Smithsonian American Art Museum
World War II: Iwo Jima Memorial
War broke out in Europe on 1 September 1939, but the United States entered the war only after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. War in the Pacific required strategies very different from those of the European campaign. The Japanese had fortified archipelagos in the Pacific, extending thousands of miles from the homeland and constituting a far-flung perimeter of defense. To launch an attack on the Japanese homeland,the United States targeted first the outer perimeter — the Solomon Islands (Guadalcanal), the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshalls — and then the inner perimeter — the Marianas (Guam), the Bonin Islands (Iwo Jima), and the Ryukyus (Okinawa, just a hundred miles from the Japanese coast).
The American amphibious assault on Iwo Jima began on 19 February 1945. United States Marines plunged ashore for hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese, but they were trapped on the sand, with no place to hide from gunfire raking the beach. Much of the hostile fire came from Mount Suribachi, which commanded a view of two-thirds of the island. An extinct volcanic crater, Suribachi had an extensive underground network of fortifications built by the Japanese.
Four days after the initial assault on Iwo, almost five thousand Americans had been killed or wounded. Morale was a problem, and some dramatic symbol was needed to rally the troops. On the morning of the fifth day (23 February), following an order that the first unit to reach the top of Mount Suribachi should raise the Stars and Stripes, a forty-man patrol climbed Suribachi and hoisted the American flag atop a pole devised from a section of drainage pipe. Though the flag was small, it was visible down below. Men on the beaches shouted and cheered, and boats sounded their horns.
The first flag raising at Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945 photographed by Lou Lowery.
Several hours after the flag was raised, the battalion commander decided that a bigger flag was needed. A second patrol — with different men — then climbed Suribachi to hoist a larger flag, which they raised as the first flag was lowered.
Combat photographers documented both flag raisings. Lou Lowery, photographer for Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine magazine, photographed a moment-by-moment account of the first event. Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, captured the second flag raising. Rosenthal's photograph appeared in newspapers just days later and became an overnight sensation, winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography on 7 May 1945 — less than three months from the day it was taken. The photograph has been reproduced more than
any other of the war.
Felix de Weldon (born 1907), a member of the Navy's artists' corps in 1945, produced his original three-foot wax model for the Iwo Jima Memorial after seeing a wire service copy of Joe Rosenthal's photograph, transmitted on the day it was taken. Working day and night and using materials at hand — floor wax and sealing wax melted and combined — de Weldon completed the model in three days.
Almost a literal transcription of Rosenthal's photograph, the Iwo Jima Memorial has become a popular, highly visible image. Despite repeated criticism of the sculpture's heroic realism, the six soldiers struggling to achieve a single end are viewed by many as celebrating American patriotism and symbolizing national unity of purpose.
archipelago (ARE kuh PELL uh go)(pl. -s, -es) - an island group, any large body of water with many islands.
Bonin Islands (BOWnin) (Ogasawara Jima for the Japanese) - chain of islands in the north Pacific southeast of Japan, under U.S. administration and uninhabited since World War II.
Iwo Jima (EE woe JEE mah) - one of the three Volcano Islands in the Bonin chain. The island is named for its sulphur deposits (Iwo means "sulphur"). Before World War II, the island's small number of residents worked in a sulphur refinery.
metaphor - comparison between two basically unlike things; for example, "Juliet is the sun," from Shakespeare.
motif (mow TEEF) - thematic element in an artistic work.
patina (PAT uh nah, puh TEEN uh) - the surface coloration of a sculpture, produced by chemicals or by the environment.
Ryukyu Islands (rec OO kyoo), chain of fifty-five islands in the west Pacific between' japan and Formosa. Islands south of 28° north latitude are under U.S. administration; islands north of 28° were returned to Japan.
Solomon Islands - double row of high, continental islands formed from the exposed peaks of the submerged mountain range extending from New Guinea to New Zealand (Guadalcanal is the largest).
Looking at the Sculpture