Retired Marines Want Ship Named for Iwo Jima Flag Photographer

In this Feb 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
In this Feb 23, 1945 file photo, U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)

A group of retired U.S. Marines has begun a campaign to name a Navy warship in honor of Joseph Rosenthal, the former Chronicle photographer who took the famous picture of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II.

"Joe Rosenthal took one of the greatest photographs in history, and yet he has been bypassed by history," said Tom Graves, a member of the Marine Corps Correspondents Association who is spearheading the drive.

Graves and members of the Marines' Memorial Association in San Francisco have an online petition -- They have over 1,300 signatures and plan to get thousands more before submitting them to the Secretary of the Navy.

So far they have the support of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and hundreds of Marines and veterans. Graves hopes to get the backing of many more political bodies, including the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Rosenthal, then a civilian war correspondent working for the Associated Press, took the picture of the Marines raising the flag atop Suribachi mountain on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

The picture appeared in Sunday newspapers around the world a week later and became an instant classic. It's been reproduced on a poster for war bonds and on a postage stamp. It was recreated as a statue and is the centerpiece of the United States Marine Corps War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia near Washington, D.C.

Rosenthal's picture also became a symbol of the Marine Corps, particularly of the Marines' bloody, five-week battle for Iwo Jima, a volcanic island of only 8 square miles. Iwo Jima is small, but controlling it was important since it is just over 600 miles from the Japanese home islands and within bombing range.

Two Marine divisions stormed the island in mid-February 1945 against fierce Japanese resistance. The Japanese had no hope of holding the island; instead they fought a holding action to the death. By the time the battle ended on March 26, only 216 Japanese soldiers out of a garrison of 21,000 survived. A total of 6,821 Americans died, including three of the Marines in Rosenthal's picture.

"Iwo Jima is in the fabric of the Marine Corps legacy more than any other battle," Marine Col. Thomas Prentice, commanding officer of the 23rd Marine Regiment, told a gathering to commemorate the battle's 72nd anniversary this week at the Marines' Memorial Club in San Francisco.

Prentice was not born when the Marines captured Iwo Jima, but eight veterans of the battle were on hand.

"I celebrated my 21st birthday on Iwo," veteran Roy Earle said. "I wasn't sure if I'd have another birthday, much less to live to be 90." He's 93, and flew from his home in Maine for the occasion.

Graves, a commercial photographer and historian, believes that Rosenthal's picture shows the essence of the Iwo Jima battle. "Naming a ship for Joe Rosenthal would also represent Iwo Jima, the Marines and the Pacific war," he said.

Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph and after the war spent 35 years as a Chronicle staff photographer. He retired in 1981 and died in 2006.

Two other naval ships have been named for San Franciscans. The destroyer Callaghan was named for Adm. David Callaghan, a native of the city who was killed aboard the cruiser San Francisco in 1942. The fleet oiler Harvey Milk was named for the slain Navy veteran, city supervisor and gay rights leader in 2016.

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