Berlin Airlift | Henry Ries


“We must have a bad phone connection,” asked General Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping, gruff-talking head of Strategic Air Command. “It sounds like you are asking whether we have planes for carrying coal.”

It was June 1948, and on the other end of the call was General Lucius Clay, the military governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone in Germany. Clay confirmed, “Yes, that’s what I said. Coal.”

LeMay, later the inspiration for the pugnacious and unreasonable Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, answered gruffly after a long pause, “The Air Force can deliver anything.”

Thus began the Berlin Airlift — two days after the Soviets had imposed a blockade on the city which was in their occupied zone to force the Allied occupying powers out.

What Clay had in mind was unthinkable — supplying 2.25 million people with food and fuel by air indefinitely. Initially, it began haphazardly. A “cowboy” operation, unauthorized by the higher-ups (President Truman only later approved the mission). The U.S. Air Force, after all, was a military organization without much experience in running transport and cargo operations. Yet, under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tunner, it became a streamlined and coordinated effort and an incredible feat of logistics.

At the peak of the airlift, cargo planes landed at Tempelhof every four minutes around the clock, and the daily tonnage of food and supplies brought into Berlin by the planes exceeded the amount of material that had been brought in by trains before the blockade. It was a defining moment that won the hearts and minds of the occupied and defeated Germans.

During a landing at Tempelhof, a pilot named Gail Halvorsen befriended the starving children who played around the airfield. Halvorsen, who had personal reservations about the airlift, grew up poor during the Great Depression and empathized with the children. He handed the children two sticks of gum and told them to come back the next day when he planned to airdrop more sweets from his plane. He would wiggle the wings of his aircraft so they would know it was him, he told the children.

Thus began the story of a man remembered in Germany as Der Schokoladen Flieger, the Chocolate Flyer. Not only did he live up to his promise, but Halvorsen also asked other pilots to donate their candy rations, and he had his flight engineer rock the airplane during the drop. More and more children showed up to catch his airdrops, and letters arrived requesting special airdrops at other points in the city.

It was against the rules, but when an Associated Press story appeared under the headline “Lollipop Bomber Flies Over Berlin,” Halvorsen’s superiors realized the PR opportunity. Candy and handkerchief donations arrived from all over America following the AP story (candy was dropped using handkerchiefs as miniature parachutes), and Halvorsen was dubbed Uncle Wiggly Wings in the press. Now officially sanctioned as ‘Operation Little Vittles’, dozens of pilots dropped more than 21 tons of candy in 250,000 small parachutes across Berlin.

The Soviets would soon recognize the futility of the airlift, but the standoff would ultimately last fifteen months. President Truman would use the crisis to his advantage and win an upset reelection victory, while his Secretary of Defense would descend into madness in the midst of an escalating crisis. All in all, when the airlift ended, the United States, Britain, and France had flown 278,228 flights altogether to supply isolated West Berlin.


Operation Little Vittles was immortalized in a photo which had become as iconic as the candy bombers themselves — and later featured on posters and commemorative stamps.

The photo was taken by Henry Ries, a Berlin-born Jew who fled Nazi Germany and migrated to the United States before the war. He first arrived in the United States in 1937 but was sent back due to improper immigration papers. However, he was able to emigrate the following year and began selling vacuum cleaners to make a living. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army as an aerial photographer and worked first in the Pacific theater, then in Europe. After the war, Ries returned to Germany and used images of mundane life to contrast the darkness of war’s aftermath.

Another famous Ries photo, titled ‘Germany’s future swings in front of Germany’s past,’ depicted children at an amusement park ride in Lustgarten in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin of Königliches Schloss, the seat of the last German Kaiser.



Ries’ photos put into images the thundering words of Berlin’s Lord Mayor Ernst Reuter, the symbol of the Free Berlin. On September 1948, Reuter gave a speech in front of the burned-out Reichstag building, facing a crowd of 300,000 where he appealed to the world not to abandon Berlin — a moment also captured by Ries (above).

