The second flag was so much more photogenic
February 23, 2015 1:19 PM   Subscribe

The Story Behind the Most Famous Picture from World War II A story told with lots of photos and a little writing.
posted by Michele in California (29 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Nice short piece with lots of visuals - which you need for this king of article. I don't recall seeing the video footage before - what a bonus.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 1:41 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

FWIW: Pretty much every account of the story of that picture that I have ever heard or read (since childhood) included the detail that the famous photo was in fact the second flag.

That doesn't make this article any less worth reading. It's just something that always made this whole story stand out for me.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:55 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

That's a nice article. I like this story and this is a good way to tell it. It's indeed the kind of thing where good pictures and well written words tell the story best.

Charles W. Lindberg, one of the men who raised the first flag, spoke at my wife's commissioning into the US Army in Collegeville, MN in August 1999 and it was the best speech I've ever seen live. I have seen MANY military, commencement, funeral, political, and other speeches live. He was a great speaker and so proud of being a part of history. He made it well known to us that his group was first but he wasn't mean-spirited about it at all. The speech was touching and not rah rah war or end all war in tone.

I can't remember his exact words, but I can remember the feeling of listening to him. Of course that was 1999 and I was 23, so many things were different about me and the Army at the time but I think I'd feel about the same if I could hear him speak today. He got his last flag and speech in 2007 though.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 1:57 PM on February 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

I grew up in a conservative part of the south and went to public schools, and was taught that pretty much all American history happened before Vietnam (we mysteriously ended our courses around then) and I was definitely never told about the second flag...I found out when I watched the Eastwood film.
posted by trackofalljades at 2:04 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

The article oddly makes it sound like the photographer of the first flag was cheated somehow. In every way except chronicity, the 2nd photo is better. It's undeniably a masterpiece of composition, and the fact that it was taken on impulse without even composing in the viewfinder points to the mastery of the artist.

The brave marine who took that first photo did well enough in life, I would say. Even if Tony di Roma also painted the Mona Lisa, Leo from Venice did it better.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:13 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Huh. Yeah, going to an elementary school in Phoenix in the '80s, I used to check out the WW II books from the school library (in my defense, it was a terrible library), and so I knew about that detail from the beginning and always looked for it whenever I saw the story so I could show what a smarty-pants I was. Turns out my pants were not so smart.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:15 PM on February 23, 2015

Nice post. My father breifly knew Joe Rodriquez. Never talked about "it".

The Guardian has an interesting photo.
posted by clavdivs at 2:43 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

My mom grew up in the same small town as John Bradley. When my grandma died, her funeral was at the Bradley funeral home, which, iirc, had a little statue of the second flag raising.
posted by drezdn at 3:38 PM on February 23, 2015

When I read the front page I actually thought this was going to be about raising the flag over the Reichstag. The famous photo was supposedly staged the day after they actually took the Reichstag and edited because one of the soldiers had multiple watches on his wrist.
posted by pravit at 3:47 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Calling that the most famous photo of WWII is very subjective.
posted by sety at 4:17 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I came to second that sentiment. I cringed when I read the title, just knowing it was going to be an american photo (i'm american).
I too have seen this story so many times that it seems like it's become more famous recently than the photo itself.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:20 PM on February 23, 2015

Man, was I the only person who was cracked up by the ridiculous "sponsored content" that mimicked the style of the article and was interspersed?
Storming The Beach
The Navy bombarded Iwo Jima for three days before the first wave of Marines was sent in to storm the beaches. Japan had 22,000 men stationed on the island, and they were well-prepared for attack. They spent the weeks leading up to the battle digging tunnels, erecting fortifications, and setting up artillery.


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It was a tough fight, but as the day wore on the Marines managed to gain a foothold on the beach. They progressed slowly toward the interior of the island, under heavy fire the entire time.

Taking The Mountain
The Marines from the 3rd Platoon of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment of the 5th Division took the island's highest peak, 550-foot high Mount Suribachi, on Feb. 23. Here, they would plant their flag for all the Japanese (and the world) to see.


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posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:23 PM on February 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Part of the reason that photo resonates, and continues to resonate, is the undercurrent provided by "The Ballad of Ira Hayes".

That song, and multiple covers of it, bring that photo back to the fore of consciousness.

