The Real Stories Behind The Most Famous Military Pictures Of All Time

The true stories behind famous military photos show the complexity of war and difficulty of interpreting history. These famous images may be staged, have incorrect facts behind them, or just be more than meets the eye. Despite that, these photos have reverberated throughout time, becoming archetypal images representing the conflicts they document.

They are especially important because photographs can capture the imagination and change the course of history. The stories behind theses images add further richness and depth to the photographs, showing that while a picture can replace a thousand words, pictures alone are not able to tell the real stories behind these famous photos.

Photo: Public Domain

  • The Times Square Kiss At The End Of WWII

    One of the most well-known images of the 20th century is the photo of a sailor kissing a woman on V-J Day in Times Square. The photo symbolized the optimism and a sense of relief that came with the end of WWII. However, there is more than meets the eye with this photo.

    Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped the photograph on August 14, 1945. For more than 30 years, the identity of the woman being kissed by sailor George Mendonsa was unknown. In the 1960s, Greta Zimmer Friedman saw the photo and wrote to the magazine saying she was the woman. Still, it wasn't until 1980 that Life contacted her and she met with the photographer. 

    While the picture was often interpreted as an embrace between lovers celebrating the end of the war, Friedman said that, "I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I'm not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating." She further detailed the event saying, "It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank God the war is over.'" Friedman had fled Austria to settle in the US in 1939, but her parents died in the concentration camps and she never went back to her home country. 

    Mendonsa's future wife Rita is actually in the photo. He was seeing a film with her on their first date, they got the news the war had ended, and the two left the theater to celebrate. The sailor grabbed the first nurse he saw and planted a kiss on her, with his date looking on in the background. Eventually the two got married and stayed together the rest of their lives. 

  • The Iwo Jima Flag-Raising Photo

    Few photos are as ensconced in the public imagination as the Iwo Jima Flag Raising. The picture won the Pulitzer Prize for photographer Joe Rosenthal, was turned into a famous statue, and even had a film made about the men who raised the flag. While it has often been said that the photo was staged, the truth is a little more complicated. 

    After many Marines died to take Mount Suribachi, a detachment of soldiers was ordered to remove the small flag that had been originally raised and replace it with a larger flag so it could be seen more clearly. Joe Rosenthal, a photographer with the Associated Press, had climbed the mountain for a view of the entire island. At the top, the Marines were getting ready to raise the flag and he snapped the picture that would become world renowned. 

    Describing what makes the photo so perfect, Rosenthal's editor Hal Buell said,

    You have this strong, diagonal line made by the flag staff. You have the flag snapping in the breeze. You have the pyramid-like shape of the Marines pushing the flag up. The men obviously are separate, but they appear as one. The blank background enhances the action by providing no distractions. Also, the photo is gifted with a softly filtered light. A very thin haze of clouds filters the light so that the shadows aren't harsh, but there is detail in all the shadows on the uniforms and the flag.

    Another photographer, Sergeant Lewis Lowery, was reportedly upset that a photo he took of the first flag raising was not as popular. He spread a rumor that the photo was staged, and Rosenthal confirmed that it was. It turns out, he thought he was being asked about a different photo. He tried to set the record straight, but the belief that the picture was staged persisted.

    The identity of the men in the picture was also disputed for many years. In 2016, the Marine Corps officially listed the men in the photo as: Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Rene Gagnon, Private First Class Ira Hayes, Private First Class Harold Schultz, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, and Sergeant Michael Strank. It was long thought that John Bradley — the father of James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers — was in the photo, but in 2016 the Marine Corps concluded that Schultz and not Bradley was depicted in the image. 

  • Execution Of Viet Cong Prisoner In 1968

    This photo of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, commander of the South Vietnam national police, killing Viet Cong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem on February 1, 1968, during the Tet Offensive galvanized the anti-war movement and perhaps changed the course of the entire war. Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for the image but struggled with the photo's use by peace activists in the US. Adams served in the Marines, and thought the photo showed a just action due to the number of deaths caused by the Viet Cong during the offensive.

    Peter Arnett, an Associated Press correspondent with Adams in Vietnam, said that the photo is a "brilliant piece of photography. He had the courage to stand a foot or two away from a murderous officer who had his pistol out and shot the man in front of him." While Adams never understood the appeal of the photo, the picture of a handcuffed prisoner became a symbol of the cruelty of the Vietnam War. 

  • The Situation Room During The Osama Bin Laden Raid

    While photographs of soldiers carrying out military operations often become memorable or famous, pictures of leaders are often overlooked. However, the most identifiable image to come out of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is that of President Barack Obama and his national security team monitoring the operation from the White House. While the mission was a success, at the time it wasn't even certain that bin Laden would be in the compound, much less that he would be killed there. 

    The photo captures the tension and urgency of the moment. President Obama called the raid "the most important single day of my presidency," and yet he is tucked away in a corner of the table while others are framed more prominently. The man sitting at the top of the table is General Brad Webb, who did not realize that the president would come into the Situation Room during the operation. Later, President Obama recalled that moment and explained why he wasn't at the head of the table: "'You don’t worry about it. You just focus on what you’re doing.  I’m sure we can find a chair and I’ll sit right next to him.’ And that’s how I ended up (on a) folding chair.”

  • The Evacuation Of Saigon In 1975

    The Evacuation Of Saigon In 1975
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use

    The end of America and Vietnam battling was immortalized by photographer Hubert van Es in his April 29, 1975, shot. His photo shows a helicopter loading people from a Saigon rooftop while North Vietnamese troops were taking the city. While many people think the image shows the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon, it is actually of the Pittman apartment buildings, where CIA employees and their families stayed. 

    Twelve to 14 people managed to escape in the helicopter of the approximately 30 that were on the roof. Van Es said the people who remained stood on the roof waiting for rescue, but no other choppers came. The moment was so dramatic it was featured as the climax of the musical Miss Saigon. Despite its fame, the photographer constantly had to correct the idea that the photo was of the embassy.

  • The London Blitz Milkman Of WWII

    After Hitler's army drove the British from France, his Luftwaffe (the aerial warfare branch) set their sights on England. The campaign of terror bombing saw Germany lead countless raids across the country. In London, people hid in the city's tube stations. This was the time that the "Keep Calm and Carry On" slogan became popular, as a symbol of British resolve and stiff upper lip mentality. 

    Under the belief that publicizing the destruction of London would hurt morale in the country, censors prevented newspapers from printing images of the toll the bombing was taking. However, photographer Fred Morley thought of a creative way to circumvent their restrictions.

    On October 9, 1940, he saw a group of firefighters putting out flames caused by German bombs. Morley obtained a milkman's uniform, complete with bottles, and photographed his assistant walking through the debris. The following day people all over England saw the photograph of a British citizen continuing on through the chaos. Eventually, the Germans ended the Blitz after taking heavy losses.