Making the Camera Tell the Story

Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, “Taedong River Bridge,” showing desperate refugees clambering over the twisted remains of a bombed-out bridge on the Taedong River near Pyongyang, Korea, Dec. 12, 1950.  (courtesy of Associated Press/Max Desfor Collection)

Truman Museum’s “The Forgotten War: Korea 1950” features riveting images by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Max Desfor

Despite being told by his boss that the war in Korea would not last more than two weeks, Associated Press photojournalist Max Desfor (1913-2018) volunteered to parachute into Korea with U.S. troops soon after the North invaded the South in June 1950.

What he saw there is dramatically recorded in “The Forgotten War: Korea 1950,” an exhibit of 36 black and white photos by Desfor at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.

Desfor spent three years documenting the war, but the exhibit, with one exception, features photos taken between September and December 1950. By the end of that year, his camera bore witness to the recapture of the southern capital of Seoul and the march north to Pyongyang, only to find himself among retreating soldiers and civilians fleeing forces from the North, joined by the Chinese.

In December 1950 Desfor was in a Jeep leaving North Korea, when he came upon a bridge over the Taedong River nearly destroyed by U.S. warplanes. Thousands of refugees were lined up on the north bank waiting to cross what remained of the bridge.

“We came across this incredible sight,” Desfor recalled in an AP oral history, “of these people literally crawling through these shattered girders of the bridge. They were in and out of it, underneath, and just barely escaping the freezing water.”

“Desfor was in the trenches with the troops, and his camera captured the desperate and poignant moments of the war.”

— Clay Bauske, curator, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum
In Desfor’s “Reaching Up from a Snowy Grave,” bound hands and a breathing hole in the snow at Yangji, Korea, Jan. 27, 1951, reveal the presence of the body of a Korean civilian shot and left to die by retreating Communists during the Korean War. (courtesy of Associated Press/Max Desfor Collection)

Desfor climbed a 50-foot-high section of the bridge and took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, “Taedong River Bridge,” described by the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1951 as having “all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography — imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest and the ability to make the camera tell the story.”

In the AP oral history, Desfor commented on another photo — the last in the exhibit — that held particular meaning for him, taken in January 1951. Walking near a battlefield, he came upon two hands, blue from the cold, sticking up in the snow.

The hands, which had been bound together, belonged to a civilian taken prisoner, executed, and his body left along with others by the invading army to be covered by snow. Initially titled “Reaching Up from a Snowy Grave,” Desfor later labeled it “Futility,” as it came to “epitomize” for him war’s impact on “innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.”

Clay Bauske, Truman Museum curator, described Desfor as “a photographer’s photographer. He was in the trenches with the troops, and his camera captured the desperate and poignant moments of the war.”

Kurt Graham, Truman Library & Museum director, shed a different light on the idea of Korea being “the forgotten war”: “We are pleased to be able to offer a window into this conflict that our visitors will not have seen before. The Korean War has a continued relevance that should be anything but forgotten.”

Desfor’s photographs provide a valuable, complementary perspective on the Korean War to that presented in the museum’s permanent exhibit.

“The Forgotten War: Korea 1950” was sponsored and presented by Cynthian International, Ltd., Cyma Rubin Producer, Curator. It is the first to be mounted in the new, expanded temporary exhibition gallery created as part of the larger museum renovation.

“The Forgotten War: Korea 1950” continues at Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, 500 W US Hwy 24, Independence, through April 2. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Timed-entry tickets must be pre-purchased online and presented to gain admittance. Museum admission is $12 with discounts for seniors, students, veterans and active members of the U.S. military. Admission is free for museum members and children 12 and younger. For more information, 816.268.8200 or www.trumanlibrary.gov.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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