The Digital Journalist
Remarks by David Hume Kennerly at the Tribute to Joe Rosenthal

The Marines’ Memorial Club
San Francisco, California

September 15, 2006

by David Hume Kennerly

First I would like to read messages to Joe’s family and to all of you from two distinguished veterans of World War II, who are unfortunately part of a vanishing breed. Both served in the Pacific, and both were great admirers of Joe Rosenthal.

The first was an anti-aircraft gunnery officer on the USS Monterey who saw considerable action with the Third and Fifth Fleets. His ship helped secure Makin Island in the Gilberts, engaged in strikes in the Marianas and northern New Guinea, and participated in the Battle of the Philippines Sea. Aircraft from Monterey launched strikes against Wake Island, and supported the landings at Leyte and Mindoro. On countless occasions this naval officer directed his gun battery fire at attacking enemy aircraft. Once, during a raging typhoon that sank several of Admiral Halsey’s fleet, fire broke out amidships, threatening to destroy the Monterey, but under his cool command the fire was controlled and disaster averted.

He writes:

To Anne and Joseph, Jr.

Your father Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the Marines raising our flag over Mt. Surabachi on Iwo Jima also raised the spirits of millions of people when it was published, particularly those of us who saw combat in the Pacific. That remarkable picture still underscores the resilience and spirit of we Americans, and is an everlasting reminder of who we are as a people, something as important today as it was then. I salute you Joe. I salute your courage, your tenacity, your memory, and your deeds on this day as your friends and admirers gather to pay tribute to a great American.

Gerald R. Ford,
38th President of the United States
September 8, 2006

The other veteran flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific. During one raid his aircraft was hit, but he completed the attack and released his bombs over his target where he scored direct hits amid a withering anti-aircraft barrage. With his engine engulfed in flames, and his plane going down, he and another crewman bailed out of the aircraft. Tragically the other man's chute did not open, he fell to his death, and the third airman never made it out of the destroyed bomber as it crashed into the water. The aviator was pulled safely out of the ocean by a submarine. For his courage and disregard for his own safety in pressing home his attack under fire, this Navy officer was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and also received the air medal with two gold stars.

He writes:

Dear Friends,

When Joe Rosenthal took his famous photo on Iwo Jima, I had returned from duty in the South Pacific and was training for the planned invasion of Japan. I still remember when Joe’s photo hit the newspapers back home, and the enormous sense of pride it instilled in all of us. We didn’t know then, of course, what we know now: What a hard fought and won battle Iwo Jima was, resulting in the death of more than 6,800 Americans. If not for the bravery of those Marines, the war might have continued on even longer, and many like me would have gone back overseas. Instead, the war ended just a few months later.

It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I first step foot on Iwo Jima. It’s hard to describe the emotion one feels to climb to the top of Mount Suribachi where that flag was raised, and to look down on the black sands of the beaches. What those Marines did during that battle will be and should never be forgotten. Thanks to Joe Rosenthal, it will not.

From what I read, Joe would tell you he was simply doing his job that day. He was known as a modest fellow, so I wonder if Joe ever really fully appreciated what this photo meant to the American people then, and what it continues to mean today: Great pride in country, and great pride in our freedom, which we are willing to protect at all costs.

Thank you, Joe, and Godspeed.

George H. W. Bush
41st President of the United States
September 15, 2006

“The Greatest Generation” author Tom Brokaw added this message:

Joe not only gave us the iconic photo of the greatest generation, he lived the life of his generation: a brave man, dedicated to his craft who remained modest about his extraordinary contributions to the end of his life.

We are here to honor that modest and humble man who never honored himself. A man who like most men of his era believed that heroism was no big deal, just business as usual.

Many of you were lucky enough to be friends with Joe Rosenthal and know that he would never have allowed this kind of event honoring him to take place during his lifetime.

So cover your ears Joe, here we are, gathered in your celestial presence and memory to share a few nice thoughts about your life and career, things that you never would have said about yourself. But unlike Pluto, Joe, your place among the stars will never be diminished!

In 1968 when I was a 21-year-old UPI photographer up from Los Angeles covering protests at San Francisco State College, I dropped by the Chronicle photo department to meet the legend who at first glance appeared anything but legendary. This diminutive man, standing at five-feet-not-much with a kind smile and sparkling eyes, enthusiastically shook my hand, and introduced me around his shop, basically treating me like the grown-up that I aspired to be. He was like no other news photographer I’ve run into before or since—rather than exuding that slightly cynical and distrustful air of our, “been there done that” profession he seemed genuinely pleased to make a new acquaintance. And this was the guy who made the most famous and important picture of all time. It was my good fortune that Joe took a shine to this slightly cynical and distrustful young shooter, and on that day we became friends.

Sometimes it’s not what happens at the top of the mountain, it’s how you got there.

