Was the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima Staged?

Oh, I’m getting rusty, people. I almost let this one slip past me. About a month ago I was listening to On the Media, one of my favorite podcasts. Paul Waldman and Peter Gourevitch were debating whether or not we needed to see an image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. (I happen to think not, but whatever.) This exchange took place:

PAUL WALDMAN: We didn’t need the photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima to make us understand that we had won World War II, but it communicated a great deal about what we understood about that event, what it was supposed to represent, what it was supposed to tell us about us.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The image of Iwo Jima is exactly the opposite. It happens also to be a staged reenactment, as we now know, but it’s an image of American soldiers triumphing over intense adversity at the end of a grueling battle, hoisting their flag in pride over their nation. What you’re talking about is a headshot of Hitler with his brains blown out and showing. We don’t have that. And I don’t think there’s been a failure to achieve closure on World War II in the absence of it.

I groaned when I heard this because I teach classes about WWII, but I let it slide. A better blogger would have dropped everything, said good-bye to the wife, and set out to the library to put this sucker in the ground. I am unfortunately not that blogger.

I drag out this photo in almost every class I teach at some point. It’s the classic Joe Rosenthal photo of Marines erecting a flag at the summit of Mt. Suribachi, perhaps one of the most widely reprinted images of all time, and it’s not hard to see why:

The photo was taken after three days of fighting on Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima, I think you will find, sucked. It was a Japanese home island, and it was a fortress of the most formidable type. The Japanese had been preparing it for years, digging caves and tunnels in the volcanic rock and covering every inch of the island with artillery and machine guns, so that there was nowhere safe on the island for an invader. It was a perfect nightmare to attack. A US team could seal one spider hole with explosives, and the Japanese soldier who had been in there would pop up behind you and shoot you from there. All of the artillery and mortars would have been pre-sighted, that is, the Japanese would have placed targets of known size and distance to help them aim quickly, accurately and effectively. Look at this map, which shows the artillery and defensive positions on the island, and then consider that every one of those little dots housed either a machine gun, mortar or high explosive artillery. Iwo Jima was a calculated, engineered hell.

Contrary to what Gourevich says, the flag was not raised at the end of the battle, but at the beginning of a month-long struggle on the island. Indeed, only three of the men in the image survived the battle. Nonetheless, Iwo Jima was late in the war (Feb-March 1945), when Japan’s defeat was no longer a question. The only question was at what cost would Japan be defeated. As US troops were finally stepping on and taking over a home island, it represented the beginning of a new, final chapter.

The only feature to speak of on the entire island was Mt. Suribachi, itself riddled with man-made caves and bunkers. It loomed over the soldiers the entire time, and it must have been discouraging to know that the enemy was spotting you from the heights he commanded.

Symbolically, the mountain came to represent something other than a strategic position on an island. Indeed, it represented, on the eve of American victory in the Pacific, a long struggle that started at Pearl Harbor. (Perhaps this is is the “grueling battle” Gourevich was talking about.)

On the Media‘s listeners, God bless ’em, did not let Gourevich’s comment slide, as Bob Garfield reported in the next week’s listener mailbag segment:

Many of you responded to Gourevitch’s point that the photo of Iwo Jima was staged. Listener Brian Vargo writes, quote, “It is irresponsible to let someone say that on air. I cannot fathom how a program titled On the Media would allow something like that to go unchallenged.”

And listener Ben Bradley concurred. “My grandfather is in that picture,” he wrote. “I would like you to know that the flag-raising picture was not staged.”

Tim Zinnen brought the facts to bear on the issue when he wrote, quote, “Please correct for your listeners the statement your guest from The New Yorker made that the photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima was staged. It was not. It was a snapshot of the raising of a second larger flag. To say the photo was staged gives the wrong impression that the photographer directed the placement and positioning of the Marines and Corpsmen. There’s a difference between a staged photo and a photo of a staged event. All flag-raisings are staged events.”

The issue has sparked years of controversy, and we’ve addressed it on the show before. To say the photograph was staged is wrong. However, it was also not of the original triumphal moment. As listener Tim Zinnen wrote, the photo captured the raising of a second flag. Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took the image, has never disputed that fact.

The sequence of events that led to the raising of the flag are fairly well-known, so I am always slightly flummoxed, if flummoxing is what I am getting at, about how this story that the image was posed continues to circulate. I suspect that part of it is that the picture is so damned good–I think it may be one of the most perfect combat photos ever taken. The figures have exquisite triangular composition; the path your eye follows from the flag, down the pole and to the men is as natural as any composition I’ve ever seen. Their task is instantly identifiable, but the men, in a manner consistent with so many combat and military photographs, are almost indistinguishable from one another. They could have been anyone’s brother, father or husband. The image exudes the message of collective, anonymous effort toward a single goal on the verge of completion.

