Iwo was perhaps the worst battle Marines ever fought. Some 60,000 of them in three divisions went ashore and 23,000 were killed or wounded. Of the 22,000 Japanese defending the place (they called it "Death Island"), 21,000 died. But when it was over we were hundreds of miles closer to Tokyo and ending the war.
I was actually there once, six years after the battle, during a refueling stop en route to join the First Marine Division up in North Korea in November of '51 as a replacement. So I knew how it looked. And smelled. How the wind blew. How small it was, less than half the size of Manhattan Island. And what Mount Suribachi looked like, that low hill where they raised the famous flag.
But you couldn't know what it was like during those five weeks of primitive, savage battle. No one could. Without having been there then.
So the Marine Corps put me in touch with some Marines who'd fought on Iwo and one of them came up with a Navy nurse who'd flown in and back out with wounded four times under fire. One of the Marines I talked to was a former Chicago fireman who was wounded three times and had the Medal of Honor. Another was the company commander whose men heaved on that long iron pole or pipe that they used to raise the flag in the photo.
Those men are dead now, three killed on Iwo, the other three dying later on, back in the States. One of those still with us is the AP man who shot the picture. Parade flew him into New York to tell me about the photo and to clear up confusion about why there were two flags.
Joe Rosenthal is now 83 years old, a short, stocky man using a cane, and when we met at 11 in the morning at the Dorset Hotel in the bar that used to be Howard Cosell's hangout, to talk about how it happened that Rosenthal shot the most famous war photo in American history, Joe delighted me by ordering a Scotch.
He lives in San Francisco and has a little eye trouble but there's nothing wrong with his steel-trap memory.
"I was classified 4F (medical rejection in the wartime military draft) because of my eyes. I had to wear glasses to take pictures." He got into the newspaper business as an officeboy working for Scripps-Howard in San Francisco and when Pearl Harbor was attacked he wangled his way into a correspondent's job for the War Shipping Board. Later, as the Pacific war raged, he was told by a pal, "Joe, AP needs a photographer in the Pacific." "I said, `Hold the phone!' and resigned from the Maritime Service. This was the start of 1944."
By the time Iwo came along, Joe had already been from Guadalcanal to New Guinea, "the world's worst spot, what it does to film and whatnot," and to cover our assault on Guam ("I made the D-Day landing there") and spent 12 days photographing the battle on Peleliu. Here's a guy with bad eyes in his 30s and he's attending wars. At the Iwo briefing Joe was assigned to a reserve unit but talked his way into the 23rd regiment of the 4th Marine Division.
"There was a very turbulent surf," he remembers, "plus accurate artillery that was catching our landing craft and amtraks. We kept circling around offshore. It was drizzling, San Francisco-type weather, light rain and mist. Our boat got in about noon. Once I got ashore I could go wherever I wanted. I wore a helmet and had canteens and a first-aid kit and knife."
Those first few days Joe shuttled back and forth between the beachhead and his ship, taking film back out each day. "I had deadlines. I knew a float plane would go around 5 p.m. from the command ship and fly (the film) to Guam. I had a Hermes typewriter and I'd type out four copies of my captions."
The scaling under fire of Mount Suribachi took place Feb. 23, the fifth day of battle. "On the third day on the command ship I learned about a big fight for Suribachi. We couldn't land the fourth day.*.*.bad surf. On the fifth day in a small boat I heard the bosun say, `I hear they're going up Suribachi with a flag.' I knew I was late. It had quieted down on the slopes of Suribachi but there was lots of firing below and explosions. I went up with two Marine photographer friends who were armed. Photographer Lou Lowery said, `Hey, you fellows are late. But there's a hell of a view up there.'
"As I got to the top [the `mountain' is only 550 feet tall]," Joe told me, "I could see this little flag and then a big flag and a pole, maybe 20 feet long. Even to this day I get a thrill. It was our flag! I could see three Marines, one with the flag folded, the other two doing something with the pole. `What's doing, fellows?' I asked. `Oh, the colonel wants a larger flag.' I knew it would be a simultaneous change, so there would always be one flag flying. I thought I could get both flags with one shot. I walked around looking at angles. My idea was just to get a flag going up ... our flag. I backed off 35 feet and stood on a couple of old Japanese sandbags and some rocks. A Marine photographer was taking movies and got in the way. Then I took the shot. Using a Speed Graphic with a holder, a film pack with 12 shots. That was No. 10, I think."
Rosenthal never again saw three of the men who raised the flag and didn't see the others, those who survived the fighting, until years later when a monument based on his photo was dedicated.
And did Joe earn royalties on one of the most frequently reproduced photos ever?
"No," he said. "I got a raise in pay for my Iwo D-Day shots which got there first and I certainly didn't expect another raise within five days." But he did receive from AP a bonus of a year's salary in war bonds. And how much was his salary in 1945 in combat, under fire?
"I was making $4,200 a year then," Joe Rosenthal told me.