In the case of Joe Rosenthal on Iwo Jima it was both. Marine General Holland Smith said of that battle, “The fight is the toughest we’ve run across in 168 years.”

And Joe, who hit the beach on that first day, said that the Japanese gunfire was so intense that, “not getting hit was like running through the rain and not getting wet.”

But he made it to the top, and Joe’s photo of those valiant warriors raising the flag over Mt. Surabachi on Iwo Jima is a symbol for the ages and the standard to which we news photographers aspire. And he did it with just one click of the shutter--there was no second chance with that trusty Speed Graphic. That picture has challenged me at every step of my career, always right there whispering in my ear, “You can shoot for higher, for better.”

But Joe always seemed uneasy with the fame that accompanied that glorious shot, and told me when I last saw him that he, "just had a cup of coffee in the big show, while the rest of you stayed for the whole dinner."

That, of course, is not true. Joe had a long and wonderful career in the business, and took plenty of other superb photographs. But overshadowing everything else he did was that one iconic tableau frozen in time, memorializing forever the gallantry and bravery of a few good men, those magnificent Marines on that hill oh so far away. Like Joe, the faces of those men are obscured, the focal point being on the act, not the personalities, something that is a rare phenomenon these days.

The image he created, however, will ring through the ages, and is enshrined in that rarified place alongside the work of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Hemingway. It is the Gettysburg Address of photography. That stunning moment captured the heart and soul of what it means to be a Marine, and embodies the essence of Americans. His photo is the symbol of freedom, and the man who took it, a son of immigrants, represents us all.

On Joe Rosenthal’s wall in his spare apartment was his most prized possession. It wasn’t, as you might imagine, a copy of his great photograph. No, it was much less prepossessing. Reading it, however, revealed a deeper understanding of his character and the deep reverence Joe felt for the Corps . . . hanging on his wall, just above his favorite chair where he would sit for hours, was a certificate . . .

It read, in simple, yet plain English:

The Commandant of the Marine Corps
Takes pleasure in presenting the title

“Honorary Marine”

To Joe Rosenthal
“For unyielding devotion to Country and Corps”
12 April 1996

signed by C.C. Krulak
General, US Marine Corps
Commandant of the Marine Corps

Joe was a Marine, in thought, deed, and demeanor. His actions spoke for him, not his words. He was always faithful to his profession, and to the people he photographed. It was to them that he devoted his life. And that photo hangs in the hearts of us all.

Joe, I miss you, your gentle way, and your giant talent. You have the love and admiration of your family, your colleagues, and of anyone on this earth who has seen your photo and has been deeply touched by it.

One of these days I hope to join up with you again, to be welcomed in with that handshake and gentle smile—and to have a cup of coffee with you, Joe . . . but one thing I’ll bet on when that time arrives—you still won’t be using a digital camera!


I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to another Marine and a friend of mine and Joe’s who is no longer with us. He also took a renowned picture that won a Pulitzer, although this one was more about the dark side of war than a shining second of heroism. Eddie Adams’ picture of the Saigon police chief shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head with his pistol is seared into the memory of anyone who ever saw it. Eddie was always haunted by that photo and was uncomfortable with the fame that it brought him. But it also underscored why we photographers do what we do—to be there for those who would otherwise never know what war is really like. Eddie died almost exactly two years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 73, and is now reunited with Joe.

In the audience with us today is another Pulitzer winner, the prize awarded for a photograph we all vividly remember. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s photo of little Kim Phuc running down the road after being burned by napalm is another difficult but vital moment for the ages. Nick was also close friends with Joe and Eddie, and is the surviving member of the, “Damndest Photos I’ve Ever Seen” Club. Please stand Nick.

It’s now my honor to introduce Joe’s daughter Anne Rosenthal . . .


As we pause to honor Joe Rosenthal, it occurs to me that the real testimony to this man and his life's work is not so much who he was, but who we've become because of him.

Joe Rosenthal made a tremendous difference to our Corps, our Nation, and each of us who has had the privilege to gaze upon his photo that forever captured that famous moment in history. Then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal proclaimed, "The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years." Generations of Marines have been forged from our heritage which is so aptly reflected in that one image. It continues to serve as a benchmark -- something to strive for, to live up to -- a reminder of who we are as Marines. Joe's photo embodies our core values, and each new generation of Marines, and all who wear the uniform of this great Nation, will continue to draw strength and purpose from it.

The Joint Chiefs join me in representing 2.4 million men and women in the United States military, active, guard, and reserve as we salute you Joe, and offer our thanks and gratitude for your gallantry in action. You have forever preserved the very essence of who we are, and what we strive for, in that one remarkable image.

Semper Fidelis,

Peter Pace
General, United States Marine Corps
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

© David Hume Kennerly