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Shots of War: The Last Battle

Shots of War: The Last Battle

World War II photography

by Laura Bien

From the October, 2004 issue

A ragged black hole where an eye should be howls out of a photo of a sprawled dead GI. The other lifeless eye is fixed on the viewer of New York photographer Tony Vaccaro's exhibition of fifty-five riveting World War II front-line photographs, on display at the Museum on Main Street through November 14.

Vaccaro, an infantryman, developed 8,000 photographs in his foxhole, using pinches of photographic chemicals mixed in four GI helmets. The lush, richly detailed fourteen-by-twenty-four-inch black-and-white photographs offer a look at the brutality behind the recent shiny sentimentality about the "Greatest Generation."

Nearby cases of local World War II artifacts include a bitter song from the era by an anonymous Ypsilantian about as pleased by his hometown as he is about the prospect of going to war:

Well, I been hearin' 'bout World War Two,
Airplane engines and combat shoes
Tiny little people crawlin' in the grease,
And I've signed on for a one-year lease. . . .

Well the kids are hangin' around
In a broken-down paper mill,
And the Huron River don't act alone
And a passenger train can kill
Ooo, that's Michigan Avenue for you,
You know it only leads out of town. . . .

I'm gettin' outta Washtenaw County.
I'm gettin' outta Washtenaw County.
And I'm gonna burn down Ypsilanti.

One of three perusable scrapbooks of World War II propaganda and news clippings on a table in the museum's rear room displays the resolutely upbeat home-front approach to the war. "Do with less — so they'll have enough," admonishes one postcard. "Rationing means a fair share for all of us," says another. A third implores, "Americans! Share the meat as a wartime necessity!" and explains that the average adult should consume no more than two and a half pounds of meat a week.

Nearby cases display ration books for fuel and food. A poster proclaiming "Win with Tin!"
...continued below...

shows a shapely high heel crushing a can for recycling. Another era's evidence of national sacrifice and mindfulness about the hardship of war raises dark questions about why no one is planting Victory Gardens now — a scrapbook about the gardens contains a picture of a dead GI and demands, "What have you done for freedom today?"

A list of the 282 Washtenaw County World War II dead, from Frank Acree to Harold Zulz, answers that question.

One Vaccaro photo shows a fellow soldier at the moment of his death. He's running, and both feet are off the ground as he curls to one side from the impact. There's a curious shape in the photo just beyond his twisted body that may be the death bullet. Blurry, the photo of a writhing soldier suspended in air suggests a soul unwillingly leaving the earth.     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2004.]


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