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Remembering War Photographer David Douglas Duncan


This is FRESH AIR. David Douglas Duncan, one of America's most renowned war photographers, died last week in France at the age of 102. Duncan was a Marine officer and combat photographer during World War II where he shot photos of the U.S. assault on Okinawa while suspended in an acrylic tank under the wing of a P-38 fighter plane. His photos from the Korean conflict collected in a book called "This Is War!" often focused on the faces of American soldiers and Marines or, as Duncan put it, the look in the man's eyes who's taking his last puff on, perhaps, his last cigarette before he grabs his rifle and attacks an enemy position.

Duncan also covered the war in Vietnam, which he opposed. His collection of photos about the defense of the Marine base at Khe Sanh was called "I Protest!" Duncan also photographed art and developed a long-standing friendship with Pablo Picasso who became the subject of thousands of his photos. Terry spoke to David Douglas Duncan in 1990.


DAVID DOUGLAS DUNCAN: When I went to Korea, it was five years after the end of World War II. And I had been a Marine combat photographer in - you know, the fight up to the islands - up to Tokyo, up to Tokyo Bay, the surrender on board the Missouri. So I had a pretty fair idea of what combat was all about, and I'd been back in Japan for Life magazine doing a story on Japanese art, theater, architecture, everything. And the Korean War started on the 25 of June. Since I was the nearest Life photographer, it was logical I should go there. But the lucky thing was my experience.

So that when I started to shoot, I started from a running start. I didn't have to be indoctrinated. I knew what I was looking at, and I knew what I had felt during World War II. So I tried to translate that feeling into photographs that would reveal some of the feelings of the men in front of me. I always photographed Marines. I knew what they would do if I got hit. They'd get me out of there. So I was very much at home. It was a home environment. It seems strange you could say a home environment in combat, but it was very much a home environment. And, remember, I was also older than the guys in Korea and then much older by the time Vietnam came around. So - and they knew who I was. That's the - having survived other situations like that, I was well-known on the battlefield. And I was doing my job while they did their job. It was simple as that.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Is there a photo from your Korean War series that still has the most emotional impact on you when you look at it?

DUNCAN: You know, once, I asked Pablo Picasso - whom I'd photographed many, many times and made several books on him - what was his favorite painting. And he shoved his hand up in front of my eyes and says, which is my favorite finger? It's all a part of him. So these photographs are all a part of me. I can't say that one's more of a favorite than another because each one relates to another kind of memory - another kind of man. Very few of these men in the book survived. So that - you're dealing with many emotions within me, and I tried to simplify that when I shot it. Just, what did he look like? What did he feel? And as I said some other place, I didn't know anything about what he was thinking. But I knew what I was thinking. So I try to make - I'm very subjective as a war photographer. I want to break your heart.

GROSS: I want to mention some of the photographs that I found just especially moving. One is a sequence of portraits of a Marine who - in the the first portrait, there's a...

DUNCAN: "A Letter To Hayworth" - he's in the foreground - an old Marine in the background talking him out of it - out of his crack up. There are four shots on the double-page.

GROSS: Yeah, actually that's it (laughter).

DUNCAN: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUNCAN: Well, if you look at it very closely, you'll see something quite surprising that the only movement in that picture is in the change of expression in Leonard Hayworth's face, the guy in front of me - the Marine who had come back from the front line - which was about 25 feet away actually - trying to get more ammunition or a replacement for some of the men who had been wounded. A couple had been killed, and there was nothing. It was raining. Nothing, and he cracked up - really cracked up. And the old Marine saw him. He'd been wounded. He sat there and forgot his own wounds and talked Leonard out of it. He came from a lovely place called Deer Path, Ind. Could you imagine? He was killed about three weeks later.

GROSS: Another photograph I want to ask you about - this is toward the end of the book in a sequence of photographs of the Marines on retreat. There's a soldier...

DUNCAN: No, no. Wait a minute, wait a minute - they didn't retreat. They're coming down from the reservoir. That's on the border of Manchuria and North Korea. And when you retreat, you retreat from an enemy force of greater strength what's in front of you. You put them behind you and take off. It happens to be that there were more Chinese communist troopers in front of those Marines than behind them. They fought their way through. They didn't retreat. They fought their way out.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, in the photograph I'm thinking of, there's a soldier sitting on the hood of a jeep. There's a rifle on his lap. And the expression on his face, I think, will always stay with me. It looks like - well, it kind of looks like he looked into hell, and it left him numb.

