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The Unsung Filmmaker Of Iwo Jima

Courtesy Of U.S. Marine Corps
Marine Corps Sgt. William H. Genaust, shown in a bunker on Saipan in 1944, was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star.

A U.S. Marine motion-picture cameraman stood in dust and bramble inside a rocky volcano, waiting to film a flag-raising. "I'm not in your way, am I, Joe?" he shouted to a nearby still photographer over the relentless Pacific wind. "No, it's all right," the photographer replied. "Hey, there she goes, Bill!"

Five Marines and a Navy corpsman pushed up the long, heavy pipe improvised as a flagstaff. The wind snapped the flag during its rise. Once up, however, Old Glory stood out straight and full.

The movie man cranked 198 frames of 16mm Kodachrome ASA 8 film through his Bell & Howell camera until the film ran out. He would never know whether he captured the entire lift. The still photographer took a picture with his 4x5 Speed Graphic at the peak of action.

Each of the two photographers had caught an enduring moment of the American experience. Joe Rosenthal, The Associated Press still photographer, would win a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of the raising of the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. The film by Sgt. Bill Genaust would live on gloriously as well, but his name would be all but lost to history after his death nine days later.

Genaust's film sequence, which he did not live to see, was widely shown in movie houses and later on television. For decades, he was not officially recognized as the cameraman who shot the famous footage. Unknown by most and forgotten by many, Genaust was - and remains today - a Marine left behind on that distant island.

Iwo Jima is not a pretty place. Its craggy topography is dominated by the extinct volcano, Mount Suribachi, a scarred hump that rises 556 feet above sea level. It lacks the soaring grace of Japan's Mount Fuji or the majesty of our own Rockies.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Genaust and Rosenthal rode toward the island with the Marines but in separate landing craft. Suribachi's Japanese gun installations were trained on the black, volcanic sands of the beach and created a hell fire. Rosenthal would later say, "Survival was like walking in rain without getting wet." But the two men dodged the bullets and, despite casualties comparable to Normandy, survived the assault.

On the fifth day of the battle, Genaust met Marine still photographer Bob Campbell and Rosenthal at the base of Suribachi. They had heard that a flag would be raised on the summit, and they wanted to photograph this key taking of the island's high ground.

Halfway up the mountain, they met Leatherneck magazine photographer Sgt. Lou Lowery coming down. "You're late," Lowery said. "The flag is already up." The three men believed then that they would not get photos of a flag going up, but they hoped that another picture would be possible.

The First Flag

A few hours before Rosenthal snapped the photo that captivated Americans, another group of Marines were dispatched to scale the mountain and raise a flag. "If you get to the top," Col. Chandler Johnson told them, "put it up." "He didn't say 'when you get to the top,'" Capt. Dave Severence remembered in "Flags of Our Fathers" by James Bradley. "He said 'if.'"

The flag came off the USS Missoula, a tank transport ship that was serving as a floating field hospital during the first days of the Battle of Iwo Jima, an island riddled with Japanese tunnels and 22,000 Japanese soldiers.

The Marines made their way to the top. Among the half-dozen men: Louis Charlo, a Marine from Evaro. They found a piece of pipe from a catch-system for rainwater the Japanese had constructed. Tied the flag to it. And, at 10:20 a.m., hoisted the pole into position in the gusty wind, the first foreign flag to fly over Japanese soil.

That most of the 35,000 Marines on the island, noticed. It went through the ranks like an electric shock. It was a big deal to see that flag go up. When it went up, a lot of Marines thought in another day or two they'd wrap things up and go home. That turned out to be far from the truth. The battle lasted another month after the flag went up.

Louis Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck Magazine, took photos after the flag from the USS Missoula was raised. He posed the Marines, having one of them stand guard with a carbine.

Far below them, word spread that the flag had been raised. Thousands of Marines cheered and whistled. Ships offshore opened up their horns. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, on the island and caught up in the emotion, decided he wanted the flag as a souvenir. "The hell with that!" announced Chandler Johnson, who figured the flag belonged to his Marine battalion. He sent an assistant to the beach to scare up another flag so the historic flag off the USS Missoula could be secured. "And make it a bigger one," Johnson said as an afterthought.

The Marines who raised the first flag were Lieutenant Schrier; Platoon Sergeant Ernest T. Thomas, Jr.; Sergeant Henry O. Hansen; Corporal Charles W. Lindberg; and Privates First Class Louis C. Charlo and James Michels. They put up that flag about one half hour before the larger one was put up. Several hours later, an 8-foot-long battle ensign, obtained from tank landing ship LST-779, was raised, resulting in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the flag raising. This photograph inspired the bronze monument to the Marine Corps by Felix de Welden located near Arlington National Cemetery.