The event of the raising itself is thoroughly documented. The first patrol to reach the top of Suribachi raised a small flag at the summit:

So, not all that majestic or anything, but seeing the Americans claim the mountain set off cheers as well as a blaring of horns in the harbor.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was offshore and wanted the flag as a souvenir (and so did the battalion that raised and owned the flag, by the way), so soon a second flag was erected. The officer in command at the summit, a Lt. Schrier, coordinated the raising of a second larger flag with the simultaneous lowering of the smaller flag. This moment was captured too:

This second raising was still being carried out under combat conditions not conducive for posing a photograph.

Joe Rosenthal, the AP photographer whose photograph would become famous, had missed the initial flag raising and was on the summit shooting photos of the harbor when he saw the men preparing the second raising.  The second raising was a planned event, to be sure, and Rosenthal snapped several photos.

The raising was filmed from almost the same angle as Rosenthal’s photograph:

What is interesting about the photograph is that Rosenthal had no idea that he had taken perhaps the most iconic photograph of the war. He did not have access to his images while he was on the island, and he did not develop the film–it was developed days later, on Guam. The person responsible for seeing that the image got widespread release was actually an AP editor, John Bodkin. Indeed, when someone told Rosenthal that his photo was on the cover of every newspaper on the planet, he asked, “The posed one?” You see, he had taken a posed photograph of the men under the flag:

Rosenthal hadn’t seen his iconic photo (and he in fact may have thought that he missed the shot–he wasn’t even looking through the view finder when he took it). But his reaction to hearing of his photo’s fame, his misapprehension of which photo had been selected, slipped into history and became the foundation of the alternative, unsinkable rumor that remains today.


For more about the image, I recommend:

Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam, 2001.

Casaregola, Vincent. Theaters of War: America’s Perceptions of World War II. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009. See especially, pgs 106-109.

24 Responses to Was the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima Staged?

  1. Pacal says:

    Yeah I’ve heard the story too. However since the second raising of the flag was in some sense planned it was to a certain extent “posed”. Although ir was also still largely a “spontanous” event.

    Still it is a great shot.

  2. Fleegman says:

    Ok, now I’m confused.

    You said:
    “This second raising was still being carried out under combat conditions not conducive for posing a photograph.”

    A few paragraphs later, you mention how Rosenthal thinks it’s the posed photo he took that’s doing the rounds. You then show the posed photo under the flag.

    So were the combat conditions unfavourable for posed photos or not? Or was the posed photo was taken after the island had been captured?

    Just what the hell is going on?!

    • Myyung Tran says:

      The soldiers were still fighting every around the island but those men took but a moment so that they could take a picture together. To probably half of those men it will be the last photo they ever take. In combat conditions it is ALWAYS unfavorable to pose for pictures at the risk of being an easy target for enemy soldiers. Mt.Suribachi was crawling with american soldiers the moment it was captured.

  3. Bob says:

    Ooh…Good catch! I need to go to work right now, but I’ll make myself more clear about that in the evening, if not sooner!


  4. Fleegman says:

    … or later! ;o)

  5. Bob says:

    Sorry. Insanely busy. Pacal is not wrong. When I said posed, I should have said, “really really posed. Sands-of-Iwo-Jima posed:”

    It wasn’t the time or place for the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, to compose the picture, give direction, or “realize the shot that he had designed in his head.” The rows of soldiers going “Yay!”, I think, takes a lot less posing and planning and is spontaneous mugging. So, I think that Rosenthal’s use of the word posed is a little strong in his description.


  6. Fleegman says:

    Ok, that’s a fair comment.

  7. Bob says:

    You were spot on. Thanks for keeping me clear and honest. I’ll leave my mistake up because, well, hell, it’s part of the record! 🙂


  8. Fleegman says:

    Oh man, I hate to do this (sort of), but I’ve been looking at that “yay!” pic in more detail and I think you’re a bit off the mark.

    As a photographer myself, I look at a picture like that and certain things jump out at me. The coastline on the right; the crouching of the guy on the right because there wasn’t enough room off to the right, so he had to crouch so the guy behind him could be seen; the two lines of men creating natural lines leading one’s eye to the flag; the flag blowing perfectly.

    To me, this looks like a planned, posed shot. It looks like a pic that took some work to set up. Not a huge amount, but there would have been a fair amount of shuffling of the men to get them in their right positions, and then framing the shot (which could, admittedly, be planned before getting the men involved) and waiting for the flag to fill out. What it wasn’t, though, was the photographer shouting at a group of men and saying “Hey, look this way and smile!”

    It would certainly explain why he asked “the posed one?” because that’s the one he remembers since it took some effort for him to set up.

