

Read more about Rosenthal's legacy in our new blog, State of the Art.

Rosenthal estimated that he made less than $10,000 from his famous Iwo Jima photo. But, always modest, he refused to see himself as anything but lucky to have gotten that.

"I'm alive; a lot of the men who were there are not," he said in a 1995 interview. "So I don't have the feeling that someone owes me for this."

NBC News contributing editor David Hume Kennerly, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner and former personal photographer to President Gerald R. Ford, fondly remembers Rosenthal as "the most modest of men."

"Joe always seemed a bit uncomfortable with the fame that accompanied that magnificent shot," he says. "He told me when I last saw him a few weeks ago that he, 'just had a cup of coffee in the big show, while the rest of you stayed for the whole dinner.'"

But of course, Kennerly insists, that simply wasn't true. Along with the landing at Iwo Jima, Rosenthal accompanied the first Marines to land on the islands of Guam, Peleliu, and Anguar. He flew in Navy dive-bombers over the Philippines. He was in London during the Blitz.

In 1946 Rosenthal joined the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked for 35 years until retiring in 1981. He was president of the San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild in 1951, twice president of the San Francisco Press Club, and three times president of the Bay Area Press Photographers Association.

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