On February 23, 1945, a photograph was taken of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag on the highest point of Iwo Jima. You’ve likely seen the photo, but have you really seen the men in the picture? Do you know their identities? Their stories? Until recently, most of the world didn’t. Join us as we honor the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima and shine a spotlight on the little-known story behind this iconic wartime photograph.
The End of World War II
During the final year of WWII, America found itself fighting on two fronts. While Allied forces were slowly moving across Europe, there was also a struggle to gain the upper hand in the Pacific. Invading mainland Japan was too risky without air support. With Iwo Jima, a Japanese stronghold less than 700 miles away from Tokyo, the island was a strategic location to capture.
Heavily fortified with artillery posts, reinforced bunkers, and a network of an estimated 11 miles of tunnels, the island of Iwo Jima was well-positioned for a fight. The battle for Iwo Jima became one of the longest and bloodiest of the war. For five weeks, American ground troops inched their way to victory. This hard-fought battle helped U.S. forces to seize control of the airspace over the Pacific. To celebrate, six U.S. Marines raised the Stars and Stripes on the highest peak of Iwo Jima, and the photographer Joseph Rosenthal was there to capture the moment.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima Symbolism
When Rosenthal sent the photo of the Iwo Jima flag raisers back to the U.S., it became an immediate sensation. From covers of magazines to the front page of every newspaper, the photo spread far and wide to rally support for the war. This inspirational photo was so powerful that it is credited for raising $24 billion in war bonds.
The “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph is the most recognizable image from WWII and is widely considered one of the most influential photos ever taken. It is the only photograph ever to win a Pulitzer Prize the same year it was published. In 1954, the six men were immortalized in a statue, the Marine Corps War Memorial, which was built to honor all Marines who have served our country since 1775.
Who Raised the Flag at Iwo Jima?
As well-known as this photograph is, the identities of these six men have been shrouded in controversy. Identities were muddled because there were actually two flag raisings. The first flag placed on the peak was too small for the troops to see from down below, and the second, larger flag—the one in Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo—was raised about an hour later.
Thanks to amateur historians and the cross-analysis of photos and videos taken in Iwo Jima, we now know the following men to be the true six soldiers in this historical photo: Cpl. Harlon Block, Pfc. Ira Hayes, Pfc. Harold Keller, Pfc. Harold Schultz, Pfc. Franklin Sousley, and Sgt. Michael Strank.
But it wasn’t until recently that all six men were correctly identified. An accurate list of flag raisers took decades to compile accurately.
In response to early claims that flag raisers were incorrectly identified, the Marines conducted an investigation in 1946 that found that the man pictured in the far right of the photograph was Cpl. Harlon Block, not Sgt. Henry Hansen.
An additional investigation in 2016 found that Pfc. Harold Schultz was misidentified as Navy hospital corpsman John Bradley.
While John Bradley participated in the first flag raising and was photographed then, he was not photographed in the second flag raising nor pictured in the final iconic photograph.
Not realizing this misidentification, John Bradley’s son wrote a book about his father’s involvement in the Iwo Jima flag-raising called Flags of Our Fathers. In 2006, the bestselling book was turned into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. It wasn’t until 2016 that John Bradley was found to be falsely identified in the final iconic photo.
Then in 2019, it was Pfc. Harold Keller’s turn to join the list of flag raisers. New information surfaced (mostly in the form of private photographs) that helped historians determine that Pfc. Rene Gagnon was in fact Pfc. Harold Keller. While Gagnon was present during the flag raising, he was not actually photographed.
“Everyone on the island during this historic battle contributed, whether in this photo or not,” the Marine Corps said in an official statement in June 2016.
“They are all heroes. As an institution, we have a duty to truth and accuracy. Accuracy is crucial in this case. This is an example of the important role historians, media, and eyewitness accounts play in telling the stories of heroic actions our service members play in defense of our nation.”
The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the photo that helped change the tides of war in the Pacific. Whether or not these brave soldiers were in the Iwo Jima photo, we believe all those who fought on that island are heroes. We honor and thank them for their service.
Learn more about WWII and Iwo Jima in two upcoming documentaries co-sponsored by U.S. Money Reserve: 1st to Fight: Pacific War Marines (airing Memorial Day) and Return to Iwo Jima (airing Veterans Day). Stay tuned, as we’ll post more behind-the-scenes information about these two films on our blog.