The Battle of Iwo Jima, the American invasion during World War II of a desolate volcanic island and one of the greatest battles of the Pacific campaign, was also one of the bloodiest in U.S. Marine history.
Beginning on February 19, 1945, 70,000 Marines fought an unknown number of deeply embedded Japanese defenders for five weeks; troops battling for the high ground atop Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano on the island, sustained over 25,000 losses; in fact, fully one-third of all Marines killed during World War II died fighting at Iwo Jima.
The defeat of the Japanese there provided an important foundation for our ultimate victory over Japan, and the battle became a symbol of the great sacrifices made by our fighting forces during the war.
According to the late Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the first Jewish Marine Corps chaplain assigned to the Fifth Marine Division at Iwo Jima, there were at least 150 Jewish dead and more than 400 Jews among the wounded.
In one particularly sad case, Gittelsohn tried getting a special Red Cross message to a Jewish Marine that his wife had given birth –but when he finally located him, he discovered the new father had just been killed in battle.
The raising of the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945 became the subject of what is widely considered the most iconic battle photograph of all time when Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal took the once-in-a-lifetime shot for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The American people embraced the photo as a compelling victory symbol. Wire services flashed it around the world, countless magazines ran it on its covers, and it was central to the monumentally successful 1945 War Bond drive that raised $26.3 billion.
Shown on this page is Rosenthal’s electrifying image of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi, which he has signed, adding “AP photographer, Iwo Jima, February 1945.”
Rosenthal was born in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Washington, D.C., but converted to Catholicism as a young man. His career in photojournalism began in San Francisco, where he was chief photographer and manager for Times Wide World Photos before it was taken over by the Associated Press. After – ironically – being rejected by both the U.S. Army and Navy as a photographer because of impaired eyesight, he joined the AP and followed the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of Operations as a kind of “embedded journalist.”
By 1945 he had already distinguished himself photographing military battles. Even before Iwo Jima there were few military men who had seen as much wartime action as Rosenthal: he was in a North Atlantic convoy of Liberty Ships under attack by German U-boats; in London during the Blitz; in the jungles of New Guinea with General MacArthur’s army; on several wartime ships in the South Pacific; in the cockpits with Navy pilots attacking Japanese controlled territory in the Philippines; and in the initial wave of beach landings while under fire in Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur.
On February 23, 1945, Rosenthal was making his daily trek to Iwo Jima on a Marine landing craft when he heard that a flag was being raised atop Mt. Suribachi, for which Marines had been battling since their initial landing on the island. About halfway up the mountain he met four descending Marines who advised him that the flag had already been raised at the summit. He nevertheless continued his ascent. It turned out the first flag had indeed been raised at 10:37 a.m. but shortly thereafter, for reasons still clouded in controversy, Marine commanders decided to replace it with a larger flag.Saul Jay Singer