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Communication Directorate

Headquarters Marine Corps

The picture of Marines: past and present

By Sgt. W. J. Ferris | | March 2, 2010

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For a civilian it's a source of inspiration. For a photographer it's a dynamic study of composition and structure. For a historian it inspires debates on amphibious tactics and whether an island a third the size of Manhattan should have been bypassed in favor of other objectives.

"It's arguably the most famous news photograph ever taken, maybe the most famous photograph period," said Chuck Zoeller, a 23-year veteran of the Associated Press. Many of those years have been working with and caring for the photograph.

According to Chuck, Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima holds a very special place for those at the AP.

For a Marine, it's more like the Holy Grail.

Or at least, it feels that way, ascending to the 15th floor of the AP's New York headquarters.

The original film negative is a long way from its place of birth on hot, sandy Iwo Jima. Deep within the AP's photo archive is a reinforced metal gate. Never mind that I had passed through a security checkpoint in the lobby, and been escorted through several electronically locked doors; the gate bore a substantial padlock.

"They get choked up when they see that negative," Chuck tells me of other Marine visitors.

I felt underdressed. I half expected to see the film in some ornate display.

The photo of five Marines and their Navy Corpsman raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi is clothed in no such gaudiness.  Its light-brown cardboard box has a white label that runs left to right. Tiny metal rings reinforce its corners. In the fluorescent light, to me, the line of rings looks like scarlet piping.

I'm reminded of my dad, who not only was a Gunny but who was born on the same day the photo was taken, explaining to me when I was young why Marine uniforms don't have all the pins, badges and stuff that other military uniforms have.

Marines don't need all that junk, he told me. He said to Marines, having nothing more than the eagle globe and anchor on the uniform was enough. He did admit that my Mother was fond of his dress blues.

I'm jerked from my thoughts by the sound of the light board turning on. The negative is now brightly lit from below, taking on a glowing, other-worldly look.

As I focus on the image with my camera, I'm struck by how clearly I see things-but not the things I expected.

I have seen the picture thousands of times. The image that represents me, my father, all the Marines I've admired, learned from, and led is flawed. It has rust spots, chips and scars.

I try to appreciate the blemishes and keep taking pictures. I feel frustrated because no matter what perspective or view I take there's a reflection of me in the photo.

Sometimes the story you look for isn't the one you find.
I had gone into the AP like it was a shrine. I expected some sort of spiritual experience that would mark my soul by being in the presence of greatness and history. When I left, I felt cheated. The only new things I saw were blemishes and reflections.

It's easy to see great lessons of the Corps in the photo. It shows a group a warriors working together. They're striving toward a common goal, much greater than themselves. They are so close they almost merge into one.

You can see leadership in the photo as well.  Marines have their hands right on another's, helping each other with the burden.
Yes, you can see blemishes too. And maybe some reflections.
But you don't have to look at the photo for that and I didn't have to go to the AP to see it.

You can see this all right next to you. Look no further than to the Marine to the left and right of you and you'll see it. Inspiration, in spite of blemishes; courage in spite of scars.

When you look at Rosenthal's photograph, I hope you see your Marines. When you look at your Marines maybe you'll see a piece of that famous photo.

If you have a picture of one of them near your desk or in your shop, why not put a picture of the other next to it. Both are inspirational.


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