Know Your Military

New Book of WWII Photos Highlights Significance of Army Signal Corps

Nov. 16, 2019 | BY C. Todd Lopez

A new book featuring many previously unseen images from World War II reveals just how important to the war effort were the photographers of the Army Signal Corps, and how significant to history the collection of Signal Corps images stored at the National Archives is.

"The Army Signal Corps photographic collection is one of the largest in the National Archives still picture branch," said David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States. "The roughly one million images covering World War I through 1981 chronicle military activities during war and peace on the front line and on the home front."

Soldiers run alongside a tank. Smoke billows off a burning home.
Smoke Street
Soldiers assigned to the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tanks with the 22nd Tank Battalion move through a smoke-filled street in Wernberg, Germany, April 22, 1945.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450422-A-ZZ999-001C

Ferriero spoke during a presentation Nov. 14 in Washington that was co-hosted by the National Archives and the U.S. Army Center of Military History. During the event, two of the three authors of "Aftershock: The Human Toll of War," discussed how they chose images for the new book and how the work of Army Signal Corps photographers and the availability of those images in the National Archives made it possible.

I believe that they left an incredible gift to future generations ... "
Richard Cahan, author

Lee Reynolds, with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, explained the impact of Signal Corp photographers on U.S. history.

"These Signal Corps photo teams, carrying what was then state-of-the-art equipment, would go out into combat operations, often by themselves, and cover the events where civilian journalists either wouldn't go, or couldn't go," Reynolds said.

"The results ... captured on film through their lenses, were some of the most iconic pictures of World War II," he said. "These images [were] not just used by the U.S. Army, but they could be seen in newspapers, magazines and films throughout the United States and the world."

Soldiers load wooden crates onto mules.
Gathering Supplies
Soldiers assigned to the 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), known as the MARS Task Force, pack mules with wooden crates filled with supplies delivered by airdrop in Burma, Feb. 6, 1945. Special harnesses helped distribute the loads on the mules' backs to prevent injury and fatigue.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450206-A-ZZ999-221C
A single man stands amidst an audience of dozens of soldiers.
Infantry Imitation
Army Pfc. Mickey Rooney imitates some Hollywood actors for an audience of infantrymen of the 44th Division in Kist, Germany, April 13, 1945.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450413-A-ZZ999-001C
A soldier pulls the lead rope of a mule that is struggling to climb back onto a rocky trail.
Army Muleskinners
Army muleskinners assigned to the 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), known as the MARS Task Force, help a mule after it slipped off a trail in Burma during 1945.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450303-A-ZZ999-221C

Richard Cahan, one of the three authors of "Aftershock," explained that the new book focuses on imagery taken in World War II during 1945 — the last year of the war.

"We decided to concentrate on 1945 because many of the still photos and films that Signal Corps photographers took of '43 and '44, the action photos that we are all aware of — they've been shown [already] in a lot of books," Cahan said.

Cahen also explained why he and fellow book authors Mark Jacob and Michael Williams chose to focus on imagery from the Army Signal Corps.

"The Army was on all continents across the world during World War II and they were on the ground in World War II," he said. "So even though the Navy and the Marines and the Coast Guard produced great photographs, we thought there was continuity among Army photographs and Signal Corps photographs."

A soldier sits on bare ground holding a lead rope for a mule.
Quick Rest
Army Pfc. James L. Miller, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 475th Infantry Brigade, rests with his mule before beginning a steep climb in Burma, Feb. 10, 1945.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450210-A-ZZ999-221C

Cahen said he and fellow authors chose historically important images as well as those photos that were artistically significant. "We wanted to show truly the human toll of war but we also look a lot for humanity."

The book also demonstrates the efforts and challenges faced by the photographers of the Army Signal Corps, he said.

"This is a book about men ... in World War II, who went to work with cameras instead of guns," he said. "The truth of it was that they were provided a sidearm, but as every photographer said there was no way to shoot pictures and shoot guns at the same time — they all chose cameras."

Soldiers fire heavy artillery at night.
Night Fire
Veteran artillerymen of "C" Battery, 90th Field Artillery, lay down a barrage on Japanese artillery positions in Balete Pass, Luzon, Philippine Islands, April 19, 1945.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 450419-A-ZZ999-001

"They went through months of training to become photographers along with becoming soldiers," Cahen continued. "I believe that they left an incredible gift to future generations, and our generation right now, by the photographs that they took of the war, because they teach us — and the ... subtitle of the book is 'The human toll of war.' They teach us exactly that. And that is why their photographs are important."

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