Joe Rosenthal missed the first flag-raising, but he trudged up Mount Suribachi anyway in hopes of seeing his country's banner fly over the craggy heap of fresh death and smoking metal that was Iwo Jima. When he saw a group of Marines struggling to raise a second flag atop a length of heavy drainage pipe, he brought his trusty Speed Graphic to his face and popped off a few shots. A few minutes later he made his way down to the landing beaches below, unaware he'd just captured an image that would galvanize a nation, solidify the Marine Corps' future and demonstrate the irrefutable power of the frozen image.
It would be days before the diminutive AP photographer would get a look at the spontaneous shot of five Marines and one Navy medic thrusting the flag into Suribachi's crest. By then much of America was already enthralled with the picture, a bloodless symbol of Allied victory over a formidable menace. With the battle still raging on Iwo Jima, Joe could hardly fathom that his photograph would come to symbolize American might, that it would soon be the most reproduced image of its time, that his country's government would seize upon the photo with jingoistic lust, deftly using it to sell War Bonds and help finance the dark days of battle ahead. No, as far as Joe knew, he was just taking pictures.
Of the six men who placed hands on that makeshift flag pole, three were killed in the following days. Rosenthal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Iwo Jima shot, would go on to live an unassuming life before dying peacefully at the age of 94. With his passing, so goes another member of the Greatest Generation. But his most famous frame lives on, an instant masterpiece that was used to forge peace, pain and propaganda. In today's 24/7 disposable news-cycle, even an iconic shot as Rosenthal's wouldn't capture the imagination of the masses quite the way it did during World War Two. Within minutes of publication, pundits and gadflies alike would rip apart the image's implications and question the motives of the photog behind the shot. Luckily, that wasn't the case back then and the work of one lone soul with a camera helped change the world for the better. Rest in Peace, Joe Rosenthal.
(For the full story of Rosenthal, Mount Suribachi and 'The Photograph' - read James Bradley's most excellent tome, Flags of our Fathers - soon to be released as a feature film.)