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

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

Heslop had planned to go to California to study photography at Los Angeles City College. He decided to go, while he waited for the draft, and there learned that an Army Combat Photography Unit was being formed.

"The government had asked the movie industry to put something together," he says. "I thought that would be the thing to do. But when I went to see them, they told me they were pretty well full."

Heslop kept "bugging them for an interview," and at last got one. "They selected me on the condition that I would agree to be a buck private. All the higher commissions had gone to movie folks."

They also told him to enlist in the National Guard, and they would call him when they needed him.

That call finally came in September 1943, when Heslop was told to report for basic training at Camp Crowder in Tennessee.

In May of 1944, he and Fae Stokes decided to get married. Looking back, "that seems like a crazy thing to do, but we didn't know how it all would go."

On July 23, 1944, his unit shipped out from New York City on the troop ship Mauritania. The next nine months were a whirlwind of activity.

"We had good things; we had bad things," says Heslop.

He was issued two cameras, a 4x5 Speed Graphic and a Leica 35mm, "but they didn't really want any 35mm stuff." That was backup. His unit comprised two movie photographers and two still photographers, a lieutenant ("who got all our assignments and told us where to go"), and a jeep driver. "We had to cook our own food, find our own places to stay, maybe an empty factory or an abandoned hotel."

He was issued a pistol, which he carried in a shoulder holster. The only time he ever used it, however, was to fend off an amorous village girl who didn't want to take no for an answer. "As far as I know, no gun was ever pointed at me." There were buzz bombs and mortar shells going off around him, however, and there were a couple of close calls. But mostly, they were following the retreating German troops.

That often offered dramatic and poignant situations. In Leipzig, for example. His unit arrived in the city just after it surrendered to the Allies. They were looking around, and Heslop spotted the City Hall. "It was not damaged much, so I went inside. I opened the door to the mayor's office, and bang, there he was, dead. His wife was sitting across from him, his daughter on a little couch nearby. The police chief was around the corner — all dead. I had apparently walked in moments after the mayor and his staff had committed suicide. That hit me. I thought, 'Why would they do that?' But they didn't want to fall into American hands."

Even more traumatic was Ebensee, a concentration camp in Austria. "The war ended on May 7. The next day we got word there was a camp a few miles from where we were. It was the first we had heard of it, but the 80th infantry division was going to bring them help. We rushed up there, and it was a huge camp: 60,000 people, and about 300 a day were dying and they would just pack them up and put them on the side of the street and a truck would come along. There was a huge stack of clothing taken from the bodies."

Heslop was "the first American to see a lot of them. It was so bad, but it didn't hit me then. I was so busy taking pictures. It was only later it hit me."

The men there were not just Jews, but prisoner/workers from many occupied territories. "They slept four to a bunk. They were all nearly naked and so emaciated. It was just terrible. There was a hill they had to walk up to work, and if they couldn't make it, they just laid down and died. There was a shower where it turned out they were gassed."

He felt bad "that I didn't have the milk and sugar that the infantry people were bringing, but they were so pleased to be liberated, and when that nourishment would come to them, they were very prayerful."

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