DUNCAN: He was wounded and frozen and riding because only way to get him out. If you come out ambulatory, you've tied up a couple of guys. But at least there was still a jeep running, so he got on the hood of the jeep. But if you looked to your left - the viewers' left in that photograph - you'll see another Marine who was ambulatory - also wounded - and looking at him with sheer hatred. Can you imagine hating your friend? 'Cause a very - it's an animal factor of survival. It just happens. And the photograph, I think, nailed it down pretty well. But five minutes later, it might've changed completely. But that moment - the freezing, walking Marine would like to have had a lift on the hood of the jeep carrying out his friend.

GROSS: How cold was it?

DUNCAN: In the terms of a thermometer, it was about 40 below zero Fahrenheit. And in those days - that's 40 years ago. We didn't know about chill factor, but the wind was coming out of Siberia at about anywhere from 25 to 50 miles an hour. So I would imagine the chill factor was somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees below (laughter) - you know, sometimes it comes back. I can't think about it because I'm - the guy is freezing below zero Fahrenheit. It's really strange. It comes back and grabs you by the throat. And you're - I'm sitting here fiddling with a paper clip on top of your table in the studio. And I'm thinking about those guys of another life.

GROSS: Do - have people ever told you that they recognized a husband or a boyfriend or...

DUNCAN: I'm still getting letters 40 years later from one of those freezing Marines. And everybody from Army, Navy, Air Force, other Marines - I don't know exactly who he was. I know where he was. I know the date. It was taken the 9 of December just at dawn on the - just below the Yellow River. I know what the temperature was. I know many things, but I don't know - I didn't ask his name. But I got even - I was on a program a few days ago, and a call came in from Florida. And a woman was sure it was her husband, except I was sure that it wasn't because the lady calling identified her husband as having been in the Army. This guy was a Marine. It's impossible.

GROSS: But...

DUNCAN: But let me make one point.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUNCAN: Except for the rare case where it doesn't seem to be injurious, I don't tell them. I let them think it's their husband or brother, father - father? No, could you imagine? That's 40 years ago.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUNCAN: In fact, I got a call from a lady. I live in the south of France. I got a call a couple of months ago at midnight. She didn't realize how late it was where I live. And she was identifying her father who was a Marine, and he'd gotten the Medal of Honor - the highest decoration given by the military. But he was killed three days before I made that picture. So I told her so she would never be shattered when she discovered that I had been kidding her. So I didn't deceive her. The others, I'm not deceiving. I just don't disillusion them.

GROSS: What are the secrets of shooting in combat without becoming a target yourself?

DUNCAN: Well, you are a target of course. It's illogic (ph). You know, I'm just lucky. In fact, there's a shot there of Ike Fenton. Ike's a guy with a - someone said the thousand-yard stare looking over my my shoulder - Ike Fenton, the captain of the assault company up in the beginning. I tied up with him about a month later during the attack into Seoul, the second chapter of the book. And it had been a terrible night and very cold, strangely enough, for September. And I thought, shallow foxhole, a lot of stuff coming in. Our stuff being - that is rifle fire, little bit of machine gun and mortar. So you just try to stay as low as you can - very low profile. If you roll over, you might catch it on your shoulder. There's that shallow of a foxhole.

And it slacked off at dawn - a beautiful dawn, cold, and I stood up to stretch. And I thought I'd pulled a chest muscle, and I started to laugh and reached down and held his hand. I held up my fist. And he handled a .30-caliber machine gun. Slugged us - hit me in the chest. At the end of its flight, my dear, as far as it would go, and it hit me. And it dropped without even denting me - nothing. So you see - sometimes you're hit, it doesn't make any difference. Other times you get hit, and it does make a big difference. But I've been lucky. I've just been licked lightly. I've never been really hit, but the other guys around me - sure.

GROSS: Do you see these photographs as anti-war photos?

DUNCAN: You better believe it. That's why I so object to a politician calling these guys boys. Can you imagine? Some boys.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

DUNCAN: Thank you for your hospitality.

DAVIES: War photographer David Douglas Duncan speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. Duncan died last week in France. He was 102. Coming up, we remember D.J. Fontana who was Elvis Presley's drummer. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE'S "PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.