The Stories Behind History’s Most Iconic War Photos

Photo Credit: 1. Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons 2. Chris Hondros / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons 2. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

For nearly two centuries, photographers have been using pictures to document the horrors of war. This has led to some of history’s most famous photos, yet many are unaware of the events that led up to them. Here are the real stories behind nine of the most iconic war photos ever taken.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855)

Early war photography was limited in scope, given the infancy of the technology, but that doesn’t mean the images aren’t any less jarring. British photographer Roger Fenton was sent to cover the fighting between Britain and Russia during the Crimean War. He wasn’t permitted to photograph the combat as it happened, but did cover its aftermath.

Empty dirt road
The Valley of the Shadow of Death. (Photo Credit: Roger Fenton / Wikimedia Commons)

The area pictured above was dubbed “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” by the British, due to the amount of shelling that occurred there. It was often covered with cannonballs fired during the fighting between the two sides.

While considered the “first iconic photograph of war,” some question its authenticity, as there’s a secondary photo of the same area without cannonballs strewn across the ground. After some investigation, it was determined soldiers likely gathered and placed them in ditches to reuse later.

Hitler visiting Paris landmarks (1940)

Adolf Hitler was conscientious of his public image, meaning few were privy to his personal life. One such person was Heinrich Hoffman, who, by 1940, was the only individual allowed to photograph the Führer. He was there in June 1940, when Hitler and his Nazi generals toured Paris‘ famous landmarks.

Hitler and other Nazi officials walking in front of the Eiffel Tower
Hitler touring the Eiffel Tower. (Photo Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

This photo in front of the Eiffel Tower is one from Hitler’s first and only visit to the French capital. According to the Führer, the most impactful moment of the trip was a visit to Napoleon Bonaparte‘s tomb, after which he remarked, “That was the greatest and finest moment of my life.”

During the trip, he also ordered the destruction of two World War I monuments – of General Charles Mangin and Edith Cavell – as he didn’t want reminders of Germany’s prior defeat.

Warsaw Ghetto boy (1943)

The exact history surrounding this photograph isn’t known, but there are theories about the boy and the individual who took the photo. According to multiple sources, this image was likely captured by Franz Konrad, a Nazi photographer, and depicts those in the Warsaw Ghetto being rounded up and taken to concentration camps.

Polish Jews holding their hands up in surrender
Forcibly pulled out of bunkers. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s speculated the young boy is Tsvi Chaim Nussbaum, who hid in a bunker during the final liquidation of the ghetto before being found by German soldiers. SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche is pointing a submachine gun in his direction to keep the boy and the rest of the crowd in line.

This photo became one of the most famous of the Holocaust, and the boy came to represent its Jewish victims and the children who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. If he is actually Nussbaum, he survived the war and went on to become a doctor in New York.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima (1945)

Arguably the most recognizable photograph from the Pacific War is Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The image was snapped by the Associated Press photographer atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, and is a symbol of America’s resolve during their fight against the Japanese.

Soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons)

On that day, US Marine commander Colonel Dave Severance was leading E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The fight was important, as the US needed the island’s strategically-placed airstrips.

After defeating the Japanese, Severance sent his company to the top of Mt. Suribachi to plant the American flag, an action initially photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery. However, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wanted the flag as a memento, so the commander sent a second group up the mountain to install another flag. It was this effort that Rosenthal captured on film.

V-J Day in Times Square (1945)

Many are aware of this photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, taken in Times Square on August 14, 1945. It depicts a US Navy sailor kissing a stranger (a dental assistant) on Victory Over Japan Day – better known as “V-J Day” – in New York City.

Sailor kissing a woman in Times Square
V-J Day in Times Square. (Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt / Getty Images)

President Harry Truman was anticipated to announce the end of the war that evening, and a spontaneous celebration occurred in Times Square. According to Eisenstaedt, he was unable to collect the names of those he was photographing, given the speed at which everything was happening. All that’s known for certain is this image was shot south of 45th Street, looking north from where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge, around 5:51 P.M.

Over the years, there have been attempts to identify the two individuals. Unfortunately, their names (and faces) remain under speculation to this day.

Flower Power (1967)

The March on the Pentagon was a large-scale demonstration against the Vietnam War on October 21, 1967. More than 100,000 protestors attended a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, after which 50,000 marched to the Pentagon. It was there The Washington Star photographer Bernie Boston snapped Flower Power, showing George Harris placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s M14 rifle.

Men placing flowers in the stocks of military guns
Flower Power. (Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Getty Images)

The March on the Pentagon was organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Those who participated were met by soldiers from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and it was at this point Harris stepped forward and started placing flowers in the M14 barrels.

The photo is seen as a symbol of the Flower Power movement, which began as a way to protest against the Vietnam War. The movement used non-violent objects, as opposed to violence, to share its opposition.

“Tank Man” (1989)

The violence in Beijing in 1989 shocked the world. The student-led protests aimed to bring democracy to China, and many held firm, despite being faced with armed troops who fired at those blocking the military advance into Tiananmen Square. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government declared martial law and sent the People’s Liberation Army to occupy central Beijing. Thousands were killed and even more injured.

Lone male protestor blocking four tanks in the middle of the road
“Tank Man.” (Photo Credit: Archive Photos / Getty Images)

The most iconic image of the incident was taken the next day, when an unknown man stood in front of a row of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square. He continually shifted his position as the tanks tried to manoeuvre past him. Sadly, there is no reliable information regarding the fate of the protestor, as China has censored the image and the accompanying events.

Kuwaiti oil fires (1991)

With Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait following the International Peacekeeping Coalition’s invasion in 1991, Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of the country’s oil fields. It’s reported between 605 and 732 oil wells, along with an unspecified amount of oil-filled areas, were destroyed by the Iraqi military.

Fighter jets flying over burning oil fields
F-16A, F-15C and F-15E fighter jets flying during Operation Desert Storm. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force)

While the fires began in January and February 1991, the first wasn’t extinguished until April, and the last wasn’t capped until November 6. While concrete figures aren’t available, it’s believed between four and six million barrels of crude oil were burnt per day, along with between 70 and 100 million cubic meters of natural gas.

This image, taken by the US Air Force, shows F-16A, F-15C and F-15E fighter jets patrolling Kuwait during the fires. The smoke not only caused a Royal Saudi Air Force C-130H to crash, but provided the Iraqi forces a smokescreen during the Battle of Phase Line Bullet.

Liberian militia commander Joseph Duo (2003)

Joseph Duo was a militia commander loyal to the Liberian government. This image, taken by Chris Hondros, shows the moment after he grabbed his rocket launcher and fired. It detonated amid a group of rebels, causing the militia leader to leap in joy. The photo came to define the strife within Liberia.

Joseph Duo jumping in the air while holding a grenade launcher
Joseph Duo, Liberian militia commander. (Photo Credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

Hondros once said, “Sometimes a picture captures things that people respond to. This is a picture of fighting that shows some of the uncomfortable realities of war. One of those is that [some] people in war enjoy it – they get a bloodlust.”

While Duo shares he was celebrating because he was defending his country, he now doesn’t like looking at the photo, saying, “It gives me the memories of war.”

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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