Forensic Film Archiving: Who Raised the Flag on Iwo Jima?

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

We rely on film and photographs to tell stories every day – from the latest blockbuster, our favorite television series, videos we take and stream, to the cherished photos in our homes. But, sometimes what we see isn’t what’s really there. Such was the case of the misidentified Marine in one of America’s most iconic images – the seminal photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima on February 23rd, 1945. It’s an image that has been etched into our collective memory having appeared in textbooks, in popular media, and as the Marine Monument in Arlington, Virginia.

Photograph of Flag Raising on Iwo Jima
Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.
(Local Identifier: 80-G-413988, NAID: 520748)

As the nation’s record keeper it’s our responsibility to maintain what is in our custody for a myriad of reasons – including the ability to provide forensic evidence in an occasion such as this. It was our duty to help provide the information for those who are seeking clarity. The National Archives’ holdings includes photographs taken that day by Joe Rosenthal and others, and 16mm color footage shot by combat cameraman Sergeant William Homer “Bill” Genaust. In trying to determine the identity of the flag-raisers, the investigation included assessing the photographs and 4K scans of Genaust’s footage. The 4K scans are the highest resolution that our equipment can produce. You can see the footage in the Smithsonian Channel’s Documentary The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima. Click here to see the complete unedited reel, which contains other scenes from the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Combat cameraman Sgt. Bill Genaust shot 16mm color footage of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Genaust died in battle nine days later.

3 thoughts on “Forensic Film Archiving: Who Raised the Flag on Iwo Jima?

  1. According to Norm Hatch, photo officer, 5th Division, there were three cameramen at the top of Mt. Suribachi for the 2nd flag raising: Bill Genaust USMC, Bob Campbell USMC and Joe Rosenthal (AP)

  2. Great post Criss. I’m doing a follow up on this story as part of the Virtual Genealogy Fair in October, examining not only the events but also the military personnel records of those in the photo.

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