At the top, the trio found Marines preparing a second flag - a larger flag, a flag they said "that could be seen by every Marine on the island." Genaust and his companions positioned themselves for the picture. Rosenthal placed himself head-on. Genaust stood about an arm's length from Rosenthal's right side and slightly forward. Their pictures were flown to Guam, and Rosenthal's photo - transmitted to the world - was an immediate sensation.

It took weeks to process Genaust's Kodachrome which, once released, was equally successful in lifting the spirits of a war-weary home front eager for victory and impatient with rising casualties from the Pacific. The film was shown in movie houses and appeared daily for years as an overnight signoff segment on TV stations. But there was no official recognition of the photographer. A quirk in regulations authorized bylines for still photographers but decreed that film would be distributed without a photographer's credit.

Rosenthal saw his picture for the first time on March 4 on Guam, where he had been sent by The Associated Press. That same day back on Iwo Jima, a B-29 bomber - battered during a bombing run over Tokyo - made an emergency landing. Normally, Genaust would have photographed the bomber, but the weather was poor - overcast, dark and misty. Instead, he was on Hill 362A, where Marines were mopping up any remaining resistance. With photography impossible, Genaust turned to his carbine and .45 pistol to help his buddies. Genaust and another Marine ducked into a cave to escape the heavy rain. When Genaust turned on a flashlight to check his surroundings, the Japanese hidden in the cave opened fire, killing the two Marines instantly. Other Marines cleaned out the cave with flamethrowers, and bulldozers blocked up the entrance.

For decades, Genaust remained anonymous. Efforts by friends and colleagues, urging the Corps to see past the regulations, were to no avail. Finally, 40 years later, Marine brass issued a letter of appreciation for exemplary camerawork and heroism and officially recognized the photographer. Genaust's friends prepared a plaque, and in 1995 it was installed atop Mount Suribachi: Bill Genaust took his rightful place along with Joe Rosenthal as the men whose pictures immortalized the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history.

Marine casualties at Iwo Jima included nearly 6000 dead and about 18,000 wounded. More than 21,000 Japanese were killed or committed suicide. Twelve Marines raised the two flags on Suribachi; six later died in the battle, and four were wounded.

True to the Corps' tradition of recovering their dead, most of the Marines killed and initially buried on Iwo Jima were returned to the U.S. by the 1950s. However, the cave where Genaust died was considered too dangerous to open because of possible explosives, and its entrance eventually was lost to time.

The island was returned to the Japanese in 1968, and today Old Glory flies only four days each year. But every time the film of the flag-raising appears, as it does occasionally in documentaries, viewers now will know of Sergeant Genaust. He was one Marine who immortalized on film his nation's fight for freedom and his Corps' honor - though he remains behind, entombed forever on Hill 362A in a forgotten cave without a marker.

Genaust didn't live to see the end of the battle. Genaust died nine days later when he was hit by machine-gun fire as he was assisting fellow Marines secure a cave. Many of the missing Marines were lost at sea, meaning the chances of recovering their remains are slim. But many also were killed in caves or buried by explosions, and accounts of Genaust's death vary, but he was believed to have been killed in or near a cave. Like Genaust, few of the troops involved in either of the flag-raisings survived the battle.

As a combat photographer, Genaust was trained to use a firearm, and he and another Marine protected the AP photographer as they climbed 546-foot Mount Suribachi. Genaust did not need to use his weapon; under heavy attack, the Japanese did not fire on the three men. Genaust's footage also helped prove that the raising - the second one that day - was not staged, as some later claimed. He got no credit for his footage, however, in accordance with Marine Corps policy.

Genaust was 38 when he died. He and his late wife, Adelaide, had no children. A few months after his death, she received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts on his behalf. "He was one of the most decent and honorable men I've ever known," said Tedd Thomey, who met Genaust on a battleship en route to Iwo Jima.

Thomey later worked at the San Francisco Chronicle with Rosenthal and wrote a memoir about Rosenthal and Genaust's moment on Suribachi. In 1995, he helped add a plaque honoring Genaust to the U.S. memorial atop the mountain. "He deserves to be at Arlington," said Thomey, 86, who lives in Long Beach, Calif. "That would be my wish."

A memorial to Genaust also decorates the American Legion Post in Effingham, Ill., thanks to his cousin Billy G. Genaust, who has handed out about 1,400 souvenir pens depicting the flag-raising scene, lest anyone forget his cousin's role. "Everyone in our area knows about him," he said. The annual Sgt. William Genaust Award has been established to honor the best videotape of a Marine Corps related news event.

Hal Buell. Writer, lecturer and an award-winning photo editor. The Unsung Filmmaker Of Iwo Jima. PARADE Magazine. February 20, 2005.

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