Reporting or Opportunism?

Sometime in December 1943, Navy photographer Charles Kerlee took this photo of a scene on Tarawa.

Tarawa, as you probably know, had just been captured in a bloody battle only a few weeks earlier.  There are many scholarly works I could cite to explain why some marine or marines decided to use an enemy skull in such a grim, macabre manner.  Doesn’t matter.  We, as a civilized society, consider it a transgression.  It’s taboo.  It’s wrong.  But it is a line that is sometimes crossed in war.

Kerlee’s photo went to the Navy’s files.  It was not released to the press.  Newspaper photographers captured many scenes like this during the war.  The photos emerged over the years from the files, but few were run in the newspapers during World War II.  Society – American society – just did not allow newspapers and magazines to run them.

For example, Life Magazine ran this photo in the May 22, 1944 issue (page 35 if you wish to browse the issue):

May 22, 1944 Life Magazine Picture of the Week...

The caption reads, “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”  (And I think the expression on her face says a lot.)

I’ve not traced the definitive facts on the girlfriend and her Navy boyfriend.  Most secondary sources state he received some punishment, and of course the service issued statements explicitly condemning the action.  The public reaction to this photo was almost completely negative.  It is one thing to see depictions of the enemy’s wartime atrocities.  But it is another entirely to see atrocities acted out by one’s own.  After posting this photo, and a few others showing mutilations (such as a burned head on top of a knocked out Japanese tank), Life agreed to stop running such depictions. The editorial staff recognized the negative impact on the magazine’s, military’s, and nation’s reputation.  The magazine might, seizing the opportunity that grisly photos offer, sell a few more copies, but would loose in the long run.

Same country, same military, very similar situation….. different editorial staff:

Times Editor Davan Maharaj said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

Thus the Los Angeles Times justifies their editorial decision.

USMC Museum: Landing Craft Display

After discussing the landings on Kwajalien yesterday, seemed fitting to post a few pictures from a recent visit to the National Museum of the Marine Corps just outside Quantico, Virginia.

USMC Museum 15 Jan 11 343

This rather dramatic exhibit features an LVT-1 as used in the landings on Guadalcanal and Tarawa (I don’t think they were used after that battle, correct me if I’m wrong).

For the benefit of those not familiar with the LVT story, this vehicle came not from a formal military development project, but from a civilian need to traverse the Florida Keys.  Instead of storming hostile shores, the “Alligator” was to rescue those stranded by hurricanes.  When Marine officers saw Donald Roebling‘s creation in magazines, they saw other applications for the amphibious vehicle.

USMC Museum 15 Jan 11 344

The innovative tracks were a feature of the design.  Notice there is not a “shoe” as on most tracked vehicles.  Instead there is a chain, similar to that on a bike, running around the (unsprung) road wheels, idler and drive sprocket.  But I’d bet you are fixed upon those “paddles.”  Instead of some prop assembly with its own transmission drive, Roebling opted to let the track motion propel the vehicle in water.  Worked good, except when moving on hard surfaces beyond the beach.  Later versions of the LVT improved the tracks, offered spring suspension, and provided better mobility.

USMC Museum 15 Jan 11 284

The passenger compartment of the LVT-1 showed the civilian roots of the LVT.  The amphibian carried 18 men or 2.5 tons of cargo.  Marines exited the vehicle by going out over the sides (see the foot holds down the side).  While the driver and co-driver had shutters, the vehicle lacked armor.  Note also the ersatz gun mount.  The gunner stands upon an ammo can in order to fire that .50-cal!  And spent casings on the floor!

USMC Museum 15 Jan 11 287

And did I say dramatic?  Sort of makes you want to get off the beach, don’t it?   Reminds me of this wartime photo from Tarawa.

I wanted to yell “Medic!” when I saw this guy.

USMC Museum 15 Jan 11 346

Overall a very well done display.  If in the Washington, DC area, a visit to the National Museum of the Marine Corps is worth a stop.  Fascinating exhibits at every turn.

For those interested, I did a piece on the Civil War exhibits in the museum last month.

– Craig.