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74th Anniversary of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising

Two Photos, Two Prizes, and Two Stamps

The Second Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi, February 23, 1945. Photo by Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press.

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. This scene, captured by AP reporter Joe Rosenthal, had been the source of controversy for years. Was the photo staged? Who were the men in the photo? These questions may have finally been laid to rest, but one thing everyone could always agree on is the iconic nature of this image. The photo was published in newspapers across the US just two days after it was taken.

Rosenthal's photo was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1945; this is the only photograph to win the award in the same year it was taken. The Pulitzer Prize selection jury submitted a list of seven photographs they felt should win the award, as well as six additional candidates. The flag raising photo was not among the 13 candidates. The Pulitzer Advisory Board decided not to choose any of the jury's recommendations. The award went to the "Photograph of the Marines Planting the American Flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima" by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. This photo was just too famous not to win the award.

By July of 1945, the image had even made its way onto a new 3-cent stamp:

3-Cent Stamp Released in July 1945. Author's Collection.

The inevitable Pulitzer Prize and stamp issue for the flag raising photograph is ironic given than one year before, a different photograph by a very different photographer was overlooked for those very same honors, party because it was so well-known.

On August 9, 1943, US Army Signal Corps photographer Lt. John Stephen Wever captured a poignant image of an army medic administering blood plasma to a wounded soldier while two Sicilian women and two young girls watched the heartbreaking scene before them. This photograph was published in American newspapers on September 2, 1943 and became the first one to show a critically wounded American after a recent change to the censorship policy. It spurred a surge in blood donations and was used in Red Cross ads.

PFC Harvey W. White Administers Blood Plasma to Pvt. Roy Willis Humphreys at the 7th Infantry Aid Station in Sant'Agata, Sicily on August 9, 1943. Photo by US Army Signal Corps Photographer Lt. John Stephen Wever.

Wever's photograph was on the shortlist for the 1944 Pulitzer Prize as "Wounded Soldier Receiving Blood Plasma, by a Signal Corps photographer, United States Army." He was not even mentioned by name. The report noted that, "The picture of the wounded soldier receiving an infusion of blood plasma is already a classic, and has been reproduced so many times as a part of the Red Cross campaign for blood donors that it is a familiar scene." The report then went on to the extol the bravery of the photographer responsible for the other photo being considered, Frank Filan of the Associated Press. In the end, the committee awarded the prize to Frank Filan for "Tarawa Island" and a second photo, "Homecoming," by Earl L. Bunker of the Omaha World-Herald. Wever's plasma photo was not recognized.

While both 1944 winners have their merits, neither have the emotional impact of Wever's photo, in my opinion. The committee had to temper the carnage depicted in "Tarawa Island" with the poignancy of "Homecoming." Why not give Wever's photo, which had both elements, the prize? I think it was partly because of the exposure it had already received, but mostly because Wever was a Signal Corps photographer, not a civilian. He was just doing his job, while Filan, as a civilian there voluntarily, was lauded for his bravery on Tarawa in the committee report. Wever is not even mentioned by name. No one mentions that he enlisted voluntarily in 1942, leaving a job as a professional photographer. Or that he served with the 196th Signal Photo Company, documenting the invasion of Sicily and the whole Italian campaign until the end of the war. His bravery goes untold.

The photo of the plasma transfusion was certainly not Wever's only contribution. At that very same aid station, he took other photos that would be printed in the newspaper - and very nearly become a stamp. This photo shows Corporal Elmont Dye of Kansas City, Missouri administering plasma. It was later printed in newspapers across the country incorrectly identifying the location as Salerno, Italy, not Sant'Agata on Sicily.

Cpl. Elmont Dye of Kansas City, MO Administers Blood Plasma to a Wounded Man at the 7th Infantry Aid Station, Sant'Agata, Sicily, August 9, 1943. Photo by Lt. John Stephen Wever.

Photo by Lt. John Stephen Wever. Incorrectly identified as Salerno, the photo was taken at Sant'Agata, Sicily on August 9, 1943.

In October of 1944, the Postmaster General alerted President Roosevelt that they were preparing models for a proposed Red Cross Blood Plasma stamp. The stamp had been suggested by Miss Olympia Gochis of Everett, MA and Mr. H. A. Van Bestal of Brookline, MA on February 23, 1944 - coincidentally one year before the Iwo Jima flag raising. Roosevelt was an avid philatelist and personally approved all stamp designs during his time as president. In January of 1945, Roosevelt was advised that the Postmaster General had some new designs for him to inspect with the goal of issuing the stamp in March of 1945. In March, Roosevelt was updated again; now there was demand for a stamp commemorating the Iwo Jima flag raising, but issues arose in finding a printer for the blood plasma stamp, as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the American Bank Note Company were engaged in printing invasion currency and could not do the work until June or July of 1945. Roosevelt replied that, "I see no particular reason for going ahead with the blood plasma stamp as a matter of haste." Roosevelt died the following month, and the blood plasma stamp fell by the wayside. The stamp depicting Joe Rosenthal's photo was released in July of 1945.

Had the blood plasma stamp been issued, it would have looked like this mock-up featuring Lt. Wever's image of Cpl. Elmont Dye:

In anticipation of the blood plasma stamp, first day covers for stamp collectors were even prepared. This one features the other, more famous image by Lt. Wever of Pvt. Humphreys and PFC White.

First Day Cover for the Blood Plasma Stamp that was Never Issued. Author's Collection.

And who was the man who was almost featured on the stamp? Corporal Elmont Dye was born on April 19, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri. His 1937 high school yearbook notes that he was captain of the track squad, a "greased lightning sprinter." He served with the Third Medical Battalion of the Third Infantry Division along with PFC Harvey White in Sicily and Italy. This promising young man survived the war, but died at age 39 in 1960. His death certificate lists the cause as Laennec's cirrhosis, which is typically due to alcoholism. One has to wonder if Dye's wartime experiences contributed to his early death. On the surface, he may have survived the war physically unscathed, but in his role as medic, he must have seen unspeakable horrors. Perhaps his desire to forget what he witnessed ultimately lead to is his untimely death. Dye undoubtedly saved many lives as a medic in the field - and as the subject of Lt. Wever's photograph, which inspired blood donation on the home front. Dye's sacrifice - a life cut short - was just as great as that of Pvt. Humphreys, who died of his wounds the day after the more famous plasma photo was taken, and the three Marines flag raisers who were later killed on Iwo Jima, Sgt. Michael Strank, Cpl. Harlon Block, and PFC Franklin Sousley.

The Nor'easter Yearbook, 1937.

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