On February 23, 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a unique moment in time at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal’s photograph of the Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi endures as one of the greatest war photographs in U.S. history. His image resonated with the American people and became an iconic representation of the fierce resolve of the greatest generation to fight for the preservation of our democratic way of life.
Rosenthal’s photograph stirred the heart of a sculptor named Dr. Felix W. de Weldon. On duty with the U.S. Navy at the time Rosenthal’s photograph was released, Dr. de Weldon immediately constructed a small scale model of the scene. After the war, he worked for nine and a half years to depict the scene on a more massive scale. Once Dr. de Weldon completed the plaster model, he spent an additional three years overseeing the bronze casting process.
After the massive sculpture was completed, the various parts were shipped to our nation’s capital and assembled at Arlington National Cemetery. President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially dedicated Dr. de Weldon’s bronze memorial on November 10, 1954 — the 179th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corp.
The working model of the memorial was stored at Dr. de Weldon’s summer home and studio in Newport, Rhode island. In October 1981, Dr. de Weldon gave this full-sized working model to Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas. Dr. de Weldon felt that the climate at this South Texas location was ideal for the preservation of the molding-plaster figures.
The fact that Corporal Harlon H. Block, the Marine placing the flagpole into the ground, was a native of the nearby town of Weslaco also influenced Dr. de Weldon’s decision about where his sculpture should permanently reside. Block was killed at Iwo Jima just six days after the flag raising. His gravesite is located behind the monument.
The massive sculpture, dedicated April 16, 1982, is situated on the Marine Military Academy Parade Ground. When my wife and I drove to Harlingen to visit the Iwo Jima Monument and turned onto Iwo Jima Boulevard, our first sight of the monument caught us completely off guard. Our jaws dropped at the inspiring sight of this moment in time captured by a war photographer and sculpted by a Navy veteran.
Dr. de Weldon hoped that his gift would serve as an inspiration to the young cadets at Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy. There is no doubt that it has done just that. But his gift also serves as an inspiration to the many visitors who travel to Harlingen from all over the country to see this magnificent memorial to a time when uncommon valor was a common virtue.
If your travels take you anywhere near South Texas, make it a point to drive whatever extra miles you need to in order to visit the Iwo Jima Memorial and Museum at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Those of us who enjoy the blessings of living in the United States of America certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women of the greatest generation for their courage and sacrifices. I am thankful for Joe Rosenthal and Dr. Felix W. de Weldon for their gift to the American people.