David P. Colley. Seeing the War: The Stories behind the Famous Photographs from World War II. Lebanon: ForeEdge, 2015. Illustrations. 192 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61168-726-2.
Reviewed by Mark Bernhardt (Jackson State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Seeing the War: The Stories behind the Famous Photographs of World War II stems from author and independent scholar David P. Colley’s personal interest in the history of World War II and the stories of those who fought in it. What sets this book apart from other published collections of World War II photographs, such as Time-Life World War II in 500 Photographs (2014) or David Boyle’s World War II: A Photographic History (2000), is that Colley does more than provide information about what the viewer sees in each picture. He engages in what he calls his hobby and passion “to discover the fate of the men in many World War II photographs.” He asserts (whether rightly or wrongly is debatable) that “we never stop and ask about the toll of the war or what happened to the men in the photographs” (p. xvii). Colley seeks to tell readers what happened to the men and women in the pictures he selected. Did they survive, and if so, what was their life like after the war? In most cases, he is able to answer these questions, but there are a few whose fortunes remain a mystery.
The book is divided into ten chapters, though it is not clear why it is arranged in this manner as the chapters do not have any discernable themes or chronology and are not titled. Each chapter contains several titled sections, with Colley discussing one of the forty-eight primary images (most are photographs) that serve as his starting points in each section. Colley explains the scene and describes what was happening when the photograph was taken. For some images, he mentions the name of the photographer. He also discusses three artists who produced significant war-related works in the form of illustrations, cartoons, and paintings (which are pictured and analyzed), and the origins of the “Kilroy was here” graffiti. In most cases, Colley explains why the primary images selected for the book are considered famous—they appeared in newspapers or magazines, were used in propaganda material, were reproduced in books after the war, or were later printed on stamps. There are a few, however, for which he provides no explanation for the image’s renown.
The primary images include a variety of battle scenes; photographs of soldiers enduring the harsh conditions of life in a warzone, moments of suffering, and grief captured; artistic depictions of the war and the people serving the war effort at home and abroad; and pictures of various experiences the soldiers had that were connected to the war, whether relaxing, receiving awards, or returning home to their loved ones. In the section “Future Dodger Hits the Beach,” Colley discusses the photograph of Marine Wayne Terwillinger landing on Saipan in 1944, in which two marines are crumpled over after having been hit by sniper fire (p. 50). Terwillinger went on to have a career in professional baseball, but Colley does not know what happened to the two marines who were shot. “Joseph Holmes in the Bulge” shows a lone soldier standing in a winter landscape (p. 20). Colley interviewed Holmes’s family, and found that the war took a terrible toll on him. “Sudden Death in Poland” tells the tale behind the picture of a young Polish girl weeping as she clutches the body of her dead sister who had just been killed in a field by gunfire from a German plane (p. 121). Colley succeeds in finding out details about the girl’s life in Poland after the war. The section “Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter” includes a photograph of the woman who served as the model for Norman Rockwell’s drawing standing in front of a framed print of the famed “Rosie” (p. 38). Colley reveals that Mary Doyle was shocked by the liberties Rockwell took in depicting her. “A Chance Encounter in Paris” presents a picture of a French woman hugging an American GI after the liberation of Paris, capturing the gratefulness of the French people (p. 53). Sergeant Kenneth Averill told Colley he would never forget that moment, but he never knew who the woman was and never heard from her after the war.
In addition to the primary images from wartime, Colley provides forty supplemental photographs. These include more recent pictures of the men and women whose stories are told, gravesites of those who died, family members left behind, and events and people discussed. For example, the section “Life and Death of Wee Willie,” which tells the story of the bomber Wee Willie’s war service, includes a photograph of the bomber in the air after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, smoke pouring from the fuselage and its detached wing in the air next to it (p. 58). “One Never Knows What Tomorrow May Bring” recounts the story of Lieutenant Jesse D. Franks’s father who held out hope that his son survived a plane crash and searched for him in Europe for several years before finding his grave, with a photograph of him standing before it included.
Telling the stories of what happened to the men and women seen in the photographs or those who produced the cartoons and artwork after the war is Colley’s main focus. What he finds out about these men and women is nothing short of remarkable. The war left a lasting imprint on everyone’s lives. Some lived with severe physical and mental scars. Those wounded in the war had to adjust to the changed capabilities of their bodies. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was a common consequence of military service. Alcoholism stemming from the effort to deal with both physical and psychological trauma ruined more than one life. Divorce and broken family relationships also resulted from difficulty coping with seen and unseen war wounds. Others did not survive: some were killed in the war, some died later from complications due to injuries, and some took their own lives. Most, however, went on to have happy and fulfilling lives, even if they did not come back unscathed. Many married, had children, and had successful careers.
Colley does not always reveal the methods by which he acquired the information about life after the war for the men and women in the photographs. The acknowledgments indicate that he engaged in extensive archival work and interviewed numerous people, including some of those in the photographs and their family members, many of whom are quoted directly in various sections of the book. In the introduction, he provides some details about his exhaustive search to find out what happened to one particular veteran, George Lott, but this is an exception. The book would have benefited from greater discussion of how exactly he conducted his research, which could have helped other historians desiring to engage in similar work.
Colley notes the importance of collecting oral histories from the veterans of World War II as their numbers rapidly dwindle. Overall, in his search for those who appeared in some of the war’s better-known photographs he has made a significant contribution to that effort.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Mark Bernhardt. Review of Colley, David P., Seeing the War: The Stories behind the Famous Photographs from World War II.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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