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The inside story of the famous Iwo Jima photo

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Many thought the famous photo of U.S. troops raising the flag at Iwo Jima was staged

Hal Buell, a former executive newsphoto editor with the Associated Press, explains what happened

CNN  — 

Some say it’s the most famous, perfectly composed news photo of all time.

Tuesday marks 71 years since Joe Rosenthal captured the iconic picture of five U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor raising an American flag over the battle-scarred Japanese island of Iwo Jima.

The image was so inspiring that, by 1945 standards, it went viral. It triggered a wave of national hope that Japanese forces would soon be crushed and peace was near. It spurred millions of Americans to buy war bonds to keep the nation on solid financial footing. Basically, this simple photo was so powerful it helped win World War II.

But Rosenthal was just one of several cameramen on the island’s Mount Suribachi that day. Their images reveal the entire story behind the famous picture. They provide clues into the anger and ugly rumors over whether the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was staged.

Hal Buell, a former executive newsphoto editor at the Associated Press, knew Rosenthal. Buell shared with CNN the inside story surrounding the photo.

“The most surprising thing to me is … that even today there are many people who believe that the picture was posed,” Buell said. “It still comes up over and over again.”

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    On February 23, 1945, Rosenthal, an AP photographer covering the battle for Iwo Jima, had heard Marines were headed up the mountain. He decided to make the climb and see what was going on.

    But Sgt. Louis Lowery, a Marine photographer for Leatherneck magazine, had beat him to it. Lowery was already on the summit snapping photos of Marines proudly raising the American flag.

    For miles around, the sight of Old Glory atop the mountain set off whistles, gunfire and celebrations. The noise stirred up a firefight with Japanese soldiers near the summit. Lowery dove for cover and fell 50 feet, smashing his camera.

    Lowery decided to descend the mountain to get new equipment. On the way, he ran into Rosenthal coming up with two Marines: Pfc. Bob Campbell, who was also a photographer, and Sgt. William Genaust, who was a motion picture photographer.

    According to Buell, Lowery said, “Hey, you’re late fellas, there’s already a flag up there.” Lowery told Rosenthal that he should keep going to experience the breathtaking view.

    As Rosenthal got closer to the summit, the flag began to come into view.

    “He stopped and was struck by a wave of emotion about what it cost to put that flag up there,” Buell said. Rosenthal thought about all the bloody fighting and the Marines who sacrificed their lives to capture the mountain.

    Reaching the top, Rosenthal, Campbell and Genaust spotted a group of Marines holding a second flag. The Marines said they’d been ordered to replace the first flag with a bigger one so more people could see it below.

    Suddenly Rosenthal knew he had a second chance to photograph an important moment on the summit.

    Let’s stop a minute and remember that this was long before today’s sophisticated cameras and digital technology. Photographers took one picture at a time, often with only one opportunity to get the perfect shot.

    Rosenthal had to quickly decide whether to shoot both flags simultaneously – one rising while the other lowered – or to photograph the second flag as it was being raised.

    He chose to focus on the second flag.

    Rosenthal’s choice made all the difference.

    “Joe did not pose that picture,” Buell said.

    He explains what happened: “While the photographers were taking their positions to get the shot, Genaust – the motion picture photographer – asked Joe, “I’m not in your way, am I?’ Joe turned to look at Genaust, who suddenly saw the flag rising and said, ‘Hey, there she g