Seventy-two years ago yesterday–on February 23, 1945–perhaps the most famous war photograph in history was taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. It ended up becoming the first photo to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year in which it was taken. But it symbolizes today, not the photographic or journalistic abilities of Joe Rosenthal, but the tenacity and persistence of the American Spirit.
That photo of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima–and the memorial statue in Washington, D.C., that is based on that photo–represents not only the U.S. Marine Corps but also American military resolve.
But many people don’t know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have said. They think that once the flag was raised, the battle was over. Far from it.
The battle, which had begun when the first marines rushed ashore on February 19, was not over until the island was declared secured on March 16. In fact, another lesser known photo was taken moments after the now-famous Rosenthal photo, and it shows marines with their M-1 carbines ready to defend themselves because the flag raisers had just come under enemy fire.
No, the raising of the flag was not the end of the battle. That would not occur until after 6,851 Americans had made the supreme sacrifice and another 20,000 were wounded. The Japanese, too, fell to the tune of 18,000 killed. Only 216 of them were captured.
The Battle of Iwo Jima resulted in the awarding of more medals of honor than during any other single battle in American history. Twenty-two marines and five sailors earned that distinguished honor, thirteen of them posthumously.
In describing the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Today, the Battle of Iwo Jima remains the Marine Corps standard of valor and service to one’s country, the measuring stick for how battles should be fought if they are to be won.
The surviving veterans of Iwo Jima, like all veterans of World War II, are fast disappearing from the scene. They deserve our honor, acclaim, and expressions of sincere appreciation today while they are still among us. And their determination and resolve to fight on against overwhelming odds and a tenacious and fanatical enemy deserve our emulation as our nation once again faces similarly fanatical enemies today.