Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley

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Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The full story of the people in images of WWII that Americans will recognise, if nobody else. Many are definitely intriguing, and this book provides many inspiring mini-biographies.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: October 2015
Publisher: ForeEdge from University Press of New England
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781611687262

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As anybody could tell, a still photograph is only part of the truth, if that. There is a beforehand we don't see, and an after we can only fantasise about unless we know otherwise. Take the famous image of wartime grunts pushing the flag pole upright – an icon of the War in the Pacific for the US soldiers, and the films made about Iwo Jima since. But other images of the war have been just as long-lasting, and the people in the photos don't always have movies made of their full story arc. This book is a collection of the images, and a corrective to that narrative lack, giving much more of a full biography with which to pay tribute.

But let the title stand corrected. This is seeing the American war. Everything seems to come from one of three sources – the Pacific war, the Battle of the Bulge or random details of what went on as millions of men went to war between 1941 and 1945. When the 'Memphis Belle' bomber turns up it's with an image of her and mention of the wartime documentary about her, not the 1990 movie, which left me with the impression that was dismissed for being too British. It took me ages until I saw an image I recognised – sure, I had heard of Rosie the Riveter, but didn't know what she looked like, whether you mean the bullish worker with Mein Kampf squashed under her factory footwear, or the very different-looking real world model for her.

Still, just because I don't recognise it, doesn't mean it isn't well worth learning about. There are some sterling images here. The bomber's sight revealing his craft's sister ship breaking up, one wing spiralling away from the fuselage. Another plane, with a huge gash almost separating the tail from the rest due to a dogfight collision. Another plane with a man peeping out, above the name of his mother, as he sets off to drop a nuclear bomb (well, I would just have to get the Enola Gay in somewhere). Here is a man bailing out of his plane, having thought he had successfully returned to his aircraft carrier, before it became a ball of flame.

And the biographies that accompany the stories can be fascinating. A walking set of bones rescued from a German POW camp, who grew up to be a successful family man; the beautiful field nurse still popping up at veteran's meets; the Polish girl shocked to discover death for the first time in the initial attacks on Warsaw… To find these people have been chased up, which was a serious hobby of this author for years before the book could be completed, is quite heart-warming. What becomes before the pictures can be quite relevant, too – why is a man getting something pinned to his chest – has he just shaved six months from the war in Europe?

I don't think the book is perfect, however much the tales selected become interesting and well worth your time, and however expertly Colley can pen his short essays. It's in chapters for quite meaningless reasons, and too often the picture is a straight portrait and it's the back story that is of interest. Turn to these pages for a summary of wartime imagery and you might feel bereft – there is actually no instance of the Iwo Jima image I referred to. But while so many of the images were unknown to me, that does kind of feed into the reason for the book – to honour the stories that weren't known about the subjects. WWII will always have surprises and interesting details, and while we're getting fewer and fewer people who can point to themselves and say 'that's a picture of me, in action', we ought to learn as much about those details as we can.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany by Richard Lucas proves there are many stories from the War that can still fascinate with their freshness.

Buy Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Seeing the War: The Stories Behind the Famous Photographs from World War II by David P Colley at Amazon.com.


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