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Joe Rosenthal, 1911-2006

Photographer Joe Rosenthal died this weekend, and if you didn't know his name, you knew his work. NBC's Brian Williams reports. 

This weekend, in an assisted-living facility outside San Francisco, a 94-year-old man passed away. His name was Joe, and after he died, his daughter said "he was a good and honest man... (a man of) real integrity."

His full name was Joe Rosenthal, and if you didn't know his name, you knew his work. From a picture he shot in February of 1945 of some brave American men, on an island called Iwo Jima.

It became the enduring image for a nation that had been fighting for years. It seemed to sum up the violent struggle that ended in victory for the Allies.

On the fifth day of a grueling battle, U.S. Marines had finally made it to the top of Mt. Surabachi on a tiny piece of volcanic rock called Iwo Jima.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took a lot of pictures that day. He actually thought another might get all the attention.

Instead, it was the image of six men planting a flag big enough to be seen by all that went on to become a part of U.S. history.

The image was set in bronze in 1954 to mark the service and dedication of the men and women in the U.S. Marine Corps. It sits to this day near Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

In a 1997 interview with the Newseum in Rosslyn, Va., Rosenthal described the image in his viewfinder.

"I wanted a flag going up on Iwo and I wanted it badly," he said, "and I could only hope it turned out the way I looked at it through the finder."

Three of those men, frozen in time, raising that flag, were later killed in combat on Iwo Jima. And remember this: if there hadn't been a Joe Rosenthal, there's a chance that American school children would know something about a pitched battle for a volcanic island in the Pacific, but that battle wouldn't have a name — and the struggle to capture it wouldn't have a face the way it does today.