Iwo Jima Film Sequences Coming Soon- History Alive!

Faye Higbee
iwo jima film

We’re all used to seeing the iconic images by Joe Rosenthal of Marines on February 23, 1945, raising the US Flag on Mount Suribachi. But what most don’t know about are the reels of movie images taken by Marine Corps Combat Cameramen. There are other images that also elicit the emotions of war. Those reels of Iwo Jima film are being digitized for the first time for all to see.

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Greg Wilsbacher is the curator of the Iwo Jima film collection. The battle for the island was one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. They are digitizing the collection of films made by Marine Corps photographers from WWII through the 1970s in conjunction with the History Division of the Marine Corps and the University of South Carolina.

More than 50 Marine combat cameramen operated across the eight square miles of Iwo Jima during the battle, which stretched from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945. Many shot still images, but at least 26 shot motion pictures. Three of these Marine cinematographers were killed in action.

Even before the battle began, Marine Corps leaders knew they wanted a comprehensive visual account of the battle. Beyond a historical record, combat photography from Iwo Jima would assist in planning and training for the invasion of the Japanese main islands. Some Marine cameramen were assigned to the front lines of individual units, and others to specific activities, like engineering and medical operations.

Most of the cameramen on Iwo Jima used 100-foot film reels that could capture about two and a half minutes of film. Sgt. Genaust, who shot the color sequence atop Suribachi, shot at least 25 reels— just over an hour of film—before he was killed, roughly halfway through the campaign.

Greg Wilsbacher via The Smithsonian/ The Conversation.

Wilsbacher believes that digitizing the Marine Corps footage of not just WWII, but up to 1970, will allow people to connect with the humanity of those who fought the wars. Seeing the troops as they walked across battlefields, or eating their meager rations, those are images that have an impact. The battle for Iwo Jima saw 6,800 Americans killed and 19,200 wounded. Many of those men in the footage never made it home- and the same for the photographers.

The films are a reminder that, 75 years after World War II, all Americans remain tied to Iwo Jima, as well as battlegrounds across the world like Monte CassinoPeleliuBataan and Colleville-sur-mer. Americans may find their relatives in this footage, or they may not. But what they will find is evidence of the sacrifices made by those fighting on their behalf, sacrifices that connect each and every American to the battle of Iwo Jima.

Greg Wilsbacher (The Conversation.)

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Featured screenshot: Two Marines in the Marine Corps’ 5th Division cemetery on Iwo Jima pay their respects to a fallen comrade. United States Marine Corps Film Repository, USMC 101863 (16mm film frame)

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