Reuter pled, “Ihr Völker der Welt … Schaut auf diese Stadt und erkennt, dass ihr diese Stadt und dieses Volk nicht preisgeben dürft, nicht preisgeben könnt!” (People of this world… look upon this city and see that you should not, cannot abandon this city and this people).

Ries’ photos complemented these words and shone a light on the plight of the defeated Germans, and their struggling lives: a woman ironing while her family slept in the same room; hardened black market traders; emaciated women returning from markets and rummaging in the streets for fuel; citizens planting modest vegetable gardens in the Tiergarten; ethnic Germans expelled from Silesia (surrendered to Poland after the war) and released prisoners of war. In his photo of poor market on Wittenbergplatz in front of the completely destroyed Kaufhaus des Westens, emaciated women offer pitiful bundles of herbs for sale and a man repairs a tattered shoe. 



If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining.

Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books and support me on my research (re: paywalled articles, trips to various archives). In addition to monthly addenda posts on Patreon, readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls

Even if Patreon isn’t your thing, you can support by re-sharing, or tweeting about the blog or the specific posts on here. Thanks for your continued support!  Here is the link:

1944 | Vienne Execution


After France was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, a wave of retributions swept through the country. Nazi collaborators and Gestapo informers were denounced; women suspected of having relationships with Germans were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved; those engaged in the black market activities were labeled as “war profiteers” and trialed.

In the first fevered phase (remembered as épuration sauvage or wild purge, as opposed to later legal purges, épuration légale), one estimate noted that six thousand people were summarized executed for collaboration before the liberation of France, and four thousand thereafter. members and leaders of the milices. The US Army’s estimates were higher: eighty thousand, and one source even reported that the number executed was 105,000.

One such execution was well documented by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier in the village of Vienne, near Grenoble. Charbonnier spent a single roll of 35mm film to document the entire story of the public execution of a Nazi collaborator in front of a crowd of five thousand people. Each shot built up to the death by firing squad of a minor official who had possibly worked for the Gestapo with documentary and cinematic precision, beginning with the man being tied to a post, soldiers with rifles preparing for the task, then ultimately killing him.


Charbonnier remembered the day and the legal and moral ambiguities of that day:

In October, 1944, in the small town of Vienne (Isere), France, a French collaborator named Nitard was sentenced to death.

He was no large-scale spy — just a man who had been working as a clerk in the German administration, probably for the Gestapo. But one must remember that in the early days of Liberation in France, as in any other country that had suffered four years’ occupation, feelings ran high against any collaborator, big or small. And then, of course the really dangerous collaborators were not easy to bring to justice so the small fry had to pay the price for their more fortunate partners-in-crime. More fuel to the fire had been the executions by the Germans of many great patriots both in Lyons and in Vienne.

The outcry was therefore so violent that, even though Nitard’s appeal to the Courts of Justice in Grenoble had been successful, the shooting was ordered to take place, so as not to disappoint the population of Vienne, I cannot help feeling.

So that everyone in the town should have a chance to watch the execution and share in the general revenge, it was scheduled to take place at noon. Five thousand people, children included, crowded into the square in front of the old military barracks. So intense was the excitement that one could almost smell it as one can before a bullfight or even a good football game, while in the barrack square the condemned man gulped back the traditional glass of rum and lit the traditional cigarette. He puffed at it a few times, then stubbed it out, thrust the butt into his pocket and went to face the firing-squad.

He passed through a hall where the twelve rifles, one with a blank cartridge, had been laid out ready, and walked out into the square to be met by a priest, the firing-squad, its commanding officer and the now strangely silent crowd.

This demonstration of public justice shocked me profoundly. No one deplored collaboration more than I but this punishment seemed to me to be out of all proportion to this man’s relatively small crime. My nerves were taut. This man who was about to die was so close. I don’t remember whether the crowd was silent now, or not. I only know that I set my Leica automatically, as in a dream … or rather, a nightmare. Subconscious reflexes turned my battered old Summar F2 lens to the closest possible range while I tried to fight off feelings of disgust.

