Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 23 February 1945

Iconic Photo raising the flag on Iwo Jima
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945 taken by Joe Rosenthal of AP News
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

World War Two was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in human history, with the United States having over 400,000 military deaths and spending 4 trillion dollars. Like many other countries during the war, the United States had to show the American public glowing victories to keep public support of the war high and to encourage contributions to the war effort, such as war bonds and the conservation of resources. 

A great example is the iconic photograph of soldiers raising a United States flag on Iwo Jima. Taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, it is credited for boosting morale during a critical part of the war and increasing war fundraising. But what was the battle behind the photo and what story does the photo tell? You’re about to find out here on History Colored!

Battle of Iwo Jima

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the US would immediately declare war and thrust itself into World War Two.  The Pacific Theatre was the main setting for battles between the Allied Forces and The Empire of Japan.  Iwo Jima was used by the Japanese to intercept American B-29 “Superfortresses”, a type of bomber plane. Although some contest its importance compared to the lives lost, this is seen as the main reason for its capture.

In the battle, the Japanese used the mountainous landscapes and jungles on the island as camouflage throughout the battle. Due to their defenses, they were barely affected by bombings and heavy gunfire. On February 19, 1945,  the US Marines landed on Iwo Jima, while the Japanese lied in wait. At first, the Marines failed to get a foothold and were bombarded with fire from the Japanese. Eventually, the US made progress on the island.

The famous photograph was taken on February 23, 1945, which pictures soldiers, Ira Hayes, Michael Strank, Harold Schultz, Franklin Sousley, Harold Keller, and Harlon Block lifting the flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi. While the photo looks triumphant, the battle raged on afterward. The Marines endured more banzai attacks and suffered nearly 7000 deaths, but on March 26, Iwo Jima would be declared secure.

Details and Controversies Surrounding the Photograph

As stated previously, the photo was taken a month before the battle ended, so there is a little bit of dishonesty in the framing since it could leave an impression of an easy victory. Many of the soldiers in the photo would even die during the bloody battle and the Battle of Iwo Jima would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles in World War 2. Some critique the photo and the government’s promotion of the photo as false hope due to this.

Many controversies were more about the photos’ contents. Joe Rosenthal had to fight back against accusations that the photo had been staged. According to former executive AP photo editor Hal Buell, “Joe spent the rest of his life defending what was alleged as a ‘phony picture,’”.

 Another controversy was the soldiers who raised the flag. When identifying the soldier, many of them were identified incorrectly. Navy Hospital Corpsman John Bradley and Marine Corps Sergeant Hank Hansen were incorrectly identified as flag raisers instead of Private First Class Harold Schultz and Corporal Harlon Block respectively. And until 2019, Corporal Harold Keller was mistaken for Corporal René Gagnon. 

The Legacy

The photo would be widely seen in many forms of media. It would be seen on the front page of papers, on a famous war bond poster that would raise $26 billion in 1945, would be seen on stamps, and there would also be a Marine Corps War Memorial made after the photo in 1954. It would also be the first to win the Pulitzer Prize the same year it was taken. 

The photograph of the stars and stripes waving on the battlefield inspires people to this very day. While the promotion or advertising of the photo could be misleading,  the original photograph shows the strength and resolve of all soldiers and gave the American public hope of a victory against Japan and the Axis powers. Just one picture truly has a massive effect on people.


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