Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna

with 4 comments

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During World War II, most Americans followed the news of the war through three sources: radio broadcasts, newspapers (there were more than 11,000 in the country then) and newsreels that preceded the movies at their local theatres. These sources played a vital role in connecting the home front with the war front, and the government control of the news was comprehensive. All news about the war had to pass through the Office of War Information (OWI). A “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” was issued on Jan 15, 1942 giving strict instructions on proper handling of news.

The code was voluntarily adopted by all of the major news organizations and implemented by the more than 1,600 members of the press accredited by the armed forces during the war. The government also relied heavily on reporter’s patriotism, which ensured that in their dispatches from the front lines, they tended to accentuate the positive. The above photo, therefore, was unusual: it was the first time an image of dead American troops appeared in media during World War II without their bodies being draped, in coffins, or otherwise covered up.

The photo of three dead American soldiers lying in the sand on shoreline near half sunken landing craft on Buna Beach, Papua New Guinea was now considered a war classic. Taken by George Strock in February 1943, it was not published until its September 20th 1943 issue. In that September, this photo and other equally gruesome and graphic pictures of WWII were finally OK’d by the Office of War Information’s censors, in part because President Roosevelt feared that the American public might be growing complacent about the war and its horrific toll. Even than, in the picture, the Americans’ faces were not shown–a practice continued until Korean War  to preserve soldiers’ privacy in death.

At the time of the publication, these pictures shocked many readers. The Washington Post argued that the pictures “can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won.” Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that. Efforts were made to crop the photos or obscure the victims’ faces, name tags and unit insignia. The caption to Strock’s photo, “Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna,” told Life’s readers that they did not need to know the names of the dead in order to appreciate what they had done.

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LIFE magazine felt compelled to ask in an adjacent full-page editorial, “Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore?” Among the reasons: “Words are never enough . . .

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 24, 2009 at 10:45 pm

4 Responses

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  1. We really like this post. Thank you. It provides a good example that really illustrates the ethics of “freedom of speech” is not a black and white issue but has shades of gray. We are posting something today that will direct our readers at StinkyJournalism.org back to this article.

    Rhonda R Shearer

    July 27, 2009 at 10:02 am

  2. [...] usually shies away from carrying graphic images of the war death–a practice which dated from the Second World War and continues to this day in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was why AP’s release of the above [...]

  3. [...] it finally got the approval to reproduce the pictures of dead American soldiers in September 1943 (more). That permission, which came all the way from the president, would have been all but impossible if [...]

  4. This was the inspiration for Myron Roberts organ solo “In Memoriam”, a deeply moving, heartfelt piece of music.

    Jack Levick

    May 26, 2013 at 9:00 pm


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