Suddenly I felt very close to that man standing alone in the square. The cigarette butt. Injustice to humanity. And then the overwhelming feeling that the man was dead already, that he was like a duck with its head cut off that runs for minutes before finally falling dead. He was dead before he ever entered the “arena” — even after fifteen years I can’t stand using that word.

The “show” was reaching its climax but now the man was untied from the post. He was a traitor and traitors are not given the right to meet death facing the squad. The seconds ticked by as he was bound with his back to the rifles. And then they fired.

Nitard never saw me although I was at times no more than five feet away. The whole story took up just one 35mm roll, as you can see — the biggest, most compact story I ever covered and one I wish never to have to cover again.”



If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining.

Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books and support me on my research (re: paywalled articles, trips to various archives). In addition to monthly addenda posts on Patreon, readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls

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The Zamzam Affair


“One of the picture scoops of World War II,” Time magazine called it.

The photos showed the sinking of Zamzam, an Egyptian vessel which departed New York in March 1941 bound for Alexandria, Egypt with approximately 200 passengers, mostly Protestant missionaries, plus two dozen volunteer ambulance drivers from the British-American Ambulance Corps bound for the British Army in the Middle East.

On April 17, 1941, the Zamzam was attacked by Atlantis, a German raider. Most of the passengers survived and were picked up by Atlantis. Among the survivors were Life magazine photographer David Scherman and Charles J. V. Murphy, an editor of Life’s sister publication, Fortune, who were on the way to South Africa to cover the war. Scherman had snapped away at the Zamzan’s fate – passengers abandoning ship, pictures of Atlantis, pictures of the sinking Zamzam — even as he was being captured. He even managed to take pictures aboard the prison ship.

He hid rolls of film in a tube of toothpaste and shaving cream and got a missionary doctor to sew the films in packages of gauze bandages which were then resealed. Before being repatriated, Scherman had to surrender his films to the Nazis “for examination.” He willingly gave up 104 rolls to the Germans but kept the four rolls that he knew to include the pictures of the sinking and some of the life aboard the German ship.

After his release, Scherman sent his photos to Life and the magazine published the story of the Zamzam’s sinking, accompanied by Murphy’s words in June 1941.  


For a brief moment, the attention of the whole world was transfixed: America was not yet in the Second World War, and Zamzam, a neutral passenger ship carrying primarily American citizens, could have been just the spark to sway the public opinion in favor of war, just as the Lusitania did in World War I. The German propaganda ministry, realizing the danger quickly released a statement claiming that all passengers and crew had been rescued by the German warship Atlantis, captained by a devout Lutheran, and that Zamzam’s cargo of oil was contraband, and therefore legally attackable.

Those were divisive and perilous days. In “Those Angry Days,” historian Lynn Olson recalled an anti-war country in which shops and bars near army bases banned soldiers, and generals wore civilian clothes to testify to the Congress. An effigy of a senator calling for young men to receive compulsory military training was hanged from an oak outside the Senate, before being dragged around Capitol Hill behind a car, by a mob of angry ladies: members of an isolationist mothers’ movement.  Often clad in mourning black, they encircled Capitol Hill to scream and spat at politicians for plotting to kill their sons. Meanwhile, inside the building, senators denounced one another as war profiteers and even a fistfight broke out. Robert Taft, an isolationist senator and the son of a former president, declared that President Roosevelt’s policies were a “good deal” more dangerous than Nazism.

In such atmosphere, Life magazine was almost circumspect. “American people who have learned a lot since the Lusitania went down, showed few evidences of either surprise or hysteria, accepting the news rather with a hardening of spirit, a grim determination,” Life magazine wrote under the headline, “Germans sinks an American ship and dares the U.S. to make an incident of it.”


