Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima: The Truth Behind The Iconic World War II Photo

By | February 21, 2020

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Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal.

On February 23, 1945, one of the most iconic photos ever was taken. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, which was snapped by Associated Press battlefield reporter Joe Rosenthal, is the only photo to date that has won with the Pulitzer Prize the same year it was taken. It depicts six Marines raising the U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima, which was a significant tactical victory for America during World War II and one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater. While you've undoubtedly seen the picture before, few know the story behind it and the identities of these six brave soldiers.

You may hear, for example, that the photo was staged. While it's true that the famous image depicts not the first but the second raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi, that's because the general thought the first flag was too small to be seen from the rest of the island, so he sent a second team to replace it with a larger one. The photo's dynamic perfection led to skepticism, but the soldiers' testimonies and a corroborating video proved that yes, indeed, this was a candid shot. In fact, Rosenthal admitted he wasn't even paying much attention when he shot it. He didn't even bother looking through the lens when he snapped the picture.  

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Harlon Block. (Wikipedia Commons)

So who are these brave soldiers? It's hard to tell from the photo, since none of their faces are seen clearly. However, historians have narrowed it down to a few likely candidates based on their clothing, the video that shows more of their faces, and witness testimony.

Harlon Block is thought to be the farthest man on the right, at the base of the pole. Originally, the government identified him as fellow Marine Henry Hanson, but several of the other soldiers who were present that day corrected them. It was difficult to confirm because both Hanson and Block tragically died on the small Japanese island just a week after the famous photo was taken, but Block's mother insisted that she knew it was her son because she changed so many diapers "on that boy's butt, I know it's my boy," and she was proven right by an investigation by the Marine Corps.

Second to the right is Harold Keller, who was also misidentified until 2019, before which the man next to Block was believed to be Rene Gagnon. Because of the mixup, nobody ever looked too deeply into Keller's life, so not a lot is known about him. He was born in Iowa, where he lived all his life, and hardly talked about the war with his family after returning. He died in 1979.