The late photographer Joe Rosenthal recalls his Pulitzer Prize-winning image of United States Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima that would later be memorialized in a monument at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 February – 26 March 1945) was a major battle in which the U.S. Marines landed on and eventually captured the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The American invasion, designated Operation Detachment, had the goal of capturing the entire island, including the three Japanese-controlled airfields (including the South Field and the Central Field), to provide a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands. This five-week battle comprised some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the War in the Pacific of World War II.
After the heavy losses incurred in the battle, the strategic value of the island became controversial. It was useless to the U.S. Army as a staging base and useless to the U.S. Navy as a fleet base. However, Navy Seabees rebuilt the landing strips, which were used as emergency landing strips for USAAF B-29s.
The Imperial Japanese Army positions on the island were heavily fortified, with a dense network of bunkers, hidden artillery positions, and 18 km (11 mi) of underground tunnels. The Americans on the ground were supported by extensive naval artillery and complete air supremacy over Iwo Jima from the beginning of the battle by U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators.
Japanese combat deaths numbered three times the number of American deaths, although uniquely in the Pacific War, American total casualties (dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner, some of whom were captured because they had been knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled. The majority of the remainder were killed in action, although it has been estimated that as many as 3,000 continued to resist within the various cave systems for many days afterwards, eventually succumbing to their injuries or surrendering weeks later.
Despite the bloody fighting and severe casualties on both sides, the Japanese defeat was assured from the start. Overwhelming American superiority in arms and numbers as well as complete control of air power—coupled with the impossibility of Japanese retreat or reinforcement, along with sparse food and supplies—permitted no plausible circumstance in which the Americans could have lost the battle.
The battle is remembered primarily by Joe Rosenthal’s Associated Press photograph of the raising of the U.S. flag on top of the 169 m (554 ft) Mount Suribachi by five U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy combat corpsman. The photograph (and a color film by Marine Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust) records the second flag-raising on the mountain, both of which took place on the fifth day of the 36-day battle. Rosenthal’s photograph promptly became iconic—of that battle, of the Pacific War, and of the Marine Corps itself—and has been widely reproduced.