Yet, by the time the German censors finally returned Scherman’s rolls of film, and Life magazine published a coda to the Zamzam affair, on December 15, 1941, the things had dramatically changed. Eight days earlier, the Japanese had attacked the Pearl Harbor and America was well on her way to war.

As for Scherman’s photos, those enabled the British, who would soon have the picture of the Atlantis posted aboard all their ships, to identify and then sink the raider, which was a nondescript merchantman refitted as an armed cruiser. David Scherman would went on to be an editor at LIFE for two decades, the only staff photographer ever to achieve such a switch.


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Henri Cartier-Bresson | Shanghai, Jan 1949

On the day the Japanese Army surrendered in September 1945, the wars in Asia were far from over. As Ronald Spector notes in a recent book, “A Continent Erupts,” the peoples under the territories until recent occupied by Japan had vastly different visions about their postcolonial future which led to savage and bitter conflicts.

Nowhere was this brutal conflict more pronounced than in China were 2.5 million combatants and 16 million civilians were to perish between 1945 and 1949. The World War in Asia had practically began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and it has dragged on as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with the defeated Japanese commanders in 1945-46 to engage some Japanese troops against the Communists.  

The Nationalists nominally still controlled the cities, but the power was slowly slipping away from them. Economy, after seventeen years of war, was in a nosedive and in order to keep funding the war (now without major support from the Western Allies), the Nationalists began printing paper money in vast quantities. Technically, they were backed by gold, but amount of Chinese fabi in circulation grew from 189 billion to 4.5 trillion by 1946.

The government tried to intervene – firstly by introducing a new currency, gold yuan and then eventually by trying to return China to silver standard – but nothing would work. In a typical dictatorial fashion, the government mandated all Chinese holding gold, silver, or foreign currency were required to surrender such assets in return for “gold yuan,” under penalty of death. Chiang appointed his own son in charge of these measures who led a reign of terror, sending trucks from house to house to confiscate the assets.  In mid-1948, currency was trading at one million yuans to a US dollar. By February 1949, it was six million yuans to a dollar. Paper factories in Kwangtung found it more cost effective to pulp hundred yuan bills to making new paper.

By now, the end was drawing near. Starting in December 1948, the government had been shipping out the nation’s gold reserves to Taiwan, knowing that the Communists would soon over run the major cities. In December, 2 million taels of gold (~75 tons), nearly half of the government’s gold, carried out of the central bank in the traditional manner – by coolies, parceled up on bamboo poles – down the gangplank onto a freighter bound for Keelung in northern Taiwan.  

This action, observed by George Vine, a British journalist looking out of his fifth-floor office window one night, would prompt a nationwide bank run. That was the situation when Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived in Shanghai in January 1949. Outside four government banks on the old Bund, a vast crowd teemed. In order to prove that there was still gold in the vaults, the government started selling gold from the reserves at around half the price what the black marketers were charging. Each person was limited to forty grams of gold, and thousands had been waiting in line since eight pm the previous night, ignoring the eleven pm curfew. The police made only a token gesture toward maintaining order, resulting in ten deaths by suffocation or by being trampled, by five pm the following day.

The government gave up this scheme quickly.  Meanwhile, they were shipping off gold — another 14 tons of gold was being moved out of Bank of China’s vaults under the Bund just as Cartier-Bresson was documenting the chaos above. The gold and silver was escorted down to Taiwan by Mei Ching, a ship which would later defected to the Communists, highlighting the risks involved in such a transfer.

By the time Shanghai fell to the Communists, almost 100 tons of gold reserves were safely in Taiwan already.


If you like what I do and what I write, or simply wants me to write more, you can support me via Patreon. I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be self-sustaining. Proceeds mainly go to buying photography reference books. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request topics or to participate in some polls.

