Cal Whipple, George Strock, and the Buna Beach Photograph

The issue of photographs of horrific stories is not a new one. Addison Beecher Colvin Whipple (1918-2013) has passed away. During World War II, Mr. Whipple worked for Time-Life Publishing at the Pentagon. His job was to get photographs cleared by the military for assignments and then to get the images that they returned passed the military censors. In 1943, Whipple, then 25, found himself embroiled in a major controversy. Life magazine wanted to publish a photograph by George Strock of three dead American marines after the amphibious assault on Buna Beach in New Guinea.

Military censors refused Life’s request to publish the photo. Their policy was that no pictures of American soldiers killed in combat were allowed. And this view was amplified when it was realized on close examination that one of the marines lying face down in the sand was being consumed by maggots.  Whipple appealed the decision through the Pentagon. Whipple and Life believed that American’s needed a healthy dose of understanding of what the war was about, what the grim realities of it were.

Finally in September 1943 the decision went to the White House. President Roosevelt, the War Department, and the Director of the Office of War Information, Elmer Davis, decided “that the American people ought to be able to see their own boys as they fall in battle; to come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead.”

It is a controversy that we have seen again during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Sadly seeing the horrible meaning of war appears to offer no deterrent. Like Strock’s photograph the words of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), killed in “The War to End All Wars” forever go unheeded.

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.”

This entry was posted in History of Photography, Personal Photographic Wanderings.