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David Douglas Duncan | Korean War

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On the morning of 25 June 1950, when the North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel into South Korea, they found the latter’s troops completely unprepared. There were miscalculations from all sides. America’s supremo in the east, General MacArthur, dismissed CIA warnings that the North Koreans would attack in June. Stalin, emboldened by the American apathy towards the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, insisted to Mao that Americans were too afraid to fight another war. As for President Truman, he had been roundly criticized by the Congress for the Communist takeover of China the previous year. With mid-term elections just a few months away, and he himself still intending to run for a second term, he wasn’t going to appear soft. “By God I’m going to let them have it,” he remarked on the evening of the attack.


Others have won Pulitzers for covering the war, but the greatest collection of pictures about the Korean War was produced by David Douglas Duncan (still alive as of mid-2017 at age of 101!). On September 4th, Duncan joined the men of Baker Company across the Naktong river — one of his images was later chosen for a commemorative stamp. He remembered:

“I cabled LIFE’s editors in August from Tokyo and I told them I was heading back to Korea to try and get what I called ‘a wordless story’ that conveyed the message, simply, ‘This is war.’ Not long after that I was covering the fighting near the Naktong River, and I made the picture of Marines running past a dead enemy soldier, their fatigues absolutely soaked to the chest with mud and muck and god knows what else. And this ended up as the cover image for the book, This Is War!, when it came out a year later.”

His photos which appeared in LIFE on September 18th underlined the struggles of fighting men at front. One of the most memorable was that of corporal machine gunner Leonard Hayworth, was crying at the loss of all but two of his squad (above). Another much-reproduced photo captured Ike Fenton, commanding officer of Baker Company receiving the news that his forces are nearly out of ammos and that he could expect no supplies or troops to secure this ‘no-name’ ridge. (below) If another attack came, they (and Duncan) stood to be wiped out.


Now known as a ‘forgotten war’ — commemorated by a TV series that lasted longer than the war itself — the Korean War cemented the American hegemony in the Pacific. After much dawdling, Truman had now drawn a ‘line-in-the-sand’. Some historians note that not much South Korea, but also Japan and Taiwan were saved by the war.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 14, 2017 at 10:05 am

Posted in Politics

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Veterans Korea

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David Douglas Duncan’s motto for shooting war photographs was ‘‘Be close—be fast—be Lucky, Easy, always remember—be humane, never close-ups of the dead, war is in the eyes’’ (Photo Nomad, 2003, 151).During the WWII, he covered the South Pacific as a second lieutenant in the US Marine Corps and his sympathetic portrayal of the fighting men earned him a position with Life. For Life, he covered Palestine, the Korean War, and the Egyptian military coup of 1952.

On September 4th 1950 Duncan joined the men of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as they fought to push the North Koreans back over the Naktong river. The next year, he published This is War: A Photo-Narrative, a book of the haunting images he took of the Korean War. In 1994, a 22 cent U.S. stamp was made to honor those who fought in Korea; ‘‘Veterans Korea,’’ based on one of Duncan’s images, of tired troops trudging a mountain pass on the march seaward from the Chosin Reservoir. The stamp, however, crops Duncan’s original image so that the dead bodies on the ground below the soldiers could not be seen. The stamp was an apt footnote for Duncan, who was criticized for his sensitive, sanitized and even romanticized portraits of American servicemen in Korea. In fact, Duncan indeed took an anti-war position, and said the stamp introduces an idea of “no casualty” war, but many  mistook his pro-soldier pictures for a pro-war attitude.

Duncan later undertook a variety of projects as a freelance photographer, including a collaboration with Picasso, but returned to combat photography, covering Vietnam for Life and ABC News. In 1972 he became the first photographer to have a one‐man show at the Whitney Museum, New York.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 7, 2010 at 1:06 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Close Encounters: David Douglas Duncan & John Dillinger

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[Don’t Adjust Your Screens. There is No Picture Here]

The story goes like this: for his 18th birthday, David Douglas Duncan, who would later grow up to be one of the most celebrated photographers of his day, was given a 39-cent Bakelite plastic camera. He was then studying archeology at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

On January 22nd 1934, at around 7:30 a.m., he heard on the radio that the Congress Hotel–the biggest hotel in Tucson–was burning. Having no classes that day, he ran down to the city from his fraternity house. There amidst the chaos, he saw a man in suspenders, “middle-aged, half-dressed, rather meek-looking fellow” who was convincing a fireman to let him reenter the hotel to retrieve his suitcase, which he dropped in one of the sections that hadn’t burned down yet.

The next day, Duncan saw headlines that America’s Public Enemy No. 1, the bank robber John Dillinger and gang were arrested at the Congress Hotel. The meek-looking fellow he photographed was John Dillinger, on whose request two firemen retrieved their luggage, thereby identifying who the gang was.

However, the photos Duncan shot that day were never published. He turned the film over to the Tuscon Citizen, which lost the film.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 20, 2010 at 5:04 am

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