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Bombing of Singapore


On 8 December 1941, seventeen Japanese bombers dropped bombs over the island of Singapore, the opening salvo in their campaign against Dutch, British, and Portuguese possessions in South East Asia. Months earlier, Japan had already taken advantage of the defeat of France and the accension of Vichy government to seize French Indochina, and it was from there that their bombers embarked for Malaya and Singapore.

From then on to the fall of Singapore in mid February 1942, the air raids were frequent. Clifford Bottomley, a photographer dispatched by Australian Department of Information, took the photo above of the aftermath of the air raid — two women grieving over a child killed outside a rickshaw station — on 3rd February. Although largely forgotten now, coming as it did in the early part of a war that would produce hundreds of equally piognant, equally heartrending images, the photo recalled an earlier Japanese air raid atrocity in Shanghai.

Bottomley, equally forgotten now, had an eventful war. He covered the Malayan campaign for two months before he was evacuated from Singapore as the colony surrendered (producing another slew of memorable images) to Batavia. The Japanese army followed him, and two weeks later, he was forced to retreat again as Japan invaded Dutch East Indies. Later, he covered the Kokoda Trail, Buna and Sanananda campaigns in New Guinea and was with General MacArthur when he landed at Leyte in the Phillippines. He had a few narrow escapes — having wounded in Sanananda and a war correspondent sitting next to him in a jeep in the Phillippines being killed by a Japanese sniper — and was awarded the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, in recognition of his work during the Leyte Campaign.

Cal Whipple (1918 – 2013)

Addison Beecher Colvin Whipple, writer and censorship fighter, died on March 17, aged 94.


“Words are never enough,” wrote Life magazine in an editorial when 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 not for the tenacious efforts of Cal Whipple, Life’s Washington correspondent.

Rules then prohibited the publication of photos of the American dead, lest they damage morale on the home front. In his own words, Mr. Whipple, “went from army captain to major to colonel to general until [he] wound up in the office of an Assistant Secretary of the Air Corps.” to argue that these photos were what the home front needed. The Secretary decided to forward the photos to the White House, where President Roosevelt agreed that  the American public has grown complacent about the war and its horrific toll, and cleared their publication. 

As the consequence, war bond sales boomed, and although the censorship rule regarding the home front morale was abolished, the censorship itself would prove to be enduring. Censorship and self-censorship continued with the pictures from Dresden, Hiroshima, and even Auschwitz. The rule not to show faces of the American dead existed until the Korean War, which saw bans on photos showing the aftermaths by US bombings in North Korea, and of political prisoners.

It all changed in Vietnam, which would come to be known as the “first war to take place in America’s living rooms.” It was a conflict whose course unfolded in iconic photos, from the beginning to the end. After Vietnam, the military would never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war. The golden age of war photography, which nurtured such figures as Larry Burrows or Francoise Demulder, ended as abruptly as it began. In  modern wars, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in smaller conflicts in Grenada and Panama, reporters would be corralled into press pools or embeds and frequently threatened with revocation of credentials if they strayed from guidelines. 

With various newspapers looking back on Iraq War on this 10th Anniversary of its beginning with grand pictorial sideshows, it is sometimes very easy to forget what we see is more often than not authorized, sanitized, bowdlerized.But it is also comforting to remember that for images hidden away from us, there is always someone like Cal Whipple fighting for their inclusion into the recorded memory. 

The End of the Thousand-Year Reich

As the Second World War came to a close, a wave of suicides swept Berlin and other parts of Germany. Hitler was a lifelong admirer of Wagner and his climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) where the heroine Brünnhilde returns the stolen cursed ring to the River Rhine and hurls herself onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. This immolation unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla. According to a dispatch from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler initially planned “to embark alone in a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up in the air somewhere over the Baltic” if the Allies enter Berlin. His motive was to suggest to his supporters “that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven” — a Brünnhildean self-sacrifice, in a Messerschmitt.

