Japanese film crew gets story about iconic Iwo Jima image

Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

By DAWN SCHABBING | Effingham Daily News, Ill. (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 22, 2015

EFFINGHAM (Tribune News Service) — Nearly everyone recognizes the image shot by military photographer Joseph Rosenthal, of the six Marines raising the makeshift flagpole and the American flag, on Mount Suribachi, during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

But, fewer have heard of Sgt. William H. Genaust, a U.S. Marine filmmaker who captured the same flag raising on color film, Feb. 23, 1945. He never lived to see the footage of the iconic flag raising. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

On Friday, a cousin to the Marine, Billy Genaust of Effingham, who is 83, was interviewed by a Japanese-based film crew, NHK Japan Broadcast Corp. NHK is Japan's only national public television broadcaster. The crew selected Sgt. Genaust's actions to be a part of their documentary themed, "Fighting in the Pacific." It will be aired on Japan's public television in August.

The television crew has been interviewing friends and relatives with stories that pertain to the Pacific battles, “with an emphasis on combat film footage,” said Midori Yanagihara, a freelancer with Japan's public television station. She said because of Sgt. Genaust's role in the filmmaking of the flag raising, they wanted to include an interview with his cousin, at his Effingham home.

Genaust was killed nine days after the historic filming, by Japanese soldiers who were hiding in a cave that he entered. His body was among others entombed in that cave when bulldozers sealed off the openings. Their bodies have yet to be found.

With family members once from Edgewood, the Marine's name has been placed on the Memorial Wall at Post 1168 American Legion at the request of Billy Genaust. He added there once was a memorial marker near where it is believed his body remains, which reads: "Sgt. William Homer Genaust Marine Combat Cameraman Shot Historic Movie of Flag Raising Won Bronze Star Killed in Action, Mar. 4, 1945 Age 38."

Letters to Billy Genaust have come from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and the National Press Photographers Association Inc., both commemorating the efforts and actions of Sgt. William Genaust, plus providing authenticity and historical preservation to the story. Billy Genaust estimates he was around age 11 when his Marine cousin was killed in action.

Yanagihara said that Genaust was on Iwo Jima carrying both his weapon and movie-camera and the Marines typically used 16 mm color film shot with a Kodachrome camera.

“Seven American veterans will be interviewed for this story, all which are Marines,” Yanagihara said. “When you talk about combat footage in the Pacific, most of the videographers came from the U.S. Marines. In the Marines, you were infantry first, and camera crew second."

Notably, in the last 20 years Sgt. Genaust has been given credit for his heroic filming of the flag raising event on Mount Suribachi during World War II. According to a letter from The National Press Photographers Association Inc., "Genaust lost his life nine days after taking his immortal movies of the flag raising in a completely unselfish but very dangerous action."

The letter dated Oct. 19, 2000, read that days following the filming, Genaust led the way into a cave when he was caught with enemy machine-gun fire. His motion picture coverage of the historical flag raising was actually the second flag raising that day. The photographers were hopeful to capture a significant part of this war's history. The still image earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and it also served as a model for a Marine Corps memorial in Arlington, Va.

"I got a call from the 5th Marine Division who explained the Japanese were working on this documentary and asked if I would agree to this interview. This is good. This keeps the story alive," said Genaust.

Decades since the filming and subsequent death, efforts are still being made to bring Sgt. Genaust's remains home.

Effingham's Billy Genaust has received the help from a stranger, Bob Bolus of Scranton, Pa., who had read an article in a Parade magazine about the Marine being left behind. As a former solider in the Army, Bolus was disturbed by the facts. He has made it his mission to bring home the Marine's remains and has visited the area four times.

“Everyone on that island who died were warriors. And they are all entitled to be brought home. Both Americans and Japanese were fighting for what they believed in. How can we leave someone behind who gave us so much, especially the iconic film images of the flag raising?” asked Bolus.

Bolus began making contacts and researching Genaust's story, starting in about 2005. As a civilian he has tried without success to work with JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command with the U.S. Department of Defense. JPAC has said Genaust is military property. He said he had a whole team ready to conduct a search on a mission that he's funded personally.

"(The location) was a man-made cave with a spider hole. We believed we could find remains if we could get in there. We could identify these men by their dog tags and uniforms," Bolus said. "We're here today because of what they did. World War II was probably most notable because we were fighting Japan and Germany, many were only 18-19-year-old kids."

Others have been working on this similar mission for 50 years, said Genaust. He said his cousin never considered himself a hero, but an ordinary citizen doing his patriotic duty.


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