The forgotten photographer: Joe Rosenthal captured iconic flag raising during WWII

Veterans Voices

What really happened to Marine Sgt. Bill Genaust who filmed the flagraising on Iwo Jima?

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — Two American flags were raised on Mount Suribachi on the fourth day of the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II in the Pacific. The first one was too small and was replaced by a much larger flag that could be seen flying over Japanese territory for the first time in history by everyone on the island and offshore on ships, but only one photographer got the glory; AP Photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped this iconic picture that became the most-reproduced photo of all times.

Flag raising photographed by Joe Rosenthal

Before he died in 2006, Rosenthal told he would have missed the flag raising had it not been for Marine Sgt. William Genaust who was standing next to him with his 16mm motion picture camera and yelled, “There goes the flag.”

Bill Genaust and Atlee Tracy

Genaust didn’t live to hear about his seven-second clip being shown in American movie theaters. He was declared missing in action nine days later while leading a patrol in what was believed to be a command cave at the other end of the island.

In his unpublished memoirs which I obtained years ago at the Marine Corps Archives in Quantico, Lt. John McLean, a Yale-trained interpreter, asked Genaust, who had a flashlight, to lead the way to the bottom of the cave where a Japanese soldier was sitting at a desk covered with maps and documents.

When the soldier ignored orders to surrender, McLean noticed some thin steel wires sticking out of his uniform; indicating the soldier was wired with explosives. When McLean reluctantly ordered two unidentified Marines with him to shoot the soldier, McLean writes, “All Hell Broke Loose.” A Japanese machinegunner hiding in shadows opened fire killing Genaust and the two Marines. McLean and Genaust’s partner, PFC Robert Campbell barely manage to scramble to safety.

McLean returned the next day to recover the bodies, but couldn’t find the cave. The entrance had been sealed with TNT and a tank with a dozer blade on the front had rearranged the landscape.

A small memorial plaque is located to the left of a white monument atop Mount Suribachi to the Americans who died during the 36 day battle. The Japanese built a separate monument to its war dead at the foot of the dormant volcano.

Genaust plaque

Efforts by Bob Bolus, a businessman in Scranton, Pennsylvania to fund an expedition with ground imaging radar to locate and return the remains of Sgt. William Genaust to the United States for a “hero’s burial” have been rebuffed by Japan which now controls what its soldiers called “Hell Island.” Even the name of Iwo Jima has been changed to its ancestral name, Iwo To, a change that still infuriates Marines who still remember the carnage that occurred there 75 years ago.


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