On November 10, 1954, president Dwight D. Eisenhower officially opened the Iwo Jima Memorial—also (less commonly) known as the United States Marine Corps Memorial—at Arlington National Cemetery. Not coincidentally, November 10 is also the anniversary of the birth of the Marine Corps in 1775. Though the statue depicts a moment during World War II, it is dedicated to “the Marine dead of all wars and their comrades of other services who fell fighting beside them.”
Before the image of six soldiers raising the American flag was immortalized in bronze, it was a photograph that captured the emotions of the American people. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for the image, which he captured on February 23, 1945. The Americans had just taken Mount Suribachi, a strategically crucial overlook on the island of Iwo Jima. While fighting would ensue for more than a month before the battle was won, the sight of the flag waving above Suribachi gave hope to all who viewed it—and the perfectly timed image would soon give hope to an entire nation.
It’s an incredible legacy for a single photo—especially one that almost never happened. The flag depicted in Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima was the second of two flags flown that day, and Rosenthal missed the opportunity to capture the first one. (That honor went to another photographer named Louis Lowery, who never got over the fact that his own images failed to resonate in the same way.) Rosenthal got his second chance when the first flag was deemed too small, and the Marines received orders to replace it. As the original flag came down and the second one went up, Rosenthal had to quickly decide upon which flag to focus his camera. He chose the second, resulting in the iconic image that we all know today.
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima won Rosenthal the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for photography, making him the only photographer to ever receive the prize in the same year the photo was taken. Shortly after its publication, it appeared on posters selling war bonds and postage stamps. But its most famous journey began when it caught the attention of a Navy Petty Officer name Felix de Weldon—who also happened to be a classically trained artist. While stationed in Maryland, he created a scale model of the scene. He began the actual statue in 1951 when he was commissioned to design a monument to the U.S. Marine Corps. Of the six men depicted in the photo, three survived to pose for de Weldon. The other three were sculpted from photographs.
Today, the monument stands 78 feet high at the back entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It serves as the background of many Marine Corps occasions—including sunset parades and retirement ceremonies. And on every November 10, a wreath is laid here to honor the birth of the Marine Corps—and the “memory of the men … who have given their lives to their country since November 10, 1775.”