Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Light ‘Em Up, Gene! — The War Photography of W. Eugene Smith

Weary American PFC T.E. Underwood drinking from canteen in Saipan

WARNING: Any link you click in this story may lead to graphic images from the Pacific Theater of World War II.

… each time I pressed the shutter release
it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might
survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds
of men in the future-causing them caution and remembrance and realization.”

W. Eugene Smith, talking about his extraordinary
photographs from the Pacific Theater in World War II



I’ve never made any picture, good or bad,
without paying for it in emotional turmoil.”

W. Eugene Smithi


The men crawled up the beach hours agoii, firing into the dense thickets of foliage that edge the beach. It will be hours before nightfall and the men crouch behind a dune and dig out foxholes with their helmets near a thicket of tall, dry beach grasses where they will be safe for a moment. Nothing is truly safe here.

Confusion from the landing left some of the men fumbling for their riflesiii, some of them shouting orders at the others, some already fallen to the ground from the endless barrage of small artillery coming out of the jungle and the mountains beyond the jungle. The tak-tak-TAK! of Japanese machine gun fire and the kettle drum boom of explosives pierces any coherent thought that the men have, so they don’t think. They listen for the reassuring whine of heavy American naval artillery coming up from the rear and they do their damnedest to keep moving forward.

There’s a photographer with ’em from Life in fatigues and a helmet with thick glasses on. He looks like one of the men, but he doesn’t act like one of them. First of all, instead of a rifle, he’s got 35mm camera strapped around his neck. Second of all, that photographer keeps bolting up from behind the dunes to photograph soldiers taking incoming artillery fire. The second lieutenant shouts at him twice until he realizes this photographer is insane. “It’s your funeral,” says the second lieutenant. The photographer mouths the words “thank you,” and proceeds to stand up from behind the dune again. The lieutenant has already forgotten about the photographer— he’s trying to shout over the percussion of the artillery at the footsloggers with the Zippos to push forward to the tree line and—

Light ’em up!

The men with the flamethrowers drop low and slog their way to the treeline. They swing their wands from behind their backs and ignite the torches which flicker awake. The fire spouting from the flamethrowers wraps its fingers around the palm trees and starts to smoke, smolder, catch and finally burn and blacken.

A cheer goes up from behind the dunes. And then Japanese artillery drops on them again so they’re back to returning fire and now one of the footsloggers with the torches is dead. Somebody should get that flamethrower off his back.

And there’s that Life photographer— moving forward, digging in, holding his camera up to his eye. How the hell is he doing it? Doesn’t he know there’s a war on?

Photographer W. Eugene Smith of Life Magazine plants his foot on the side of the dune, leans out, puts his camera up to his eye. He lines up his next shot. One of the men moves up behind him and fires just over his left ear at a sniper in a palm tree. The sniper might have had a bullet with Smith’s name on it. But today is not that day.

In a gust of wind, heaven and hell rain down on the American marines bunkered down on the beachhead of Saipan, the crucial turning point in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Take Saipan and Japan is within striking distance. The U.S. Marines know it. Smith knows it. The Imperial Military stationed on Saipan know it, and that’s why each side is attempting to pull the sky down today.

The lieutenant is shouting again for the footsloggers and their torches.

Smith’s ears are ringing, but he has his camera at his eye again. His viewfinder is trained on a young soldier with a cigarette hanging out of his mouthiv. Behind this boy is a dune and some beach grasses and the ocean and a little bit of peace between artillery barrages. Smith cocks the advance lever, tilts the depth of field and releases the shutter. The exhausted soldier even manages a half smile.

But the lieutenant is still shouting. The footsloggers can’t move fast enough for him.

Light ’em up, you bast—ds!

Light ’em up!

NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: The Saipan campaign drags on! W. Eugene Smith takes beautiful photographs of the local citizens trying to survive the fight between two superpowers! Is Smith a cranky person or is he a pioneer of photography who isn’t going to put up with any editor’s shiiiiiifty behavior? THIS and SO MUCH MORE, same time, same place, on OUR SUNDAY BEST!



i From “W. Eugene’s Pacific”, Military History. November 2013, Vol. 30 Issue 4, p46-53. 8p. (Photographs originally printed in various stories for LIFE magazine during WW II.)

