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Story behind an image of American triumph

In “Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue,” Hal Buell recounts the battle of Iwo Jima and Joe Rosenthal's photo that captured history. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: Weekend Today

On February 23, 1945, atop a tiny island called Iwo Jima, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped what would become one of the most enduring images in American history. Having survived charges that it was staged, the photo has come to symbolize American triumph over tragedy, and is one of the most published of all time. Now the story behind the picture and the battle for Iwo Jima are told in the new book, “Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue.” Hal Buell worked with the Associated Press for forty years and wrote the book. Here's an excerpt:

IntroductionThin clouds created a bright but softly filtered light. The rush of ocean winds limited conversation with anyone more than a few yards away.

Five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raised an American flag on the summit of Mt. Suribachi, a 556-foot volcano in the Pacific Ocean. Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press war photographer, made a photograph of the scene that became an icon for all time. In less than twenty-four hours, his picture was seen worldwide and the tiny, volcanic island, a place nobody knew, became a place nobody would forget.

This book tells the story of that picture, made on February 23, 1945, the fifth day of the U.S. Marine invasion of Iwo Jima, one of World War II’s most ferocious battles and the bloodiest in Marine Corps history.

The battle continued on Iwo for weeks after Rosenthal’s shutter froze the flag-raising scene and memorialized American valor and victory. The picture represents more than a brief instant on a faraway island; it symbolizes the nation’s belief in its mission at mid-twentieth century. It is the most famous photo of World War II and the most published photo of all time.

The stories of the Iwo Jima battle, of the man who made the photo, how he made it, and how the photo changed his life and the lives of many others are part of the picture’s story, as interwoven as the threads of a fine fabric. It is a story told over six decades of the American experience and the picture has survived trials and tribulations, its message everlasting.

Other books have been written about this most violent of Pacific War battles, but none combine words and as many pictures in a personal, eyewitness, belly-to-belly report of those days in February and March 1945. Many of the pictures in this book were made by Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of the flag raising. It also includes photos by Marine, Coast Guard, and Navy photographers, made as Americans literally inched their way across a 4-and-a-half-mile-long island in thirty-six days of fiery hell and thirty-six nights of constant vigilance against infiltrators, surprise attacks, and hand grenades thrown from the shadows.

Other photographers were on Suribachi when the flag went up, and their pictures are in this book, too, including pictures of the first flag raised on the volcano summit. Each of all the photos adds its small sliver of insight to the whole.

No single person’s experience captures the full dimension of the Iwo Jima story, and so included in this book are quotes gathered from interviews, oral histories, battle reports, and citations from several archives.

Dispatches of war correspondents are also included that, in the spare, documentary style of the mid-1940s, reported the war in newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts. They are printed as exact language of the original to capture the flavor of the times and provide insight into how the home front came to know the battle.

Words and pictures offer a mosaic of the conflict lived by the individuals caught in the battle’s fury. It is the stuff of midnight terrors but not without the bizarre humor of warriors who laugh at death so that they will not be fearful of death.

All together Rosenthal made sixty-five pictures on Iwo Jima, but only four of them were pictures of the flag raising. “You had to conserve film,” he says, “you never knew when your next shipment of supplies would catch up.” He used a film pack, a device that held twelve 4 ¥ 5–inch sheets of film in a single film holder. Frame Number 10 captured the flag-raising picture, followed by a second picture of Marines holding the flag pole in place and a final photo that he calls his Gung Ho picture — a shot of Marines cheering and waving beneath the newly raised flag.

Joe Rosenthal is painfully modest and will tell you that he is no hero. He rarely mentions — and then only when questioned — that he also covered the Marine assaults on Guam, Peleliu, and Anguar. Iwo Jima was the fourth deadly beach he faced.

Marines who crawled through Iwo’s black sands with Rosenthal will also tell you they are not heroes. All the heroes, they say, died on Iwo Jima, many sacrificing their lives to save their fellow Marines. So great was the valor, that twenty-seven Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery, were awarded to those, living and dead, who fought on the island. Medal of Honor stories, taken from the official citations, are included in this book and document in great specificity the selfless courage of so many who fought on Iwo.

Iwo Jima was mostly unknown before the 1940s. History, however, takes twists and turns, and by late 1944, World War II moved relentlessly toward the tiny volcanic island. Japanese strategy was to annihilate attacking U.S. forces and retain control of Iwo’s vital airfields, but in his heart the Japanese general in command knew he would never leave the island alive.

Tens of thousands died or were wounded after the flag was raised and the fight concluded. Three of the flag raisers fell to enemy fire and never saw the picture; a fourth was seriously wounded. Bill Genaust, who made a motion picture of the flag raising, was also killed; he never saw his famous film. Four Marines from the forty man platoon that climbed and secured Mt. Suribachi that February morning left Iwo unhurt.

This book recounts, in words and pictures, a story that put a Japanese enemy who knew he was destined to die against a U.S. Marine invader who knew he was destined to prevail. The cost in blood was staggering, claiming nearly 7,000 American lives and 21,000 wounded. More than 20,000 Japanese perished. Iwo was and remains the costliest battle in Marine Corps history and ranks with Gettysburg and Normandy in terms of bloodshed.

Why Iwo Jima? Why did two armies comprised of 100,000 warriors collide on this eight square miles of volcanic rock nearly unseen on the world’s largest ocean, a miniscule speck of land that the Japanese themselves described as “an island of sulphur springs, with no water, no sparrows, no swallows.” Why did Iwo Jima figure so prominently in the closing days of the world’s greatest conflict?

Both sides perceived Iwo Jima as vital to their strategies. For the Americans, it was a key stepping-stone on the road to Tokyo. For the Japanese, it was a key defensive outpost on the edge of the inner circle of the homeland defense. Iwo Jima was two sides of the same coin.

Japan took a special interest in Iwo immediately after the fall of Saipan in June 1944. Iwo became a base for Japanese fighters and bombers that harassed American naval forces, and attacked the airfield homes of U.S. bombers that rained devastating destruction on the Japanese industrial machine. Iwo, actually a part of Tokyo, would be the first Japanese soil to face foreign invasion. It was the early warning system that alerted the home islands to oncoming bombers that passed far overhead en route to Tokyo and Osaka and other major centers. Allied forces had to be stopped at Iwo.

The Americans needed Iwo’s airfields for its fighter aircraft that would protect bombers over Japan, fighters that could not make the round trip from other island airfields to the Japanese home islands. Iwo would become a safe house for U.S. bombers crippled on their missions, bombers and crew otherwise lost at sea. More than two thousand actually landed at Iwo once it was secure. The Japanese early warning system would be eliminated, giving bombers a greater element of surprise. Conquest of Iwo would be a major morale blow against the enemy because it was a home island of Japan, a nation that had never known a foreign conqueror.

Excerpted from “Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue” by Hal Buell. Copyright © 2006, Hal Buell. All rights reserved. Published by Berkley, a division of Penguin Group (USA). No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.