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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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Korea – Picture Post

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In 1950, editor of Picture Post Tom Hopkinson sent reporter James Cameron and photographer Bert Hardy to cover the Korean War. While in Korea the two men produced three illustrated stories for Picture Post, including General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon. But the photos Hardy took outside Pusan Station were the memorable images that eventually ripped Britain’s premier picture magazine apart.

In early September 1950, Pusan was the only Korean city held by U.N. Forces. There outside the train station were about sixty political prisoners, aged 14 to 70, suspected of opposing South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee. They were tied up, and wore almost no clothes; when they tried to scoop a drink from the puddles of rain that they were squatting in, South Korean guards beat them with rifle butts. When Hardy took the photos, they were about to be taken off and shot. Their fate reminded Hardy and Cameron of the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. Cameron wrote a story harshly critical of the Allies, the UN and the Red Cross for giving Rhee a free rein.

In London, Tom Hopkinson admitted that Hardy’s photos were the best he ever received; but considering the story’s sensitivity, he waited until Cameron and Hardy came back to confirm the story’s authenticity and assure him that it was no isolated case. Even then, he attached a picture of an American prisoner being paraded cruelly through Pyongyang (taken from in a Czech magazine) to achieve some balance, and asked Cameron to remove any trace of excessive emotion which might lead people to accuse the paper of sensationalism or bias. Cameron rewrote the story in flatter style, and later reflected that he had “never worked so hard to write so badly”.

But Hopkinson was constantly conflict with Picture Post’s owner Edward G. Hulton. In August 1945, Hulton wrote to Hopkinson whom he suspected was a socialist: “I cannot permit editors of my newspapers to become organs of Communist propaganda. Still less to make the great newspaper which I built up a laughing-stock.” While Hulton initially did not object to Cameron’s story, he was persuaded by his beautiful émigrée wife Nika to remove the story. Hulton — on the verge of receiving a knighthood — stopped the presses, fearing that coverage would “give aid and comfort to the enemy”.

After a week’s cooling period, Hopkinson insisted on printing the story; he refused to accept the management’s invitation to resign, and they sacked him. He persuaded most of the staff not to resign in protest, although some did. Hulton sent Cameron and Hardy into the Himalayas on a wild goose chase for the Dalai Lama. Their “Inchon” story touting Gen. MacArthur covered nine pages of the Oct. 7, 1950 Picture Post. After Hopkinson, Post was led by a revolving door of incompetent editors until it finally closed shop in 1957. Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian presidency lasted ten more years until 1960, when following popular protests against a disputed election, he resigned. More than 200,000 perished under his reign of terror.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 23, 2010 at 4:55 am

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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Grief and Sorrow in Haktong

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Rarely did such an emotional photo emerge from a war. It was taken in the Haktong-ni area of South Korea by career combat news photographer Al Chung on August 28th 1950; the photo showed a grief-stricken American infantryman being comforted by a comrade. The details about his grief were a matter of debate. Some said he just learnt his best friend had been killed, while some say it can be attributed to a more banal reason–he just learnt that his replacement as a radio operator had been killed.

The photo was also a study in contrasts: in the background, it also showed a corpsman sifting through casualty information and filling in the name of the newly fallen, ignoring the emotional outburst besides him as if he was giving his comrades a moment of privacy. The photo was featured in Edward Steichen’s celebrated “Family of Man” photography exhibit in 1955 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and subsequently been reproduced in many newspapers, magazines, books and museums.

Hawaiian Albert Chang covered three wars; as a dockworker in Honolulu, he saw the attack on Pearl Harbor and afterwards served in the Pacific and went on to photograph the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. In Korea, he cemented his reputation as one of the Army’s finest photographers. In Vietnam, he received the Purple Heart after a Viet Cong bullet hit his left eye. Chang’s famous images included a Vietnamese family driven by oxen cart on a road leaving Saigon that is filled with bustling US tanks and a group of Saigon residents detaining and beating a suspect in a parade bombing who was thought to have belonged to the Viet Cong. But not all of his images were serious: a notable one from Korea showed three soldiers sharing canned poi and dried squid as a ukulele nestles in the lap of one man.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 2, 2009 at 10:00 am

Posted in Politics, War

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The Taedong Bridge

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Max Desfor requested voluntarily to cover the Korean War. In October 1950, he received the special permission to join the 187th Regimental Combat Team. By December 1950, the UN troops were losing as the Communist China came to the aid of the North Korean Army. As Max and the military were retreating from Pyong-Yang, so were many Koreans who feared the reprisals.

At one bridge on the Taedong River, they came across refugees clinging to the twisted girders of a destroyed bridge as they tried to cross the river. The girders were still intact and connecting, so the people used these metallic supports to get to their destination. Some were half-frozen. Some plunged into the icy river. His fingers numbing from cold, Desfor took only a few shots from the high vantage point on ‘our side of the bridge’, and transmitted from Tokyo AP Bureau on December 5th 1950. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 22, 2009 at 1:21 am

Posted in Society, War

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