That song, and the covers of it, don't just recall that photo--one event in the Pacific Theater of WWII. It also brings to mind American hypocrisy regarding "freedom" and Native American peoples. Thus, two major narratives in the USA consciousness are tied together, and reinforce each other in a weird, syncretic feedback loop.

That, and it's one hell of a photo. Having seen the video of how fast it went from horizontal to vertical, that photographer had to have been very, very skilled to even have the chance to be that lucky.
posted by notsnot at 4:53 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I could think of a few other candidates for most famous WWII photo...

V-J Day in Times Square
Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki
Thousand Yard Stare
This photo of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising
Raising the Flag over the Reichstag, as mentioned above
Various Holocaust photos
Churchill and Tommy Gun
Photo of Anne Frank

But yes, I would wonder what photos non-Americans would consider the most famous WWII photos?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 4:54 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was thought this one was iconic.
posted by clavdivs at 5:28 PM on February 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Man, was I the only person who was cracked up by the ridiculous "sponsored content" that mimicked the style of the article and was interspersed?

Yeah, that interspersing belongs to the Iraq war.
posted by srboisvert at 6:33 PM on February 23, 2015

clavdivs, I have never seen that before. Amazing!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:51 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend watching "Red Blood, Black Sand" for, if nothing else, the interviews with survivors of Iwo, though I think it gives a great overview of the fight as well.

I have not read the book of the same name, but I imagine it is as good or better than the video.

Also, it's a shame that the first flag has been lost. And perhaps it's a bit unfair to focus on just one individual soldier, but I gotta mention John Basilone.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 6:54 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not American, and I'd be comfortable calling the Iwo Jima photo the most famous of the war - possibly I'd argue for the mushroom cloud instead. I've never seen half the ones Noisy Pink Bubbles posted.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:03 PM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

A few more:

Hitler in Paris
The USS Arizona
The Dancing Man (V-J Day in Sydney)
Leonard Siffleet (scroll to end)
Soldier in Saipan holds baby

Or one of the photos of the executed Mussolini in Milan.

I'm fine as a non-American with calling the Iwo Jima photo one of the most famous images, but for me the photos of concentration camp survivors, the mushroom clouds and the A-bomb victims are the defining photographs of the war.
posted by rory at 5:59 AM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Calling that the most famous photo of WWII is very subjective.

I asked my wife (a woman of strong Euro-centric sensibilities) to name the most iconic WWII pic and sure enough: Iwo Jima.

I called up World War II (and World War Two) on google images and the picture in question got two instances on the first line alone. There were no other double images. YMMV.

The thing is, despite the millions of pictures taken between 1939-1945, nothing really pips this one. Mushroom cloud pictures are dime a dozen and hardly distinguishable, and other shots of other aspects of the war tend to be either generic or easily replaced. Others may be more moving, or inspiring, or dismaying, but more famous? Subjectively, I don't think so.

(On the other hand, I also looked up Spanish Civil War expecting this to appear above the fold. It did not. I had to go rather far down to find it, and that only after a bunch of unfamiliar shots.)
posted by BWA at 8:05 AM on February 24, 2015

Pretty much every account of the story of that picture that I have ever heard or read (since childhood) included the detail that the famous photo was in fact the second flag.

I've mentioned this before, but...First I heard of the 2nd flag was from a neighbor who was a medic on Iwo. Kind of funny, he never mentioned his service until later in life when I'd come home for leave and we'd swap stories.
I thought he was full of it. 2nd flag? Never heard of that.

And one day he just laid the whole thing out. Up to his elbows in blood. Literally wading through gore. Dragging an intestine that got caught in the tread of his boot.
Never said a thing about it when I was a kid doing his lawn. Not until I had my own war stories and could understand.

The symbolic significance of raising the flag, the defiance, the courage and sacrifice, all that, yeah.
But one more thing, these were not action movie heroes. Just guys.
At 18, 19 years old, guys with pictures of their high school sweethearts in their helmets died by the double handful. A company would go in, 250 more or less, and 25 would come home.
Brave young men, yes, but just young men.
And what so many people had seen, what he told me he saw, was the common American working together and braving horrible sacrifices together. Drawing strength to go on from each other and the arms extended in the picture were arms reaching out to help. To help each other, but too, for the sake of posterity.
We talk about the 2nd flag, but someone sewed it. Someone ordered it. The entire situation was crafted by a unified vision and an understanding of what was being done there and the sacrifices made to get there.