In the end, his suicide was less grandiose and ignominious — although it didn’t stop some of his fervent followers from believing that Hitler had escaped unharmed from the wreckage of his 1000-year Reich. But Hitler was not the only Nazi to follow Brünnhilde’s example. Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler all committed suicide, as did Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack and Culture Minister Bernhard Rust. Eight out of 41 regional party leaders, seven out of 47 senior SS and police chiefs, fifty-three out of 553 army generals, fourteen out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and eleven out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Housing Commissar Robert Ley strangled himself awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Goering would follow him when the Nuremberg judges denied him the firing squad he requested.

This suicidal impulse was not confined to the Nazi elite. Ordinary Germans in untold numbers responded to the prospect of defeat in the same way. At the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance, which coincidentally but not too surprisingly was Götterdämmerung, the audience was given potassium cyanide pills. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. Untold numbers of victims of rape by the Soviet Red Army also committed suicide, and news of violence and rape further propelled mass suicides in villages all over Germany. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.

Mass suicides that created a sensation were those of Leipzig burgomaster’s family, that was captured by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller. The photos showed a different approach between this two great female war-photographers. Bourke-White, a meticulous observer as always, kept her distance from the tragedy, even taking photos from the gallery above. Miller moved in closer; a fashion photographer covering the war for Vogue, Miller’s photo of the body of burgomaster’s daughter was almost a fashion shoot of a wax mannequin — her Nazi armband immaculately displayed, her lips parted as if waiting for a true love’s kiss that would revive her.

Bourke-White's pictures are on the left, and Miller's on the right.



The Second World War claimed the lives of at least forty-one million Europeans, more than half of them in the Soviet Union. Between 8-9 million soldiers in the Red Army were killed, and 18 million more were wounded. Between 16-19 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Estimates of the total Soviet casualties are around 25 million, five times that of the Germans, and even this rough number was deduced only by reducing the total population figures at the next census.

Although the Soviet hagiographies conveniently ignored it, there was more than a whiff of self-destruction in these numbers. Employing an insulating jargon that removed them from realities and incomprehensibilities of war, Soviet commanders asked ‘How many matches were burned?’ or ‘How many pencils were broken?’ when they wanted to know about their losses after a battle.  For all his charisma, political awareness, and good sense of military strategy, Stalin remained, in the words of the acclaimed Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov, “an armchair general”, who had ‘fathomed the secrets of war at the cost of bloody experimentation.” His planning was erratic, and his measures ‘to combat cowardice’ were extreme. According to one especially infamous order, Number 227, every army was to organize units which would move along as a second front behind the first wave of attack, and shoot down any soldier who hesitated or retreated.

The huge toll in human lives paid for Stalin’s ‘brilliant strategy’ was captured in Dmitri Baltermants’ photo, ‘Grief, or Searching for the Loved Ones in Kerch’. Before ultimately reaching Berlin like the Red Army itself, Baltermants covered the battles of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Grief was taken at the Crimean front, where he went upon his release from the hospital after seriously wounding himself in Stalingrad.

The photo depicts a 1942 Nazi massacre in the Crimean village of Kerch. Village women searched for the bodies of their loved ones. The contrast between the oversaturated sky above and the bodies haphazardly strewn in the foreground underlines the poignancy of the moment, but for the same reason, the photo was censored in the Soviet Union where authorities only published the photos that could help boost morale; ‘Grief’ reflected nothing but harsh tragedies of war, and it wasn’t seen by the general public until the 1960s.

The photo was allegedly cropped, and oversaturated sky itself was either the result of studio error or deliberate manipulation by Baltermants. Like so many tales originating from behind the Iron Curtain, these stories were of course unverified.



Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya

Travelogues tend to be disappoint. Instead of travelogues that tell gripping stories about both people and history of a particular locale, travel writing these days obsesses itself with how to travel cheaper and faster, and with some architectural minutiae that fail to interest anybody but third year arts students. I was in Moscow to meet some Russian government officials earlier this summer and they put me at a huge hotel complex outside the city at Partizanskaya. I have been there several times before — Partizanskya being the site of a massive souvenir market — armed with varying guidebooks, but what they failed to tell me was that the distinctive looking statue at Partizanskya Metro Station was that of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, once one of the most revered martyrs of the Russian State.

