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The Real History Behind 5 Famous Military Photographs

These iconic images summed up entire wars in the public imagination.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s certainly true of some of these iconic photos. Not only have these pictures won accolades including the Pulitzer Prize, but they have captured the public’s imagination and, in many cases, summed up entire wars for thousands of people. 

From the horrors of war to the triumphs of victory, from remembrance to regret, these five photos have made history as surely as they captured it. Some were taken in the heat of conflict, others years after the fact, but all of them captured some aspect of the war they sought to chronicle. These indelible images left their mark not only on our understanding of conflict but on our understanding of ourselves and our relationships to nationalism, patriotism, suffering, and war itself. Without them, our conceptions of the victories and defeats that they chronicle would be incomplete.

Warsaw Ghetto Boy

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Holocaust is perhaps the most notorious wartime atrocity in history, and there is no single image that has captured it for as many people as this famous photograph. Though the photographer and exact provenance of the photo is unknown, it clearly shows a young Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands in the air as an SS officer points a gun in his direction. Others surround him, mainly women and children, but the young boy is at the center of the tableaux and, for many, has come to represent all the victims of the Holocaust, as the individuals in the photo were sent to extermination camps like Treblinka or Majdanek, from which few returned. The identity—and therefore the fate—of the young boy in the photo remains unknown, even all these years later, but most everyone in the world has seen his face.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

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There may be no wartime photograph more well-known than the one taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945. Showing six U.S. Marines erecting an American flag atop Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima during the closing days of World War II, it was the only photograph to ever win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year that it was initially published. It first appeared in Sunday newspapers just two days after it was taken, and has since become perhaps the most recognizable wartime photo in history, thanks in part to its use in the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial, near Arlington National Cemetery. The photograph actually depicts the second of two flags erected atop the mountain after it was taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima, and three of the men in the photograph didn’t survive the battle. In the years since it was taken, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima has come to represent American victory during the second World War.

V-J Day in Times Square

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Almost everyone has seen the image: a sailor, wearing the unmistakable cap of the U.S. Navy, passionately kissing a nurse in the middle of Times Square. The occasion was the anticipation of the announcement that Japan had surrendered. The iconic photograph was captured by Alfred Eisenstadt and published in Life magazine, where it was given a full-page spread, opposite several other photographs of celebrations in other cities across the country. Adding to the mystique of the unforgettable image is that no one really knows who the subjects are. The story goes that the sailor is kissing a total stranger, a spontaneous act of celebration at the end of the war, and Eisenstadt has written that the sailor was “grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all – young girls and old ladies alike.” Because he was unable to obtain the names of the two individuals, and because the photograph shows little of their actual features, they have remained mysterious, though numerous people throughout the years have claimed to be one of the figures in the photograph.

The Terror of War

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, perhaps no other photo has as eloquently and shockingly captured what its title conveys as this one taken by Vietnamese-American Nick Ut of several children in Vietnam fleeing an American napalm attack on their village. Front and center is nine-year-old Kim Phuc, who pulled off her burning clothes and ran naked down the street. In fact, Phuc’s nudity nearly prevented the famous photo from being published, as the Associated Press expressed reservations about printing it—reservations that were ultimately overcome by how powerful and newsworthy the photograph was deemed to be. Immediately after snapping the photo, Nick Ut realized how badly injured Kim Phuc was, and rushed her to the hospital. She survived her injuries and now lives in Canada. The two remain friends to this day.

Doughboy Joe

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Joseph Ambrose served in the 140th Infantry during World War I, from 1917 until 1919. However, the photograph that made him an icon wasn’t taken until 1982. In it, Ambrose is dressed in his “doughboy” uniform from the First World War, attending a dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He holds a folded U.S. flag, the one that was draped over the coffin of his son, Clement, who died in the Korean War. At the time, Ambrose was 86, and he was photographed by Mickey Sanborn, a camera operator for the Department of Defense. What makes the photograph especially poignant—and representative of how generations of soldiers have reckoned with both their service and their return home—is that Joseph Ambrose wore that uniform to numerous Veterans Day parades and VFW events “to honor the veterans of the Korean and the Vietnam wars, wars he believed America was trying then to forget” (as stated in a speech by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin).