A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the story behind the historic photo of the Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima is priceless, and it can only be told by the man behind the image.
I'm not talking about Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer who snapped the shot in the midst of the World War II battle at the top of Mount Suribachi in Japan on February 23, 1945. I'm talking about James Griffith, the U.S. Marine and demolition specialist who first encountered Rosenthal at the base of the mountain. "When I got down, the snipers were going off and I told Joe, I said 'Joe, if a sniper would have hit me, people within a hundred feet of me would be dead' because I had that much demo with me," Griffith said.
Strapped with 100 pounds of explosives, Griffith had much more ground to cover. Griffith's mission: drop demo at the top. Rosenthal's mission: take pictures from the top. "He came up to me and said, 'Are you going to the top?' And I said, 'As soon as I get my breath I'm going to the top.' And he said, 'Can I go with you?' And I said, 'Yea... Come on'. So we crawled."
Sitting comfortably in his living room chair at his North Myrtle Beach home, the now 91-year-old Griffith said he planned to drop the demo, then head back down. But his lieutenant ordered him to stick by Rosenthal's side. "He says, 'What are you doing?' And I said 'I'm leaving' and he said 'Nope, you guard this man, don't let anybody hurt him. It's up to you to keep him alive.' I never guarded a person before. The only thing I knew how to do was to have my back against him. He'd look out the front and I'd look out the back."
The two spent a day and a half at the top and Rosenthal had shot all his pictures. "He was waiting for someone to go back so he could go with them. I'd gotten hit and I'd kid him up until he died that they were shooting at him because he was doing that flashbulb junk," Griffith said.
Who would have guessed one man's flashbulb junk would become an American treasure? The picture Rosenthal captured under Griffith's watch of the five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the American Flag at the top of Mount Suribachi was reprinted in thousands of publications. It was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and it is quite possibly the most reproduced image of World War II.
However, the one photo Rosenthal gave to Griffith doesn't compare to the thousands of prints seen in books, galleries and on the internet over the years. "Being Joe, he signed it in pencil, which I thought when he gave it to me, 'Why didn't you use a pen?' Well, I found out when you use a pencil it would print. A pen would fade out, so you can see this is the original right there," Griffith said.
To this day, Rosenthal's signature hasn't faded. It's a scribble that serves as a reminder that Griffith had experienced it all. He'd even been to Washington, D.C. to see the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photo brought to life in a 1951 sculpture known as the Marine Corps War Memorial. What Griffith hadn't seen was the World War II Memorial in our Nation's Capitol, but his opportunity to do so would take off from Myrtle Beach.
"When I first heard of the Honor Flight, Cathy my daughter and my two sons said you got to go. Now, I didn't want to go, but I think now it would have been something terrible for me to miss. Every soldier, sailor or Marine, they are always better off when they get in a crowd of other soldiers, sailors and Marines. I don't know what it is but it seems to be that way," Griffith said.
On May 25, 2011 Griffith joined 100 other World War II Veterans for the one day charter flight to Washington, D.C. to see Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Air Force Memorial, just to name a few.
Griffith's sons, Jimmy and Davy, accompanied their father on the Honor Flight as guardians. They took turns pushing Griffith in his wheelchair from one memorial to the next. He was happy to share some of his favorite moments on the trip. "I had never been to the World War II monument and I couldn't believe the size of it. And after Jimmy pushed all over, Davy pushed me around some too. I don't think they could believe the size of it and I don't know whether the people in South Carolina know it or not, or care, but the granite came from South Carolina. All of the granite in the World War II monument is from South Carolina," Griffith recalled.
The group spent two hours there before running into 500 or 600 school kids from Texas. "Now when we started to leave, they lined up on both sides of the walkway when we left. They'd found out who we were, so they lined up on both sides and shook hands with us. To tell you the truth about it, sort of makes your arms hurt when you go through that large of crowd," he said.
Griffith also got a special surprise at the Iwo Jima Memorial where hundreds of marines were preparing for a Memorial Day ceremony. "What we enjoyed was when we went up that hill at the Marine Memorial, and being part of it from the beginning, and there's 500 Marines out there marching. I had no idea we'd run into that and when the First Sergeant came down, that was a terrific thing. For him to come down and call my name off and I don't know how he got it.
Maybe it's because of all the Marines seen in the pictures taken by Rosenthal during the Battle at Iwo Jima, Griffith may very well be the last one standing. Pointing to the men in one of the photos, Griffith said, "As far as I know, this boy, this boy, this boy and this boy is dead. He lived in Cherry Grove and he died in an automobile accident about three years ago. We think me and him were the last two, so that leaves me."
NewsChannel 15 profiled Griffith as a result of the Honor Flight Fundraiser that will be Thursday at Wholesale Furniture at 1951 Mister Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information on the fundraiser, click here.