I first met Zoya several years ago in David Plante’s novel The Age of Terror. The picture above of Zoya’s corpse spurs the novel’s young American hero to travel to the then slowly collapsing Soviet Union in search of identity. When I read it the book, I thought the photo was made-up. It was not, but scholars still debate how much of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya story is. For some, it bored all the fingerprints of the hagiographers of the godless Soviet Union who were all too happy to create martyrs.

The official Soviet story went something like this: When the Nazis invade Russia, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya quit the tenth grade at Moscow. Hair-cropped, and in men’s clothes, the 18-year old joined the Resistance and became one of its most celebrated heros. The Germans finally captured her in November 1941, and subjected her to various tortures — which included belts, punches, lighters, saws and bayonets.  She refused to talk and the Germans led her to the gallows with a card inscribed “Guerrilla” about her neck.

There, at the village square of Petrisheva, Zoya gave her courageous speech: “You hang me now but I am not alone. There are 200 million of us. You won’t hang everybody. I shall be avenged. Soldiers! Surrender before it is too late. Victory will be ours.” She was hanged, and the Germans left the body hanging on the gallows for several weeks. Eventually she was buried just before the Soviet liberation of Petrisheva in January 1942. The above photo of her body were later found on the body of a dead German officer at Smolensk along with three other photos of the execution process.

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya became popular with a Pravda article was written by Pyotr Lidov, who had heard about the execution from an elderly peasant. Yet many doubted this official version; they noted that ‘Kosmo’ and ‘Demyan’ were both proper first names, which had been combined to make an all-inclusive family name with the feminine ending kaya (much like Jane Q. Smith). Others said the Soviet authorities were pulling America’s leg with a ridiculous sounding last name that sounded almost like ‘Damn Yankee’. Later, there were acrimonious debates on whether it was just local peasants who hanged Zoya after she destroyed their property. Some questioned whether Zoya myth was created to draw attention away from the other heroine of the Resistance who happened to be a Jewess. No matter what, Stalin immediately named her a Hero of the Soviet Union. Many young soviet soliders carried a photo of her, and the words ‘For Zoya’ were also written on Soviet tanks and planes heading to Berlin. Streets, kolkhozes, Pioneer organizations, a mountain and a minor planet were all named after Zoya. The ultimate accolade came when she was reburied at the Novodevichy Cemetery. There she rests now, surrounded by many Russian luminaries, whose works she allegedly enjoyed in life.


(One source I find online says a Pravda photographer named Sergej Strunniknow took the above photo. I find this a little hard to believe but there it is).



Nagasaki, August 9th 1945

Interestingly enough, when Hiroshima was atom-bombed, the Tokyo government radio told the people that a “new type of bomb” had been used. The real horrors in Hiroshima were unknown to the wider populace; since the city was utterly destroyed and communications were hard, even the imperial government was not totally of what happened there. Two days would pass before the government met to discuss the new developments. In the wider world, the situation was quickly changing too; the Soviet Union’s declaration on war on Japan threw a wrench into both American and Japanese strategies.

On the American side, the decisions to use two nuclear bombs — to show than American has more than enough supply of such weapons — had been agreed upon since April 1945.  Only the potential targets were debated upon, so that the U.S. could ban conventional attacks on those cities — in part so it would be easier to measure the destruction from the atomic bomb. The top choice was the emperor’s place in Kyoto, but the decision was vetoed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who spent his honeymoon there and enjoyed the city. (Another thing Stimson considered was that if the emperor were to perish, it would have hardened the Japanese resolve and precluded a surrender.) Top targets became Hiroshima and Kokura. However, August 9th 1945 was a particularly cloudy day in Kokura. The bombing carrying the bomb gave up on Kokura and went on to its secondary target,  Nagasaki.

