One moment was picture perfect

Published Feb. 23, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

Ira Hayes got good and drunk one night 40 years ago and ended up freezing to death next to a pile of wood. Getting drunk was nothing new: It had gotten him arrested more than 50 times.

He was honored with an elaborate state funeral, his body on display in the Arizona capital rotunda like a fallen president. Thousands came to pay their respects.

Why would somebody picked up on skid row get such royal treatment?

Because Hayes helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima. He was the Marine on the far left in one of American history's most celebrated photographs.

He longed for anonymity. Instead he was lavished with attention, a ticker-tape parade, even a visit with the president. "I was about to crack up, thinking of those guys who were better men than me not coming back at all, much less to the White House," he said after an arrest on Chicago's skid row in 1953.

"I got hundreds of letters, and I got sick of hearing about the flag-raising and sometimes I wished that guy had never made the picture."

That guy was Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

The image he captured is so powerful that 50 years later, people who weren't even in the photo continue to define their lives by it.

Take Charles Lindberg. He's in the photo of the first flag raising. It was shot less than two hours before the small flag was taken down and the second flag was raised, the bigger one. The one in The Photo.

Lindberg has been consumed by explaining that the famous flag raising shot wasn't the only one.

"Over the years everybody says, "That's the picture,' " said Lindberg, who is 74 now and lives in Minnesota. "They say, "Oh, those gallant men.' It gets to you.

"I've talked about it for 50 years. I go to schools, clubs, Marine Corps balls. I tell them how it was done, how it was raised."

You can set the record straight, talk about other pictures, the other flag-raising. But there's just no getting around it:

When you talk about the most-recognized photos of all time, the split second Rosenthal captured is up there. Make it 1/400th of a second, to be exact.

"I swung my camera

and shot'

Of course, nobody has been more affected than the photographer himself.

Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize, and AP gave him an extra year's pay _ $4,200 in war bonds. You would think he could have lived happily ever after.

Instead, he has had to fend off the mistaken charge that his famous picture was staged. It's almost as if the photo is too perfect for it not to have been a setup. Stories about the earlier flag-raising that day have only helped build the myth.

Here's what happened:

U.S. Marines conquered the top of Mount Suribachi shortly before 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1945, despite heavy Japanese resistance. In an emotional burst, they found a small flag and hoisted it atop a broken pipe.

"The island came alive," said Lindberg, the corporal who helped raise that first flag. "The troops below cheered. The boats blew their whistles like mad. It was a proud moment."

Louis Lowery, a staff photographer for Leatherneck, a Marine magazine, had marched up the mountain, too. He captured the flag-raising on film.

He was injured by a Japanese attack and his camera was damaged, so he headed back down. As he struggled down the mountain, Lowery encountered Rosenthal, who was on his way up. The AP photographer was hoping to document the flag-raising.

Lowery told Rosenthal he had missed it. Rosenthal went up anyway.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Keller Rockey, who commanded the 5th Division, decided the original flag was too small. He ordered the troops to find a bigger one.

When Rosenthal got to the top, he saw Marines preparing the larger flag. It was 8 feet long and nearly 5 feet tall. They were going to fly it on a 150-pound pipe.

Rosenthal crouched near William Genaust, who was shooting 16mm color film. Moving footage that it turned out would help prove that Rosenthal did not pose the event. Television stations have used Genaust's footage to sign off for years.

"Out of the corner of my eye, as I had turned toward Genaust, I had seen the men start the flag up," Rosenthal wrote in a 1955 Collier's article. "I swung my camera and shot the scene."

Later, after the flag was raised, Rosenthal had a number of Marines pose in a traditional victory shot. Of the 65 photographs Rosenthal took on Iwo, that was the picture he figured would be sent back to America.

"How could a picture

be so great?'

Norm Hatch was the photo officer for the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima, which meant he coordinated all the photography coverage there. He remembers that the response to Rosenthal's picture was almost immediate.

"The first thing we heard about the picture was a radio broadcast," said Hatch. "We heard this business of this photo and how it had taken the country by storm. We didn't know what the hell it was.

"It was a picture. How could a picture be so great?"

Looking back, Hatch knows the answer to his own question.

"When you look at it from an artistic standpoint, you've got almost the perfect situation with the pole diagonally across the photo," Hatch said. "The guys are pushing. It shows movement in a still picture."

It would come to be featured on stamps, paintings, military recruiting advertisements, even recreated in bronze as a monument to the Marines in Arlington, Va.

Rosenthal, who is 83 and lives in San Francisco, had no inkling.

"I had no idea that it was a matter of being historic or that it would last for some time as a photo," he recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked for 35 years as a staff photographer after the war. "Rather, I saw it as representing a turning point in the battle."

The battle cost nearly 7,000 American lives; the flag-raising lifted the spirits of millions back home.

The outsider

Three of the six men in the photo never even made it off Iwo Jima. Pfc. Franklin R. Sousley of Kentucky, Cpl. Harlon H. Block of Texas and Sgt. Michael Strank of Pennsylvania all died in battle soon after the photo was taken.

The three who survived were pulled from the war and sent on a nationwide war bond-selling tour. Naval pharmacist John H. Bradley became a furniture dealer in Antigo, Wis., and died last year of a stroke. Rene Gagnon worked as a contractor in New Hampshire. He died in 1979.

The third survivor was Hayes, a Pima Indian who died an alcoholic on the Gila River Reservation near Phoenix. He was guilt-ridden because he felt other Marines deserved more credit than his simple good fortune of being in the famous photo.

His niece says he was raised to be humble. "If you're Indian and you do something great and you're a hero, you're never to go out and express it or use it like that," said Gloria Johnson.

"You're just you. You stay the same. He just maybe couldn't handle all the people. There were so many when he got home."

The reservation is home to the Ira Hayes Library, and every year celebrates with parades on Ira Hayes Recognition Day. "Everybody's still proud of him," Johnson said.

The only living survivor of either flag-raising photo is Lindberg, who helped raise the first flag.

Lowery, the photographer who captured the first raising, died in 1987. His widow, also consumed by the picture, has dedicated herself to ensuring that history recognizes her husband's efforts.

"It was his duty as a Marine to go up there and get a picture," said Doris Lowery, who lives in Springfield, Va. "We Americans secured this island, this is our flag. Nobody thought about the size of the flag. Nobody was thinking of a beautiful picture or the best picture. All they wanted to do was tell the whole world that they secured that island."

Mrs. Lowery said some military brass even considered ignoring the first flag-raising by tossing her husband's work.

"There was confusion when the pictures came out over what do we do with two flag-raisings," she said. "From what I understand they wanted to throw the first one out and pretend there wasn't a first one."

But even she recognizes why the first flag-raising has become a footnote:

Rosenthal's photograph was just too good.

_ Information from the Arizona Republic was used in this report.