By Donald R. Winslow
SAN FRANCISCO, CA- Soldiers and veterans, along with civilians, family, and friends, joined photographers and reporters at the Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel in downtown San Francisco today to pay a special tribute to NPPA life member Joseph J. Rosenthal, 94, who died August 20 in nearby Novato. In 1945 as a 33-year-old Associated Press photographer with eyesight so poor he wasn't allowed to serve in the military, Rosenthal took the famous picture of battle-weary Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during one of World War II's bloodiest battles.
Today's Marine ceremony and the presentation of a posthumous U.S. Navy Distinguished Public Service Award to Rosenthal's survivors preceded Saturday's Catholic funeral mass for the man who may have taken the most famous picture in American history.
Rosenthal's Iwo Jima picture, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, became an instant icon of hope and victory in the long fought war and its popularity quickly spread to postage stamps, war bond drives, as well as serving as the basis of a giant Marine Corps War Memorial statue that mimics his picture. The monument stands adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia just across the river from Washington, DC.
After retiring in 1981 from a three-decade career at The San Francisco Chronicle, Rosenthal was living in an assisted care facility in the Bay Area at the time of his death. (See earlier story). Today at the memorial many of his other pictures of Marines and soldiers in first-wave invasions were projected on a screen or displayed on floor stands along with his famous flag raising picture. It was a remembrance that made clear that Rosenthal was a complete photographer telling a larger story of the Pacific war - not just the one moment of victory symbolized by the flag raising - and that his bravery and valor in battle, unarmed, carrying only a camera, matched that of the young soldiers who were fighting and dying in front of him each day.
Remembered today for his humble demeanor as well as his fierce determination, and his lifetime of photography and not just his quintessential war photograph, Rosenthal was honored this afternoon by the Marine Corps that he so admired by a tribute service that included personal memories by some of those who worked at his side and the reading of memorial letters from former U.S. Presidents. Friends and family members told how in his last years, the items adorning Rosenthal's walls at the care facility were photographs of his children and grandchildren along with a certificate from the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps naming him a honorary Marine. Rosenthal considered the honor as his most prized possession.
Rosenthal's friend Daniel P. Cortez, now a writer for Purple Heart magazine, was with the photographer just a few weeks before he died and his final words to Cortez "were about the everyday Marines that he loved. His exact words to me were to tell the Marine Commandants and Marine Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace to 'Take care of my Marines down here, and I will take care of your Marines up there.'"
During today's ceremony U.S. Marine Corps Major General Mike Lehnert, representing the Commandant of the Marine Corps, presented Rosenthal's adult children, Anne Rosenthal of San Rafael, CA, and Joseph J. Rosenthal Jr., of Washington state, with a U.S. Navy Distinguished Public Service Award in Rosenthal's honor. He also gave them two triangle-folded Americans flags and thanked them for their father's "service to a grateful nation." Before presenting the flags, which were flown above the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington before being ceremonially folded, General Lehnert said, "The Distinguished Public Service medal isn't usually presented for bravery. But in this case, it is." Lehnert said that Rosenthal's iconic photograph had inspired generations of Marines and continues to do so today.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly (one of five Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers at today's memorial service) was a close friend of Rosenthal. Today Kennerly, a former White House photographer, read to the audience two special letters of tribute, from President George H. W. Bush and from President Gerald Ford, who before politics were both soldiers serving during World War II in battle in South Pacific. Bush and Ford each wrote about the impact Rosenthal's picture had on them as soldiers and upon the war effort at home. Kennerly, who won the Pulitzer for his photographs of the war in Vietnam, was visibly moved by the remembrances as he closed his remarks by saying, "I miss you, Joe."
The impact Rosenthal had on photographers and conflict photography was evident by the number of photojournalists who counted him as a friend and mentor. It's also a rare event when so many Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers gather in a single place for such an event, but today five such honorees turned out to honor a man they counted not only as a peer but as a good friend. Associated Press photographers Reed Saxon, Nick Ut, and retired AP photographer Sal Veder, along with San Francisco Chronicle photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice and David Hume Kennerly, who was a United Press International photographer when he won the Pulitzer, came to honor the man they remember as kind, generous, and modest.
Kennerly recalled how, as a young photographer, he stopped by the Chronicle to meet "the legend" and Rosenthal took him by the arm and toured the newspaper, introducing Kennerly "as if I was the grown up I wished that I was." He recalled how Rosenthal would meet people on assignment or around the city and if they found out he was the "Iwo Jima" photographer, they might ask him for a print. "While some famous photographers are happy to sell prints of their work, Joe would often just give away copies of his picture, and if he liked you it was signed, and often it would arrive with just a simple envelope and a hand-written note that said, 'If you can, please give a little to support the kitchen at St. Anthony's.'" St. Anthony's is a San Francisco Catholic food pantry that feeds and cares for the homeless and downtrodden living in the Bay Area. Rosenthal's daughter later told how supporting St. Anthony's had become a life-long passion of her father, who was the child of Russian immigrant Jews, after his conversion to Catholicism in adulthood.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Larry Snowden, who served on Iwo Jima leading troops into battle on the same day Rosenthal took the famous photograph, and who now is the senior survivor of the Iwo Jima landing, spoke during the ceremony and shared his memories of the fighting, the photograph itself, and the impact the picture had on the Corps. Snowden was a company commander in the 4th Marine Division who was wounded in battle during the island invasion, and was evacuated to a Navy ship and treated for his wounds and then returned to the front lines, in what became a fight that lasted more than 30 days and left more than 6,000 American soldiers dead and 20,000 wounded. Today Snowden told the audience that Rosenthal's picture helped the Marine Corps to formulate a "sense of identity" for itself, and that it boosted morale in ways that troop leaders could never have imagined.
Today's Marine Corps tribute ended with a reception and the presentation of other honors, pictures, and letters from dignitaries and politicians. On Saturday there will be a Catholic funeral mass for Rosenthal at St. Emydius Catholic Church in San Francisco at 1 p.m. Rosenthal was cremated, and family members say that his ashes will be spread in the Bay Area at a later time.