Behind the camera: George Strock
Where: Buna Beach, New Guinea (Now Papua New Guinea)
Photo Summary: Three American bodies lying dead in the sand next to destroyed landing craft
Picture Taken: December 31, 1942First published September 20, 1943 in LIFE
The Battle of Buna-Gona was a grueling campaign to stop the Japanese advance across New Guinea. After months of difficult and treacherous fighting, the combined Australian and American forces were able to attack the Japanese bases near the small New Guinea village of Buna. It was here that the Reporter George Strock was able to capture this photo of three dead American soldiers on the last day of 1942. When it was finally published in late 1943 it was the first time in WWII any American media had published an image of dead American troops.
When I took pictures, I wanted to bring the viewer into the scene
Getting it past the censors
George Strock handed his film over the LIFE photo editors who then selected the best images for publication in the LIFE magazine. Strock’s pictures from the Battle of Buna-Gona were published by LIFE magazine in its February 15 and 22, 1943 editions.
The image with dead soldiers was at first blocked by the military censors but one correspondent in Washington named Cal Whipple saw the value in this picture and made it his mission to get it published. He would recall spending months going “from Army captain to major to colonel to general, 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.’” It was there that the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, the War Department and the director of the Office of War Information, Elmer Davis gave their approval and allowed a LIFE to publish.
The picture was released in the September 20, 1943 LIFE issue with the following editorial
Here lie three Americans.
What shall we say of them? Shall we say that this is a noble sight? Shall we say that this is a fine thing, that they should give their lives for their country?
Or shall we say that this is too horrible to look at?
Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid?
Those are not the reasons.
The reason is that words are never enough. The eye sees. The mind knows. The heart feels. But the words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens. The words are never right. . . .
The reason we print it now is that last week, President Roosevelt and Elmer Davis and the War Department decided 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.
And so here it is. This is the reality that lies behind the names that come to rest at last on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns.
A native of Los Angeles George Strock went to John C. Fremont High School. While there he took part in a then-groundbreaking photojournalism course taught by Clarence A. Bach. Bach ran his high school program like it was an actual newspaper telling students to cover certain events and guiding them on what made a good shot, “look for the unexpected!” At just 17-years-old one of Bach’s proteges, Mark Kauffman, took a picture that ended up as the cover of the first Sports Illustrated magazine. Under Bach the Fremont High School photojournalism program launched the careers of no less than six LIFE photographers including George Strock. Throughout WWII about 146 of the students who went through Bach’s program became wartime photographers
After high school, Strock was a crime and sports photographer at The Los Angeles Times. In the late 30s, he married Rose Marie and with her had two sons, George and William.
In 1940 he joined the LIFE magazine team to cover the war. At first, he spent some time covering the European theatre before being sent to Australia in 1942. From November 1942 to January 1943 he covered the Battle of Buna-Gona where he took the famous picture of three dead soldiers. In late January he was sent back to America arriving in San Francisco on January 30, 1943.
He returned to cover the island hopping of the Pacific campaign and after the War worked at LIFE. HE never lost his touch and was able to get many cover shots on the LIFE Front cover. At the age of 66, George Strock died in his home city of Los Angeles on August 23, 1977.