The Digital Journalist
Uncommon Valor
Common Virtue

Book Review

by Marianne Fulton

July 2006

Hal Buell, for 25 years the man in charge of The Associated Press' international photo service, has a new book out on Iwo Jima and the iconic flag-raising photograph. If you think you don't need to see another book on the island or the famous picture, think again -- this is a book you need to read. Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue: Iwo Jima and the Photograph That Captured America brings together the diverse strands of the battle of Iwo Jima, the U.S. Marines, photographer Joe Rosenthal's feelings about the battle, two flag-raisings and the many confusions that have surrounded his famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi.

The title is taken from a quote by Admiral Chester Nimitz: "For those who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue." Buell's informative text is woven around generous quotes and reproductions of magazine and newspaper articles. These inclusions, he rightly notes, "capture the flavor of the times and provide insight into how the home front came to know the battle." Titles of the reproduced articles map the progress, or lack thereof, in the battle. Here is a selection: "U.S. Storms Ashore on Iwo Island…," "Resistance Grows," "Volcano is Seized," "Japanese Strike" and "Marines Hew Out 500-Yard Gains in Hand-to-Hand Fighting on Iwo."

Book cover showing Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph made on Feb. 23, 1945, "Flag-Raising on Mt. Suribachi."

AP Wide World Photo by Joe Rosenthal
The book begins with geographical, historical and linguistical meanings of the island chain. "Iwo" translates as "sulfur" and "Jima" is "island." An armada of 450 ships and 80,000 Marines landed on the sulfuric island that Life magazine characterized as a "…beachhead on Hell."

Joe Rosenthal, a 33-year–old AP photographer, rushed ashore with a wave of Marines. This wasn't his first battle in the Pacific campaign; the previous two had been Guam and Peleliu. Rosenthal's thoughts on the kids he was with, the battle, his feelings and his professional responsibilities are given space. At one point he offers, "Often the sound of an explosion nearby overpowered my thought process…." And "the picture part is another question. Often there was an explosion, but what I saw was so often gone before I could raise my camera…I didn't want to just snap away. A picture requires substance…it requires a kind of composition that emphasizes what's in the photo."

For the Japanese, being assigned to Iwo Jima was a death sentence. When the Americans attacked there would be no escape. Indeed, General Tadimichi Kuribayashi's instruction to his troops were, in part, "Until we are destroyed to the last man, we shall harass the enemy by guerrilla tactics." These troops were just as much kamikaze forces as were the more famous pilots. A "kamikaze," Buell explains, was any combatant who swore he would die fighting the enemy.

Rosenthal was nearly twice as old as the young Marines. He looked at his life and job on the island in very different ways than they. "I also thought about my role here and how different it was from those around me, and how I ended up at this particular spot on the ship's deck. The civilian combat photographer, or correspondent, had an advantage over those who actually fought the battle. We correspondents picked our time and place for stories and pictures. The Marines couldn't do that." But, both could be killed just as quickly.

One flag in the background goes up while a second flag comes down atop Mt. Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. The larger flag in the rear was put up so that everyone on the island could see that Suribachi had been taken. The larger flag was the one photographed by Joe Rosenthal; the flag picture became famous and won a Pulitzer Prize.

U.S. Marine Corps photo, National Archive, by Pvt. Bob Campbell
Uncommon Valor gives an accounting of the first flag raised and those who were there including the photographer, Sgt. Lou Lowery. The first group of soldiers would come to feel short-changed and very much in the shadow of the second flag-raising. They risked their lives to take the first flag up only to watch the men of the second group hailed as national heroes. The sequence of events concerning the two flag-raisings on Feb. 23, 1945 and the subsequent delayed release of the first photograph is carefully laid out. The reasons and source of the second flag are also detailed. A photo by Pvt. Bob Campbell documents the exchange of flags.

Rosenthal's 4x5 negative was processed and distributed by AP in the then-fast 17 1/2 hours. It was on the front pages of Sunday editions throughout America. The picture, shot on the fifth day of the invasion, gave hope of victory in the bloody island-hopping campaign against the Japanese.

The confusion that immediately followed was created by uninformed remarks; these are reviewed and the relevant parties are quoted in the text and the accompanying DVD. Rosenthal didn't know which negative had been chosen by the AP lab and thought it was the later, posed photograph. Lowery knew he had taken a picture of the flag and thought anything else was a myth or setup. Buell goes so far as to relate to the plots of John Wayne's 1949 movie, "Sands of Iwo Jima," and other movies, books and TV specials that touched on the flag-raising and got it wrong, which only added to the massive tangle of stories.

The powerful picture of men surging forward with the wind-whipped flag became a painting for the seventh war loan poster. The photograph was instantly recognized in the lab and by newspapers as a symbol of the nation's fighting spirit. President Roosevelt called those flag-raisers still alive home from Iwo Jima to sell war bonds; a 3-cent stamp was minted and the photo won a Pulitzer Prize by acclimation—the only photograph ever to be awarded a Pulitzer in the same year it was made. The image became icon, became dime-store trinket, much like the Statue of Liberty, became a movie and was then transformed into a statue. Neither the poster nor stamp nor statue mentioned Joe Rosenthal.

The placing of Felix De Weldon's grand statue of the Iwo Jima flag-raising became a political issue. Deemed "too European" for the Mall, it was placed outside Washington, in Arlington, Va. It took 28 years and an act by President Reagan to have Rosenthal's name attached to the statue. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush used the image as a backdrop for a campaign speech against flag-burning. [The more things change, the more they stay the same.] From real men in a bloody battle to a presidential photo-op, the power of the original photograph remains.

Looking back, Joe Rosenthal believes that as much as "the flag picture meant to me and to many others, I have always believed that these pictures on the beach captured the real story of Iwo Jima." He has never forgotten those "kids" he went in with and who died on the sands.

The DVD that is part of the book package is comprised of many stills including those by Lowery of the first group ascending, movie clips of the battle and flag-raising, color movie clips of the island and battle as well as interviews. Produced by Lou Reda, with whom Buell has worked on past projects, the DVD is worth the price of admission. In the book itself, I counted over 150 photographic reproductions in its 250 pages. On the downside, I also noted clumsy copy editing that turned "Graflex" into "Graphlex" and so forth. The story deserved more from the publisher.

Hal Buell has meticulously researched this book, run down all the paths to find information and given us an exact accounting of events. Also, for the Marines who fought in the Pacific, as my father did, their contribution often passed over in favor of the European front, Buell acknowledges their sacrifice and the Medal of Honor recipients.

© Marianne Fulton
Senior Editor

Marianne Fulton has worked in the field of photography as curator, editor, archivist and writer for over 30 years. From 1975 - 2002 she was at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film serving as chief curator, acting director and senior scholar, among other positions. Fulton has prepared more than 80 exhibitions, including those with books such as Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, and Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America, for which she was named Person of the Year in the Leica Medal of Excellence competition. She has lectured worldwide on 20th-century photography and photojournalism. She served twice as judge for Pictures of the Year (the only curator to do so) and for Women in Photojournalism. Fulton is on the advisory board of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award and has written for The Digital Journalist from the beginning. She is currently working on writing and book projects.