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

Published: Monday, Nov. 8 2010 5:12 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says Robert C. Freeman, director of the Saints at War project at BYU, where some 1,353 of Heslop's war images have been archived as well as digitized and put online.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."

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."

In 1997, Heslop got a call from a man named George Havas who asked him if he had taken pictures during the war, and asked if he had been at Ebensee. "You took my picture," Havas said. "There were four of us, and I was the one with the gash on my head." Havas had been to the National Archives and found the picture with Heslop's name on the back and had tracked him down. Later he wrote a letter:

"You sound like a rare, gentle, kind person. I wish there were more people like you — it would be a better world than it is," he wrote. "I can still 'see' you as a tall, American officer. You got up on a stool and shot us from above, with a large camera flash."

But not everything was so heart-rending. One of Heslop's favorite memories came from Paris just after they had arrived in Europe. "I didn't have an assignment, so I was doing a little sightseeing, just gawking around, and went up to the Arc de Triomphe. Up drives a car, and out hops Winston Churchill on one side, and out hops Charles DeGaulle on the other. They put a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Soldier, got back in the car and drove down the Champs-Elysees, where there were suddenly people lining both sides of the street."

There had been no announcement of the visit, so no other photographers were there. "I just started flipping off pictures, and then didn't know what to do with them, but someone contacted me and said 'We're from Public Relations, and we'd like to have your pictures.' So, I gave them the pictures and they sent them through the Associated Press and others across the world."

Some of Heslop's assignments included things like parties and gatherings of officers. He also worked with "psychological warfare, where they'd print leaflets to put in shells that were dropped over Germany."

GIs would often ask him to take their picture. "If I could find someone from Utah, I'd take a picture of them doing something. I found several of those."

He remembers another photo that got a lot of attention. "A hard day of fighting was over, and this soldier came back, and there was a puddle of water in the street. It had been raining. And his feet were killing him. He just took his shoes off and washed his feet and got some comfort, and I just came along and happened to see it."

Heslop also has a shot of German tanks lining a road. "That was how the war ended. The Germans just stopped, left everything and walked away."

After the war ended in Europe, Heslop's unit got a month's furlough back in the States, and then were scheduled to go to Japan. He was on the train going back to Georgia after being home with Fae and had to overnight in Meridian, Miss. "I was in a hotel and heard lots of commotion, people in the street yelling, fireworks going off. The A-bomb had been dropped, the war was over. I celebrated, too. I didn't have to go to Japan after all."

Heslop came home, and with the rest of his generation, moved on to other things. He attended Utah State University, majoring in agriculture. "I was going to do agricultural photography." But he was hired as a photographer by the Deseret News, and stayed for 40 years. He went on to be chief photographer, then editor of the Church News. "When they asked me to do that, I said only if they would let me cover the church as the worldwide organization it was becoming." He did a lot of traveling and had some great opportunities there before becoming managing editor of the paper.

Heslop had put the war behind him;he didn't think much about it as he moved on with his life. "I'd forgotten about it until the TV thing; I met a guy who I'd known in the Army, and he was part of the series at KUED. I was about the last one they interviewed for that."

But he is glad to see the interest in preserving and documenting the war experience.

As Freeman says of the Saints at War project, "our goal and desire is to help increase public understanding of this chapter of our history, to educate, to deepen their appreciation, to pay tribute to men like J."

An image that sticks in Heslop's mind at war's end was when "I came across a group of men who were gathered with a chaplain. It was a Catholic chaplain, and he was doing Mass for those men who were so glad the war was over. And, I think there is a spirituality that goes with what they were doing in that war. They felt they had a cause. They weren't there because they enjoyed the war. They were there because it was important."

Nor was it just those men. "There were thousands and thousands of them who felt that way. There wasn't any question in their minds about what we were doing and why we were doing it. And I think that's what made the difference in that victory."

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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