The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and came to be regarded in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time.
Of the six men depicted in the picture, three (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, and Michael Strank) were killed during the battle; the three survivors (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) became celebrities upon their identification in the photo. The picture was later used by Felix de Weldon to sculpt the Marine Corps War Memorial, located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C.
On February 19, 1945, as part of their island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan, the United States invaded Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was originally not a target, but the relatively quick fall of the Philippines left the Americans with a longer-than-expected lull prior to the planned invasion of Okinawa. Iwo Jima is located half-way between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station, radioing warnings of incoming American bombers to the Japanese homeland. The Americans, after capturing the island, deprived the Japanese of their early warning system, and used it as an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers, saving many American lives.
Iwo Jima is a volcanic island, shaped like a trapezoid. Marines on the island described it as "a gray pork chop". The island was heavily fortified, and the invading United States Marines suffered high casualties. The island is dominated by Mount Suribachi, a 546-foot (166 m) dormant volcanic cone situated on the southern tip of the island. Politically, the island is part of the prefecture of Tokyo. It would be the first Japanese homeland soil to be captured by the Americans, and it was a matter of honor for the Japanese to prevent its capture.
Tactically, the top of Suribachi is one of the most important locations on the island. From that vantage point, the Japanese defenders were able to accurately spot artillery onto the Americans - particularly the landing beaches. The Japanese fought most of the battle from underground bunkers and pillboxes. It was common for Marines to knock out one pillbox using grenades or a flamethrower, only to have it begin shooting again a few minutes later after more Japanese infantry slipped into the pillbox using a tunnel. The American effort concentrated on isolating and capturing Suribachi first, a goal that was achieved on February 23, 1945, four days after the battle began. Despite capturing Suribachi, the battle continued to rage for many days, and the island would not be declared "secure" until 31 days later, on the 26th of March.
The famous picture taken by Rosenthal actually captured the second flag-raising event of the day. A U.S. flag was first raised atop Suribachi soon after it was captured early in the morning (around 10:20) of February 23, 1945. Captain Dave Severance was ordered by 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson to send a platoon to go take the mountain. Severance, the commander of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division), ordered First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier to lead the patrol. Just before Schrier was to head up the mountain Commander Chandler Johnson handed him a flag saying, "if you get to the top put it up." Johnson's adjutant, second lieutenant Greeley Wells, had taken the 54-by-28-inch (140-by-71-centimeter) American flag from their transport ship, the USS Missoula (APA-211). The patrol reached the top without incident and the flag was raised, and photographed by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a photographer with Leatherneck magazine. Others present at this first flag raising included Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sergeant Henry O. "Hank" Hansen, Private Gene Marshall (sometimes disputed as Raymond Jacobs), and Private First Class James Michels. This flag was too small, however, to be seen easily from the nearby landing beaches.
The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, had decided the previous night that he wanted to go ashore and witness the final stage of the fight for the mountain. Now, under a stern commitment to take orders from Howlin' Mad Smith, the secretary was churning ashore in the company of the blunt, earthy general. Their boat touched the beach just after the flag went up, and the mood among the high command turned jubilant. Gazing upward, at the red, white, and blue speck, Forrestal remarked to Smith: "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."
Forrestal was so taken with fervor of the moment that he decided he wanted the Suribachi flag as a souvenir. The news of this wish did not sit well with 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson, whose temperament was every bit as fiery as Howlin Mad's. 'To hell with that!' the colonel spat when the message reached him. The flag belonged to the battalion, as far as Johnson was concerned. He decided to secure it as soon as possible, and dispatched his assistant operations officer, Lieutenant Ted Tuttle, to the beach to scare up a replacement flag. As an afterthought, Johnson called after Tuttle "And make it a bigger one."
The roar of the Marines on the islands and ship horns blasting away alerted the Japanese who up to this point had stayed in their cave bunkers. The Americans quickly found themselves under fire from Japanese troops but were able to quickly eliminate the threat with the only casualty being Lowery's camera.
Meanwhile, according to the official Marine Corps history, Tuttle had found a larger (96-by-56 inch) flag in nearby Tank Landing Ship LST 779, made his way back to the command post, and given it to Johnson. Johnson, in turn, gave it to Gagnon with orders to take it back up Suribachi and raise it. The official Marine Corps history of the event is that Tuttle received the flag from Ensign Alan Wood of LST 779, who in turn had received the flag from a supply depot in Pearl Harbor. However, the Coast Guard Historian's Office supports claims made by Robert Resnick, who served aboard LST 758. "Before he died in November 2004, Resnick said Gagnon came aboard LST-758 the morning of February 23 looking for a flag. Resnick said he grabbed one from a bunting box and asked permission from commanding officer Lt. Felix Molenda to donate it. Resnick kept quiet about his participation until 2001." The flag itself was sewn by Mabel Sauvageau, a worker at the "flag loft" of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
The Marines reached the top of the mountain around noon, where Gagnon joined them. Despite the large numbers of Japanese troops in the immediate vicinity, the 40-man patrol made it to the top of the mountain without being fired on once, as the Japanese were under bombardment at the time.
Rosenthal, along with Marine photographers Bob Campbell and Bill Genaust (who was killed in action nine days after the flag raising) was climbing Suribachi at this time. On the way up, the trio met Lowery (the man who photographed the first flag raising). They had been considering turning around, but Lowery told them that the summit was an excellent vantage point from which to take pictures.
Rosenthal's trio reached the summit as the Marines were attaching the flag to an old Japanese water pipe. Rosenthal put down his Speed Graphic camera (which was set to 1/400th of a second shutter speed, with the f-stop between 8 and 16) on the ground so he could pile rocks to stand on for a better vantage point. In doing so, he nearly missed the shot. Along with Navy Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John H. Bradley, the five Marines began raising the U. S. flag. Realizing he was about to miss it, Rosenthal quickly swung his camera up and snapped the photograph without using the viewfinder. Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote:
Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don't come away saying you got a great shot. You don't know.
Bill Genaust, who was standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Rosenthal about thirty yards from the flag raising, was shooting motion-picture film during the flag-raising. His film captures the flag raising at an almost-identical angle to Rosenthal's famous shot.
In late 1946, Ira Hayes broke his silence and revealed that Harlon Block had been misidentified as Hank Hansen.
John Bradley, who temporarily needed crutches following the battle due to shrapnel injuries, appearing next to a poster for the 7th War bond drive.
Of the six men pictured — Michael Strank, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, and Harlon Block — only three (Hayes, Gagnon, and Bradley) survived the battle. Strank was killed six days after the flag raising when a shell, likely fired from an offshore American destroyer, tore his heart out; Block was killed by a mortar a few hours after Strank; Sousley — the last of the flag-raisers to succumb in the battle — was shot and killed by a sniper on March 21, a few days before the island was declared secure