Images of war: Soldier's camera captured horrors and heroes of conflict

Published: Monday, Nov. 8 2010 4:00 p.m. MST

Half-starved prisoners look out from wooden bunks and cheer their liberators at a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria.

J. Malan Heslop, L. Tom Perry Special Collections

War, as seen through the lens of a bulky Speed Graphic camera, is starkly black and white and comes in 4-by-5-inch increments. The view is no less powerful for all that.

In these brief moments, forever frozen in time, there is death and destruction, duty and determination. There is heartbreak, but also hope. There is action, but also emotion.

They are images that will forever remind those who see them of the costs and sacrifices war imposes, but also of the dignity and resilience of the human spirit. They are a window into the souls of what we have come to know and love as the Greatest Generation.

J Malan Heslop was a young soldier of 21 when he saw and captured this view during the last nine months or so of World War II. His photos are a memorable record, says Robert C. Freeman, director of the Saints at War project at BYU, where some 1,353 of Heslop's war images have been archived as well as digitized and put online. (Go to www.lib.byu.edu and search for "j malan heslop.")

Some of his photos have also been collected by the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and a number have gone to the National Holocaust Museum. Heslop is also featured on the DVD "Untold Stories," produced by KUED as part of its World War II series.

"It stands as a unique collection," says Freeman, not only because the photos were taken by a young LDS soldier, but also for what they show.

"A lot of it is about timing and place, how he was able to be the eyes that told that story," he said.

Heslop was part of the 123rd Unit of the 167th Signal Photographic Company of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His unit landed at Omaha Beach in September 1944, then traveled to Paris and on into Germany and Austria in the waning days of the war. They shot portions of the Battle of the Bulge; captured vivid images of the destruction and ruins of areas such as Eschweiler, Durwiss, Nuremberg, Remagen and Aachen; visited Leipzig just as it surrendered; were among the first to visit the concentration camp of Ebensee in Austria; recorded the capture of German soldiers; and documented the displacement of refugees, carrying what little they owned with them as they filled many roads.

Heslop did not set out to be a war photographer.

"I don't like war; I have never liked war," he says.

But he fell in love with photography as a boy.

His father first bought a camera in 1912. The family lived on a farm in West Weber, and his father had become fascinated by photography and had even built a darkroom in their house.

"There was a drop-cord with a single lightbulb in it," says Heslop, now 87. "He took out that lightbulb and replaced it with a red one, and showed me how to print a picture. I still remember how amazed I was when that image began to appear."

In high school, Heslop became the yearbook photographer; by the time he graduated he was also doing a little work for the Ogden Standard Examiner and was thinking of pursuing photography as a career.

But first, his efforts in 4-H had earned him a trip to the National 4-H convention in Chicago, which took place the last week in November 1941. He traveled by train, and after the convention, he boarded the Saturday afternoon train to go home.

The next morning, he awoke early.

"I was a farm boy and used to getting up, and I thought I'd enjoy some of the luxury of the club car," he says. "When I got there, the radio was going, and the announcer was talking about an attack on Pearl Harbor. There was one other man sitting in the car, and he looked at me and said, 'You know what that means, don't you? It means you are going to war.' He was right. A week after I got home, I got my notice to register for the draft."

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