Published February 19, 2009
Back in the spring of 2001, Senior Executive Producer Pamela Browne and I were producing the pilot episode of "War Stories with Oliver North." It was about the Marines at Iwo Jima. One of the veterans I had the pleasure of meeting during the production was Greeley Wells. I will never forget him. I was mesmerized as he told the story of how as a young Marine he came to carry ashore a flag that flew on top of Mount Suribachi.
On the morning of February 23, 1945, Navy planes napalmed Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima's highest point. Down below, Colonel Chandler Johnson ordered a 40-man combat patrol, including Marine photographer Lou Lowery, up the volcano's slopes.
The late Greeley Wells remembered being Colonel Johnson's Adjutant: "I didn't know anything about being an Adjutant. I read the manual. In the very end it said the Adjutant carries the flag. Somebody said, 'Why the flag?' And I said, 'I don't know, but I'll have it if you need it.'"
And indeed he had it when Colonel Johnson turned to him and said, "Wells, have you got the flag?"
• Catch the 'War Stories Classic: Iwo Jima,' Monday, February 23 at 3 a.m. ET
The patrol attached the flag using water pipe that they found. At 10:20 a.m., the stars and stripes flew over Japanese territory for the first time in history. Lowery snapped several photos. Everyone cheered. "It was just noise — whistles toots and shouts and cheering," recalled Donald Mates. "Just to see Old Glory flying there was just marvelous."
But Colonel Johnson was not satisfied. He wanted a bigger flag to be flown on top of Mount Suribachi. From Easy Company he sent Rene Gagnon to carry a flag up the mountain that measured 96 by 56 inches. Also ordered up the mountain from Easy Company were Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, and Franklin Sousley. They were tasked with setting up a communications post.
The Marines of Easy Company had been fighting for four days and had a 40 percent casualty rate. Joining them were Marine photographer Bob Campbell, Bill Genaust, who had a movie camera, and civilian photographer Joe Rosenthal. Colonel Johnson still wanted pictures.
The five Marines from Easy Company wrestled with a pole that weighed more than 150 pounds. Navy Corpsman John "Doc" Bradley pitched in, "I saw some guys struggling with a pole and I just jumped in to lend them a hand. It's as simple as that."
"Joe Rosenthal was dealing with a large, bulky, speed graphic camera and he was stacking sand bags trying to get set and all of the sudden in the distance the flag started to go up," James Bradley, the author of "Flags of our Fathers," and son of "Doc" Bradley said. "The guy next to him — Bill Genaust — said, 'There it goes Joe.' Joe grabbed his camera and when he thought it was at the peak of the action he clicked. It was like getting Michael Jordan in mid-air."
Rosenthal was unsure if he got the shot. Bradley explained:
"So he asked a lieutenant after the flag was up, 'Could you pose some guys underneath that?' So 18 guys posed in a photo that I call a 'gung ho' photo and they're waving to the camera. And Joe thinks he has got this great shot for the hometown folks. Well, a couple of days later the AP wires him — and remember this is 1945. It isn't like the Internet where Joe is going to see his shot. They say, 'Congratulations on the great photo Joe. Joe, did you pose it?' And Joe said, 'Yes, of course' — thinking of the 'gung ho' photo. But there begins the myth, the myth that the flag-raising was posed."
Rosenthal tried to clear up the confusion: "None of us made any effort to set it up. It's not a set-up picture. I had nothing to do with the location that the pole was placed. I did not give a signal as to when it would go up."
The photograph Rosenthal captured in 1/400th of a second became a snapshot of America in 1945. Millions of Americans remembered exactly where they were when they first saw the photo. The flag-raisers inspired hope and victory.
Sculptor Felix de Weldon was inspired to create the world's tallest bronze statue of the six men who raised the flag. His work of art was unveiled in Washington on November 10, 1954, when it became the Marine Corps War Memorial. President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the monument. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: "In honor and in memory of the men of the United States Marine Corps who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775." Also inscribed on the base is a quote from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima: "Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue."
Joe Rosenthal's immortal photograph won the Pulitzer Prize and became what may be the most recognized and reproduced image in history.
— Cyd Upson is a senior producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"