Best Defense

My favorite Marine photo from WWII

My favorite Marine photo from WWII

By Eric Hammel
Best Defense guest photo curator

Tom has kindly asked me to select and discuss my "favorite" photo from my latest — and probably final — book, Always Faithful: U.S. Marines in World War II Combat, The 100 Best Photos. Each photo in the book bears a caption that identifies only the operation in which it was taken. It is left to the reader to decide what they see in the photo, not read what I think.

I don’t have a favorite. I selected each of them from a collection numbering in the thousands, which I have been over many times during the past six or seven years. But some have more meaning to me than others. The selection you see here is one that holds great personal significance. It is of a handful Marines about to crest a hill on Okinawa. My late father fought on Okinawa as a U.S. Army combat medic attached to an infantry company. He was wounded and evacuated. He arrived home just in time to start my personal ball rolling. I think of my father every time I see this photo.

What I see is a technically deficient photo; it’s overexposed. But it perfectly captures an important truth about combat, and life: beware what’s on the other side of the hill. A little of the body language the combat photographer captured suggests the caution veterans exhibit when they sense or anticipate danger. But look more closely: they’re up, they’re advancing, they’re ready for anything. In a moment they will be gone.

" …will be gone." On a meta level, this photo represents — to me — the imminent passing of the World War II generation. These were the men who raised me, who taught me, who mentored me, who inspired me. And, for the most part, they have already advanced into the great light that will take us all — willingly, bravely, realistically, with heads held high.