Friday, September 14, 2018

Three Americans

George Strock (1911–1977) and the editors of Life
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

International News Photos wire copy for photograph by George Strock of three dead Americans lying on Buna Beach, September 17, 1943, attached to the back of a gelatin print of the photo in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The text reads, “PART OF THE PRICE FOR BUNA VICTORY / New Guinea. . . . Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna, New Guinea, after the Battle of Buna Gona in January, 1943. The picture had been held up in Washington and has just been released under the new ruling of showing American dead. The Japs hid in the wrecked landing barge and used rifles and grenades on the American as they were mopping up on the last day of battle. The barge and beach action was the bloodiest and wildest of any Buna fighting.” Strock’s famous photo is included in the PDF for this week’s selection.

“Your Picture of the Week is a terrible thing but I’m glad there is one American magazine that had the courage to print it.”

The editors of Life magazine received the above message from an Illinois reader reacting to their decision, in September 1943, to publish a photograph by George Strock—the first photo depicting dead U.S. troops on the battlefield to appear in an American publication during World War II. The image shows three dead soldiers lying on the Buna beach during the Battle of Buna-Gona, which lasted from mid-November 1942 until January 22, 1943. “When I took pictures, I wanted to bring the viewer into the scene,” he told one interviewer. Not all his colleagues were as tenacious. As he joked in a letter he sent at the time, “Two photographers left after their first taste of fire, and as far as I know they are still going.” Strock himself escaped death or serious injury at least twice in New Guinea; he narrowly missed falling victim to a grenade attack by a Japanese soldier he believed was dead, and his departing plane crash-landed after failing to clear a tree on takeoff.

That the photograph was published at all was due in large part to the efforts of Life’s 25-year-old Washington correspondent, Cal Whipple. The New York Times obituary for Whipple summarizes his doggedness:
Mr. Whipple and his colleagues at Life believed that Mr. Strock’s photograph would provide a badly needed dose of reality for those on the home front who were growing complacent about the war effort. “I went from Army captain to major to colonel to general,” he recalled in a memoir written for his family, “until I wound up in the office of an assistant secretary of the Air Corps, who decided, ‘This has to go to the White House.’”
Whipple gained the support of Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information and a former CBS radio newscaster, who expressed to President Roosevelt concern over polls indicating that the public believed the war was going better than it was. Among the administration’s worries were a notable decline in the sales of war bonds and increased absenteeism in wartime industries. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to a change in policy, and the photo appeared as a full page in the magazine, opposite an editorial that carried the subtitle: “Where these boys fell, a part of freedom fell: We must resurrect it in their name.”

The reaction to the image and the accompanying essay (both of which are presented below as our Story of the Week selection) was immediate and overwhelming. The editors were inundated with letters, and they published six of them; the response from the troops was especially positive. “Every soldier has fears and anxieties he admits only to himself, and he doesn’t quite realize what he is fighting for,” wrote one Army private from Mississippi. “The ordinary propaganda only makes him more cynical. This editorial is the first thing I have read that gives real meaning to our struggle.” Another reader tacked the photo on the company bulletin board and reported that “the number of employes participating in the payroll deductions for War Bonds has increased from fifty-five per cent to one hundred per cent.” Not all the responses were favorable, however; one letter writer sent in a “strong protest” stating that “pictures of mutilated corpses make a mockery of sacrifice. The War Department has made a grave mistake in permitting death to be held so cheap.” Weeks later, when Roosevelt wondered if he should expand the policy to war footage, the journalist Robert L. Sherrod told him, “That’s the way the war is out there, and I think people are going to have to get used to that idea.”

Strock’s photograph was reprinted in the November 5, 1943, issue of Yank: The Army Weekly, the popular magazine published by active duty soldiers from the enlisted ranks and read by virtually all members of the American forces. The magazine strenuously supported the decision to publish it, and printed a poem submitted by Keith B. Campbell, an Army private from Orlando, Florida:
Perhaps they struggled with geography
When they were boys, lisping the sinewy names
Of far-off lands they never hoped to see,
With thoughts intent upon their outdoor games;
The wind halloos and shouts of after-school,
A rag-tailed kite against a gray March sky,
And boyish laughter ringing “April Fool”
When someone took their bait.

Well, there they lie,
Three lads on Buna Beach, grotesquely laid
In the informal pose of sudden death;
While we, who live secure because they paid
In currency compounded of their breath,
Would hesitate and ponder on a scheme
To bargain interest to perverse their dream.
Text of poem courtesy of Old Magazine Articles.

*   *   *
Here lie three Americans.
         What shall we say of them? Shall we say that this is a noble sight? . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.