Behind the camera: W. Eugene Smith
Where: Taken during the Battle of Saipan
Photo Summary: An unshaven Angelo S. Klonis drinking from a canteen OR PFC Thomas E. Underwood of B/1/24th Marines
Picture Taken: June 27, 1944
In June of 1944 photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith was following the American troops as they fought their way across the Japanese island of Saipan. While following an elite unit of American troops he snapped a few shots of a Greek-American soldier, Angelo S. Klonis. This photo would decades later be chosen by Peter C. Bunnell, McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University as Smith’s best work. It was included in a Masters of American Photography Collectible Stamp Sheet, it went on to sell sixty million stamps.
Angelo S. Klonis
In 1936 Fifteen-year-old Angelo S. Klonis left his home in Kephallonia, Greece and stowed away on an American bound ship in hopes of a better life. Landing in L.A. California he worked his way across the country before finally settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1938. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 he felt the call of duty to serve his adopted homeland. At first, he tried to join the Marines but was turned down because he wasn’t an American citizen, he then tried the army who accepted him into their ranks on August 10, 1942. His family says that Klonis served in multiple theaters during the war including Europe, Africa, even Norway.
Like many men of his generation, Angelo didn’t talk much about the war and after he died it fell on his son to investigate Angelo’s service. Much like James Bradly who spearheaded research into his Dad’s iconic picture at Iwo Jima Angelo S. Klonis’ son, Nick Klonis, research unearthed many secrets that Angelo had taken to the grave. Through perseverance and lots of luck Nick was able to uncover that Angelo was actually a member of an elite army unit that fought in both Europe and Pacific theaters of WWII. Incredibly Angelo S. Klonis took part in the DDay invasion on June 6, 1944 before just weeks later crossing the world to fight during the brutal Battle of Saipan (June 15 – July 9, 1944).
After the war, Angelo S. Klonis visited his family in Greece and met his future wife Angeliki (“Kiki”). They had three boys Evangelo, in 1952, Nicalaos (“Nick”) in 1954 and Demosthenes (“Demo”) in 1955 before moving back to live in Greece for 10 years before the Klonis family returned to America in 1969. In 1971 he bought a bar and named it “Evangelo’s” giving it a Polynesian style with bamboo and tiki torches, probably influenced by the time he spent in the Pacific.
Angelo S. Klonis died in 1989. While he remembers being photographed by Smith he never saw the photograph himself and only knew that it had been published while he was overseas.
Thomas E. Underwood
For decades it was accepted that the man in this photo was Angelo S. Klonis but recent research into his identity reveals that the man might be PFC Thomas E. Underwood of B/1/24th Marines. Geoffrey a researcher that documents the men of First Battalion, 24th Marines does a exhaustive two-part investigation into the man in the picture:
Underwood v. Klonis I
Underwood v. Klonis II
W. Eugene Smith
William Eugene Smith grew up in Wichita, Kansas, America. He learned the ropes of photojournalism while working for the local Wichita papers, The Wichita Eagle and The Beacon. Looking to work in the big leagues Smith moved to New York and started with Newsweek before refusing to compromise his standards he quit and joined Life Magazine in 1939. During World War II he covered many theaters of operation including the fighting in Saipan where he would take the famous picture that would eventually end up in the Masters of American Photography Collectible Stamp Sheet. In May of 1945, he was hit by Japanese fire and sent to Guam to be patched up.
After the war, he covered the plight of the working man in beautifully put together photo essays, a concept that he pioneered. His work in the UK is now seen as invaluable insights into working-class Britain. In 1955 he left LIFE magazine and joined the Magnum photo agency.
In 70s Japan, while trying to tell a story of exploitation of the locals around polluting factories he was attacked by Japanese thugs trying to prevent him from exposing Minamata disease to the world. His injuries from the attack kept him bedridden for weeks but he was still able to capture one of his most famous pictures Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.
His war injuries plus the injuries suffered from his beating at the hands of Japanese industrialists caused him to collapse into a bitter world of pain med-addiction and self-destruction. After ending his second marriage he struggled in poverty for a few years before, on October 15, 1978, he suffered a series of massive strokes and died in Tucson, Arizona. He was 59 years old.
Smith’s Published Books
Copyright to this photo is managed by Magnum American Soldier Drinking From A Canteen by W. Eugene Smith