ii The details of how the Marines secured this portion of the Saipan beach on June 15, 1944 relies on this account for specifics: “Breaching the Marianas: The Battle for Saipan,” Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret). Also necessary reading: The thorough “Campaign in the Marianas,” Philip A. Crowl. (1993 ed.)

iii In this case, we’re going to assume Smith was photographing either the 2nd or 4th Marine Infantry Unit that day. Any time after that, he might have also been with the Army’s finest— the 27th Infantry Division. During the Battle of Saipan (June 13 – July 4, 1944), he took photographs from planes, from anti-aircraft carriers, in small watercraft and on foot of the activities of Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force, the Imperial Japanese Military as well as the 25,000 civilians and natives on the island. It was as if there were six of him on this particular mission.

iv WARNING. GRAPHIC CONTENT. Here are W. Eugene Smith’s Magnum Agency photographs of World War II, the Pacific Theater 1944. Yes, I know the dates are all screwy, and Magnum stripped out the original captions because those belong to TIME/LIFE, so… we’ll figure it out, won’t we? Meanwhile, here are some of W. Eugene Smith’s photographs in context in a story about W. Eugene Smith and the Pacific Theater in the UK edition of the London Daily Mail.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH IN THIS STORY: The photograph for this story appears here truly in good faith under the subset of U.S. copyright law known as Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107), specifically in this case, the use of items under copyright for the purposes of scholarship. (Unlike some of the other photographers we’ve covered, Smith never worked for the US Farm Securities Administration, which became the Office of War Information and so on, hence: Fair Use.)  This image is from the middle part of the Saipan Campaign, and the Time/Life Caption reads, “Weary American Marine, PFC T. E. Underwood, drinking from canteen while still under fire during the fierce battle for Saipan.” The copyright for this image is retained by the family of W. Eugene Smith. To purchase this image, please go to Getty Images or to Magnum Photos.


A SHORT NOTE ABOUT THE MILITARY DETAILS IN THIS STORY: I am an idiot when it comes to all militaria. I’ve researched this portion of the story thoroughly, and I’ve stuffed my brain with military facts, but there will be mistakes here, I am sure of it. Should you see that I’ve misused a military term or should you notice I’ve missed a crucial historical detail about the Battle of Saipan, truly one of the most important events of the Pacific Theater of WWII, just click on the Contact Bluebird Blvd. link on the top-right-hand of any page of Bluebird Blvd. to drop me a note with a correction in it and I will thank you for your trouble. Goodness knows I am going to need the help.



Would you like to help me work on the book I’m trying to write about the history of modern photography?


This is a list of books and media materials I could really use for my research that aren’t readily available at the library or, in other cases, would be helpful to own. I don’t need new versions of these books (or media), especially if unmarked/unhighlighted secondhand versions are available. Either way, I could definitely use any and all help you can offer.

If you donate a book or media item to my project, in addition to thanking you profusely by email for helping me out because your donation means—no joke—the world to me, I will also mention you in a thank you page that will be linked to every single modern photography-related Our Sunday Best from its beginning to its conclusion. (The conclusion of this project should be approximately 24 months from now, but the thank you page will be up for, basically, eternity.)

You can donate a book or media item anonymously and I will thank you so profusely in my heart that you’ll actually feel it.

Or you don’t have to donate anything at all. Just keep reading, lovely reader, and I’ll still dig you truly.

In any which case, thank you so very much for being you. You make my day better just by being in the world. (Seriously!)

READY TO READ ON? HERE’S PART FOUR! Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} Gene’s Profanity Prayers

About Courtenay Bluebird

Courtenay Bluebird is the creator of Bluebird Blvd. and The Bluebird B-Side. She is a published writer, career journalist, and professional photographer who likes books and sweets. She laughs loudly and sincerely both in public and in private.
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  1. Great stuff. I’ve marveled at Smith’s war photography for decades without ever knowing a thing about the man, and as usual your writing brings vibrant new insight. Way to go.

    • Oh, thank you so very much, Phillip! It’s odd— I do not remember seeing any W. Eugene Smith photographs when D.E. was mentoring me. We even talked about it because it was so unusual for him to skip over such a key figure.

      I am thrilled that you think I bring vibrant new insight to the table on the Gene Smith convo— there are some heavy-hitters who have given Smith’s legacy a run for its money, most recently Sam Stephenson’s “Jazz Loft Project.” Stephenson’s writing is damned fine work. And his research is so very thorough. We’ll be talking about the Jazz Loft Project next week!

Hey there, cupcake! How are ya?