Forrestal when he saw the flag raised said: "The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years"
But, and the man next door told me this, only because the raising of that flag meant America stood together that day.
Staged? OF COURSE it was staged. But so was the entire war. It's a tribute to the people who died that it was staged. It was a symbol and a signal to the Marines fighting and dying on that grey chunk of dirt that it meant something and that their sacrifice would not be forgotten. That it was shared, and most importantly, felt.

I paraphrase, but in general, it's the wisdom he shared with me. I was much younger, full of piss and vinegar and pride at having done so much by myself. I was decorated like a birthday cake. I was hard as a coffin nail and more dangerous than a Honey Badger on PCP.

But he never talked of what he did. The medals he could have displayed.
The picture, the details, the controversy, none of that mattered. What mattered was the flag on top of the mountain showed that the sacrifices made weren't made in vain. That there was hope. And he felt honored to be a part of that. Regardless of any fame or medals that came from it.

Damn humbling. I thought I was pretty tough. His outfit had recieved four Medals of Honor. Not a one of them forgot all the other men those medals symbolized.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:06 AM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

My first reaction if asked to think of the most iconic picture of WWII would certainly be the Soviet flag over the Reichstag. Probably because I still have only the vaguest idea of where Iwo Jima is, so Allied victory flag in the heart of Nazi Germany makes a more durable impression than Allied victory flag somewhere in the Pacific.
posted by Azara at 10:50 AM on February 24, 2015

I haven't personally seen anything written about it -- I mean something analyzing why this picture? -- but I think part of the reason this particular picture is so famous is because it captures in a split second:

1) A group of soldiers working together at what is obviously a challenging task.
2) A sense of triumph that the pictures of the first flag lack.
3) IIRC, it is a group of mixed ethnicity, so it captures that sense of a greater goal bringing people together and overcoming their differences -- which was a theme of WWII.

I think it just has a lot of energy and a lot of symbolic value. I think my bullet points are "in a nutshell" and don't really do it justice. I think it is very much a picture worth a thousand words.
posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's an awesome photo, and I can somewhat understand why it resonates so profoundly with Americans, but growing up in a reasonably average Western European country, I got the impression that the war in the Pacific was a side show. I realise that this is an unjust view, but the photos in my history books were of the sunk and burning battleships in Pearl Harbour and the aftermath of the atomic bombs. The in-between stuff was rather neglected, as was the war in the Pacific before the American involvement(, when not discussing the circumstances that led to the to Mao Tse-tung coming into power). I learned a bit by playing an American sub commander in "Silent Service II" or by watching "War and Remembrance", but my understanding is superficial still and I consider myself a bit of a history nerd.

And yes, the photo of the taking of the Reichstag, the images from the liberation of the death camps, as well as the images of the horrific destruction caused by aerial bombardment, are images I believe are much more iconic to the Second World War for Europeans.

People with a more than casual interest in history will probably recognise the image from Iwo Jima, but I think few understands it significance for Americans.
posted by cx at 2:31 PM on February 24, 2015

Well, I grew up in the Pacific (mostly Australia), so obviously we focused a lot more on the war in the Pacific. The Reichstag photo is not something I remember seeing as a child.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:19 PM on February 24, 2015

cx: ...I got the impression that the war in the Pacific was a side show. I realise that this is an unjust view, but the photos in my history books were of the sunk and burning battleships in Pearl Harbour and the aftermath of the atomic bombs. The in-between stuff was rather neglected...
Substitute "Eastern Front" for "Pacific", and skip the photos - because there were none - and you've described most American's school exposure to the Soviet role in winning the war.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:19 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Half of the guys in the famous photo didn't make it off Iwo Jima. "Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Michael Strank, were killed in action over the next few days." The other guys, Marines Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and Navy Corpsman John Bradley, were all in Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne. Bradley also helped raise the first flag.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:47 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Other iconic WWII photos:
Aleksey Gordeyevich Yeremenko
The Last Jew of Vinnitsa
Fall of France
posted by kirkaracha at 9:56 PM on February 24, 2015

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