The Japanese Supreme Council received the news that Nagasaki had been destroyed while they were just debating the terms of surrender. Now,  surrender was not only inevitable, but also the only route for survival. On August 15th,the Emperor’s surrender speech was broadcast over the radio — this was the first time an Emperor of Japan had deigned to speak through a radio.

On the day after the Nagaski Bombing,a military photographer  Yosuke Yamahata took over a hundred photographs of the devastated city. His photographs, taken in an interval of twelve hours in the  afternoon of August 10th, were the most extensive record of  the atomic bombings. In between Japan’s surrender and arrival of the American Occupation Forces, these photos were widely circulated; for instance, the 21 August issue of Mainichi Shinbun printed them. The Western audience would, however, have to wait further seven years before the censorship was lifted and they appeared in the 29 September 1952 issue of Life, together with Yoshito Matsushige’s photos of Hiroshima.  The same year they also appeared in the book form.

Fall of France

Some say it was taken in Toulon as the French soldiers leave for Africa. Some say it was taken as Nazi tanks rolled into Paris. Others claim it was taken in Marseilles as historic French battle flags were taken aboard ships for protection against the conquering Nazis. No matter what incident prompted him to cry, the French civilian cries across decades from his faded photograph. He cries not only for his generation, but also for his century. The photo, one of the most heart-rending pictures of the Second World War, was possibly taken by George Mejat for Fox Movietone News/AP.

The fall of France, only six weeks after initial Nazi assault, came as a shock and surprise to many. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Maginot Line wasn’t exactly circumvented by the Nazis through Belgium. The Nazis, in fact, broke through the strongest point of the Maginot Line, Fort Eben-Emael, which connected the French and Belgian fortification systems. The fortifications were unequipped to defend against gliders, explosives and blitzkrieg. The Luftwaffe simply flew over it. When the Allied forces reinvaded in June 1944, the Maginot Line, now held by German defenders, was again largely bypassed, a clear indicator that this line, designed with a WWI-like trench warfare in mind, was never actually going to work no matter where the Nazis attacked.

The fall of France was the first crisis for the new coalition government of Winston Churchill in London. For next 20 months, the Great Britain and her Empire would stand alone against the Nazi armies. Not until D-Day, 6 June 1944, would an Allied army return to Western Europe. Greatly emboldened by their success, the Germans would gamble even more heavily on their next major operation – the invasion of Russia. This time they would be less lucky.

This was published in LIFE on March 7, 1949, and didn't name the Frenchman in question

Jack Sharpe

Jack Sharpe was sent to Singapore just a few days before the Japanese invasion there, and captured by the Japanese. He was sent to Thailand to work on the notorious Burma Railway and was nearly executed over an attempted escape. Before his court martial for escape, Sharpe defiantly proclaimed that he would live to see all of Japan surrender and that he would walk out of the prison on his own two feet.

Sharpe was sent back to the Outram jail in Singapore; almost no one survived it for two years, and it was from this infamous prison that Sharpe was liberated in August 1945 with the dubious distinction of being its longest survivor. True to his words, he walked out of the gates on his own two feet, and collapsed immediately afterwards. During his captivity, plagued by scurvy, dysentery and scabs, Sharpe saw his weight decreased from 70 kilograms to less than 25 kilograms. In September 1945, the world was stunned by the publication of Sharpe’s skeletal figure cheerfully smiling from the end of his bed. The photo told the story of appalling Japanese treatment of their prisoners, and also the indomitable spirit of Jack Sharpe, who eventually lived to be 88.

One in three POWs under the Japanese during the war perished — seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians. In fact, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died on the Burma Railroad alone. The Japanese, coming from a shame culture which would rather commit suicide, never understood the concept of surrendering, and treated their prisoners with the greatest of contempt.