True Story: Russian for “Iwo Jima”

This week I wrote an obit for Abdulkhakim Ismailov. Remember him? I know, me neither. (I am trying hard to resist the urge to throw in a “who dat?” and — oops, guess I did it. Go Saints.) He was one of the Soviet soldiers pictured in the Soviet answer to the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Take a look at both, Iwo Jima taken in February 1945 and the Soviets raising the flag over the Reichstag in May of that year.

Since I mentioned Iwo Jima, let’s talk about that first. If you’ve read the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers, or if you’ve seen the movie based on the book, you know the story. U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima, or Sulphur Island, on February 19, 1945 and carried on a five-day battle with Japanese soldiers. The Japanese were hiding in a series of tunnels and more than 1500 underground bunkers dug into the island’s volcanic rock, from which they shot at the Americans. Despite heavy casualties, inhospitable terrain, and the stink of sulphur, U.S. Marines finally isolated Mount Suribachi, a volcanic vent at the south end of the island. A 40-man patrol managed to climb the soft volcanic ash to the top with little resistance from the Japanese. On the top, on February 23, 1945, they planted a small American flag.

That wasn’t the flag in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture. Navy Secretary James Forrestal wanted that first flag as a memento of the battle. So a couple of men were sent scurrying down the mountain to scare up another flag from one of the U.S. Navy vessels standing by offshore.

Rosenthal and several other newsmen were at the peak by the time the second flag, a larger one, was delivered. While Staff Sgt. Bill Genaust filmed the flag-raising, Rosenthal waited for his moment and snapped the shutter. Since he had no idea what the shot would look like til the film was developed, he also took a posed, group shot of the servicemen under the flag.

It wasn’t until AP developed the film later that they realized what an iconic photograph Rosenthal had taken. It was quickly put into circulation to build enthusiasm for the war — oh, let’s call it what it is, propaganda. All nations use propaganda in times of war, don’t they?

Later, someone asked Rosenthal if he had posed his shot. Thinking they meant the group shot he took at the end, Rosenthal said yes. So the rumor grew that the flag-raising shot had been posed. The film taken by Genaust indicates that it wasn’t.

Switch to Berlin, four months later.

Soviet war photographer Yevgeny Khaldei comes to Berlin with the Soviet army as they make a last push against the weakening German army. Troops concentrated on capturing the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament before a fire in 1933 that left the building empty. (It also gave the Nazis an excuse to tighten control over Germany and allow Hitler to rise to power. Amazing, isn’t it, that a fire could do that much to change world history?) Though the building was unused, capturing it would be a strong symbol of Russian domination over the German forces.

Khaldei had seen the Iwo Jima photo, taken several months earlier, and now being used heavily as a propaganda tool. He was looking for a similar, signature shot, and determined the top of the Reichstag was the perfect place to plant a Soviet flag.

The flag Khaldei photographed was, like the American flag on Iwo Jima, the second flag to be raised in that location. The first was raised above the Reichstag on April 30, 1945, before the fighting was over, and the Germans shot it down within hours. It took two more days to gain control over the area.

Khaldei then could take his picture, this time using a hammer-and-sickle flag made of three red tablecloths sewn together. Two soldiers were sent up to raise the flag, Yevgeny snapped his picture, and that was that.

Only not. This picture was to be used as propaganda, just like the Iwo Jima picture, and the government was not above manipulating details about it. Though the picture was not taken til early May, the official word was that it was taken April 30, to avoid the embarrassing detail that the Germans had shot the first flag down. The men who raised the flag were purposely misidentified as Russian soldier and a Georgian one, to please the Georgian Stalin. And the picture was altered to remove one of the two watches one of the soldiers was wearing — which indicated he may have indulged in some looting — and to add some dramatic smoke to the backdrop of the picture.

It was only in 1996 that our dead hero, Abdulkhakim Ismailov, was identified as the lower soldier in the picture. The man who identified him was the one who hoisted the flag was Alyosha Kovalyov, a Ukrainian who had also been told to keep quiet about his role in the event. Ismailov died February 16, 2010 in his home village of Chagar-Otar in the southern Russian region of Dagestan. I have yet to find out what happened to Kovalyov and will update if I do.

Khaldei, the photographer, went unidentified for years as well, though he covered the Nuremburg trials and had a long career in photography. It wasn’t until the fall of communism that two professors discovered his name in Russian archives and published a collection of his work called Witness to History: the Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei. The effort resulted in a Belgian film, as well, called Evgueni Khaldei: Photographer Under Stalin. Just after the film was finished, Yevgeny Khaldei died on October 6, 1997.

Yevgeny Khaldei, Berlin, May 2, 1945

Rosenthal died on August 20, 2006.

Joe Rosenthal on Mount Suribachi

Before I end this, I should make note that I got a great deal of help on this article from Famous Pictures Magazine,. The author of this online resource has a book proposal out, and I sure hope the right publisher finds him. If you’re into history (and why else would you be here), check it out.

Also, have you noticed: this was posted on February 19, 2010, the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the battle for Iwo Jima. Let freedom ring, y’all.

The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia

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