Journalist Addison Beecher Colvin “Cal” Whipple had to fight for the right to publish it, in Life magazine. The military said no; the case went all up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who finally approved. Photographer: George Strock.
The fight was over a picture taken in late 1942 or early 1943 by George Strock, a photographer for Life. It showed the bodies of three American soldiers who had been killed on Buna Beach in New Guinea. Though none of the men were recognizable, the photo was arresting in its stark depiction of the stillness of death, and then shocking when it became clear on second glance that maggots had claimed the body of one soldier, face down in the sand.
The military censors refused Life’s request to publish the photo, as they refused to allow any pictures of American soldiers killed in combat.
At the time, Mr. Whipple was a 25-year-old Washington correspondent for Life, assigned to the newly completed Pentagon. (He had failed his physical examination for military duty). Important as his magazine job may have sounded, Mr. Whipple recalled in a 1986 oral history for the Time Inc. archives that it “consisted chiefly of getting photographers cleared to go wherever we wanted them to go” and, “more importantly, getting their pictures cleared when they brought them back.”
He added, “I had to go over to the Pentagon and really beat on the censors.”
Mr. Whipple and his colleagues at Life believed that Mr. Strock’s photograph would provide a badly needed dose of reality for those on the home front who were growing complacent about the war effort. “I went from Army captain to major to colonel to general,” he recalled in a memoir written for his family, “until I wound up in the office of an assistant secretary of the Air Corps, who decided, ‘This has to go to the White House.’ ”
In September 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the War Department and the director of the Office of War Information, Elmer Davis, decided — in the words of a Life editorial on Sept. 20 — “that the American people ought to be able to see their own boys as they fall in battle; to come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead.” Opposite the editorial, Mr. Strock’s photograph took up a full page of the magazine.