commentary (2006-50)

A WWII soldier’s photo exhibit sets it out in vivid colorlessness

All War is ‘Cold’ War

by Barry Henderson

World War II has always seemed to me to have taken place in black and white. I was alive throughout it, from birth to age 4. I’m astonished every time I stop to realize that. All my recollections of that time and its immediate aftermath are of B&W photos, many of them dramatic photos, and of stories, some of them terrible stories, in black ink on white paper.

It was the war “between good and evil,” “The Great War,” as Studs Terkel termed it, fought by “The Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw more recently and famously termed its U.S. combatants and their folks back home.

Viewed again in pieces of photographic reflection—the selected pictures from ex-GI Tony Vaccaro’s collection on exhibit at the East Tennessee Museum of History—the stark reality set out in black and white tells a tale of the awful inhumanity of war and the wondrous humanity of those who are caught up in it, as participants or civilians.

The words that follow the signatures in the exhibit’s guestbook depict reactions described as “powerful,” “emotional,” “poignant,” “touching,” “amazing,” “overwhelming.”

The photos and their captions comprise all of those adjectival descriptions, and as the nation’s obituary pages continue to fill with the survivors of that war, the time is upon us to look again through the eyes of an infantry private and the lens of the camera he carried.

We are a nation at war once more, in vivid color, and its images are every bit as stark as those captured 60 years ago in Europe by a committed soldier. Not a combat photographer, Vaccaro was nonetheless a relentless recorder of the conditions around him from 1943 through to the U.S. occupation of Germany in 1945. He stayed in the European Theater until 1946. A Pennsylvania native who was raised in Italy, Vaccaro returned to the United States as the war began and was trained as a photographer before entering the Army. His images show that training.

A ghostly photo of a GI’s frozen body, face down and partly covered by snow, rifle askew, frames perfectly the 1944 Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. Vaccaro found out later the dead soldier was his buddy from New York City.

Likewise, the moment that a sniper’s bullet rips into Pvt. Jack Rose of Knoxville, killing him instantly at a crossroads in Ottre, Belgium, illustrates the uncertainty and futility of armed combat as few other photos ever have.

Equally gruesome are the photos of dead German soldiers, including a burned body outside a burned-out German Tiger tank. Vaccaro took German fire as he snapped the picture and dove to the ground, from where he could read the inscription on the dead German’s belt buckle: Gott Mit Uns , or God With Us.

There are GIs carrying wounded GIs, French and Polish civilians kissing their GI liberators in France and Germany, GIs dancing with French men and women in Brittany, and a stunning shot of a group of very old and very young German soldiers surrendering in Rosslau, Germany, in May, 1945. They are in their young teens; they are in the 60s and 70s. It’s an ugly scene, and it’s wrenching to see the age range.

From a last mass celebrated for scores of GIs in Wales before the invasion of Normandy, to the ruins of Berlin from the air in 1946, to the lone, defeated German soldier, a former POW, weeping in despair on his 1946 return to the ruin of his Frankfurt home and a family that is no more, Vaccaro’s prints get it all down in black and white.

Along one wall of the exhibit, visitors are provided Post-Its and a pen to respond to it in terms of their memories and feelings about their own wartime pasts or their reflections on the war photos themselves.

People who fought that war and their descendants and relatives, people who worked in the war effort at home, and those who had no direct recollections but were moved by the depictions did respond. A sampling:

“My 86-year-old husband was in the 15th Air Force in Italy. He flew 50 missions as a tail gunner. We are here today to celebrate Armistice Day.”

“This exhibit reinforces the fact that we are all members of the human race….”

“World War II was a lot rougher than I thought.”

“May it never be too late to say, ‘Never again.’”

“God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

“My father was in the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about it until right before his death at 85—he kept wondering what the temperature was at that time. He said it was very, very cold….”

Indeed it was. In black and white or in living, dying, chilling color, no matter what the temperature or the location or the reason, war is very, very cold. Vaccaro, who now lives in Long Island City, N.Y., is to be thanked warmly for reminding us. m

The exhibit of Tony Vaccaro’s photographs runs through Jan. 14 at the East Tennessee History Center at Gay Street and Clinch Avenue downtown. Admission is free.