by Brennan Gauthier
From time to time, a certain photo in my collection will call to me from beneath a dusty pile of books and other ephemera; pulling me away from other nocturnal pursuits, I will spend hours slipping down the rabbit hole of internet research. Recently, I dissected an image I picked up in a large photo grouping from an unidentified Pacific Theater of Operations U.S Army soldier whose estate was broken up on eBay. Follow the clues at the right to see what I learned.
With those clues all on the table, it is now very clear that the famous image of a Sherman advancing with foot soldiers is not a Marine unit on Guadalcanal as has it has so often been represented. Instead, the record can now show that this image depicts a 2nd Platoon tank of the 754th Tank Battalion with foot soldiers of men of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, photographed on Bougainville in March 1944.
Brennan Gauthier is a young archaeologist addicted to collecting antique and vintage photography, specializing in WWI and WWII photographic mediums, He writes an excellent periodic blog dedicated to discussing the various aspects of interpreting military photography from the first half of the 20th century andmaintains the web site, www.PortraitofWar.com.
A. This photo has taken me months to research, with new avenues of potential insight popping up at every twist and turn. “My” version of the photo includes the portions of the negative’s border which, once deciphered, indicate the photographic unit responsible for the image. These borders are typically not present on post-war copies of the photo, so this points towards a wartime first-generation version of the photo likely printed overseas. Additionally, later prints of the photo include inclusions and negative abrasions not present in earlier versions.
What does the negative bar tell us. For one, it gives us the number of the photographic unit responsible for the image. The first number corresponds to the ID # for the 161st Signal Photographic Company. The 161st, as anticipated, shot still and moving images in the Pacific in WWII, working in tough weather conditions not conducive to normal photographic processing. Through my exhaustive research, I’ve uncovered additional information about the photo not commonly known on the internet.
Commonly ascribed to Guadalcanal, New Guinea and other remote locations, the photo was actually taken in April (hence the 4-44 label on the negative) of 1944 on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea during the Bougainville Campaign. Again, commonly ascribed to a Marine unit, the soldiers in the photo are actually of Company F, 129th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Division.
B. The details of the photo are crisp, clear and perfectly printed with little great use of light, shadows and other atmospheric conditions in the heat of battle. Bayonets affixed, the solders are scrambling for cover, firing and advancing behind a Sherman tank of the 754th Tank Battalion as it progresses forward through the dense jungle. The tank at the forefront of the shot is “Lucky Legs II”, clearly a later iteration of a previously destroyed or abandoned armored vehicle. Tank and plane names were commonly derived from hometown sweethearts, pinup magazine, popular songs and movies, or unique creations.
C. What isn’t immediately clear is the reason why the star is only partially visible on the turret. Using the power of the internet, I was able to track down a internet military history forum with some information to help.
Apparently, the tanks were covered in oiled tar to protect from rust during overseas transport. This includes the star, which, in this case, was still partially covered in goop during the first counterattack after receiving the M4 mediums in March of 1944. The forum post provided a delicious detail, one that would be almost impossible to posit, without the help of a guy who “was there.”
D. According to research, tanks of this new delivery were equipped with armor plate protecting the driver from shots off the starboard and port sides of the tank. This raised area was used by tankers of the 754th to paint the tank moniker. Another example from the same group includes the “Wild Boar.”
E. Further distinguishing insignia found on the tank include the “3” within a triangle, denoting that the tank was the Platoon Sergeant’s tank. The “II” adjacent to the triangle in the photo likely indicate that the tank is of the Second Platoon.
So, we have a tank commanded by the Platoon Sergeant of the 2nd Platoon of an unknown company of the 754th Tank Battalion.More research turned up a letter from a former 754th Tank member to another, dated February 19, 1968. It illuminated some of the murky details for me:
I am sending you a picture that appeared in Real Men’s Magazine in the April issue of 1968. It kind of made my blood boil for a while. They used it illustrate a Marine story on Guadalcanal & New Guinea. You and I both know its an Army tank and the picture was taken at the 143 Reg. of the 37th Division line in March 1944, on Bougainville.
Back in 1944, that picture came out in Yank, Time, and Wichita Eagle, and I don’t know how many more. When I came home when my mother died, my sister asked me if I ever saw anything like that over there. I said, “Just from inside that turret. That’s my tank, and probably my steel helmet hanging on the back. Because, Tony Benardo and Gus had theirs inside with them, I think.
‘Lucky Legs II sure is clear in the picture, although the “3” is fairly faint. The reason I am sure it was taken in March of 1944, is because, if you remember, we had just got the Mediums and before we could get all the tar off, the Japs [sic] made the big push. If you will notice the top half of the star still has tar on it. We ripped the tape and tar off so the turret would turn and never had time to wash the rest off.
F. Finally, the son of the recipient of the above letter provided two more interesting images. Taken from different angles than the one pictured in the magazine, they drive homethe angry tanker’s response:
“That’s my tank, and probably my steel helmet hanging on the back!”