Joseph Rosenthal was born on October 9, 1911 in Washington, D.C. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants; however, he converted to Catholicism during his youth. He had four brothers. His interest in photography started as a hobby during the Great Depression. He graduated from McKinley High School in 1929, and after working as an office boy, he moved to San Francisco where he became a reporter-photographer for the San Francisco News in 1932.
World War II
Rosenthal was rejected by the U.S. Army as a photographer because of poor eyesight. In 1941, he attended the University of San Francisco and joined the staff of the Associated Press (AP). In 1943, he joined the United States Maritime Service as a photographer and served as a warrant officer documenting life aboard ship in the British Isles and North Africa. In 1944, he rejoined the Associated Press and followed the United States Army and U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of Operations as a war correspondant at Hollandia, New Guinea, Guam, Peleliu, Angaur, and Iwo Jima.