    I suppose the thing that jumps out at me the most, is that these do not look like men who are under fire. They are at the top of a mountain (the most visible spot on the whole island) and raising their helmets. Would they really do that if the enemy could throw a mortar their way any minute? I don’t know, maybe.

    Is there any possibility at all that the “yay!” picture was taken once the island was secure?

    The alternative is that the conditions they were under were indeed conducive for posing, so the argument that he couldn’t set up a posed shot of them erecting the flag because of the possibility of enemy fire isn’t a valid one. I’m not saying that I think the flag raising was posed, by the way. I’m only saying that if the “yay!” pic was taken at the same time, I don’t think that particular line of reasoning is a sound one on which to base the conclusion that the flag raising wasn’t posed.

    Hell, I know you’re busy; sorry for going on about this.

    • noelani Lamb says:

      I think the issue is whether they would have taken the risk of getting back up there, again, solely to take pictures. That was not what happened. Taking a few seconds to take a picture under the flag (lining up was something the men were very experienced at doing) and taking the time to trek from a ship to the top of the mountain aren’t comparable. Besides, although they knew they might be fired on, on their way up, they hadn’t been, reportedly because the enemy was being bombarded at the time.

  9. Fleegman says:

    Heh, sorry, I didn’t see your second reply before that last diatribe ;o)

    It’s my pleasure to help keep you clear and honest, heh.

  10. Bob says:

    You know, there is a feature of battlefield psychology that may explain the apparently incongruous behavior of the men in the group picture. One of the things that soldiers reported was that it did not matter how far back you were from the front, that if you were not under immediate threat, you relaxed. For instance, I think of James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. Jones was most eloquent when he wrote about war. There’s a scene where a character is hearing an American assault failing on the next hill over, and he basically thinks that “those guys are getting theirs” (I don’t have the text in front of me.) The sheer pleasure of not being shot at *at that moment* becomes is apparently deeply contenting. This seems corroborated by reports, I think this is in Paul Fussell’s book on WWII (I could be wrong about the source), that when you are close to the battle, everything behind you becomes “the rear” even if it is a few yards back. For instance, the frontline combat soldier in the foxhole considered the medic to be “to the rear”. The medic would have thought of the mortar squad to be “to the rear”. The mortarmen would think that the company CP was to the rear. The company CP staff thought that the battalion CP was at the rear. Battalion thought that regimental CP was at the rear. Regiment thought Division was at the rear. Division thought they were “at the front.” 🙂


  11. bacopa says:

    The horror of fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa convinced the war department that chemical weapons were necessary in the planned invasion of Kyushu. They expected civilians to fight with ambushes and spears as they did on Okinawa., so civilians were to be gassed. No need to worry about retaliation in kind as Japan did not have stockpiles of gas. Germans had gas, but were in no position to use it and Germany fell before the Kyushu invasion.

    Starvation, gas, and firebombing would have killed many more Japanese than the atomic bombs did, and the civilian population obeyed the emperors decree that Japanese civilians should not resist.

  12. John says:

    Ira Hayes, one of the Marines in the picture and a fellow Native American, said himself that it was staged to sell war bonds. The man said this himself. This should put it to rest.

  13. Bob says:

    Do you have a reference?


  14. Bob says:

    To whom did he say it and where was it published?

  15. Mandi says:

    this is definitely NOT a posed picture. My grandfather is actually in the 2nd flag raising photo. If you Look at the man directly in line with the flag pole, then count him and 2 to the left. The man with his rifle raised, his name is Avis Embrey. That is my grandfather.

    • Mandi says:

      my grandfather also said, the sad part about this photo was while the second pic was being taken, all the men from the first were running down the hill being killed.

  16. Michael J. Simons says:

    I’m confused about this sites motives. It has been known since 1945 that the second photo was taken when the commander wanted a larger flag raised as opposed to the smaller one on the “stick” that was originally raised. At the same time this second picture was taken it was also being filmed. You can call it ” staged” or what ever you like, it doesn’t change the fact that youung American men fought and died at rates you would never understand. That a small group raised up a hill and planted a flag that they loved and were fighting for. All the second gunman conspiracy theory stuff has me scratching my head, what is your point?

  17. In the early sixties, a fellow employee who was, in fact, a marine photographer, said that he and four fellow marine photographers took pictures of the initial raising of the small flag as well as the re-do with the bigger flag. He showed me half a dozen pictures of the “raising” for purpose of historical records.

  18. Robert Neal DeVanr says:

    BOOTS Thomas from Monticello Florida was one of the flag raisers. HE died on the island several days later. Goggle Boots Thomas Memorial Monticello Florida.
    R Neal Devane

  19. noelani Lamb says:

    This is an excellent article about a topic that’s important to me. The first time I rode past one of the statues made from this photo was my very first car ride, from the Quantico Naval Hospital to the small cabin my parents were renting, off-base.

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