Phil Stern's War: Forgotten Photos From the Front Lines
A new book celebrates a now-legendary photographer and his service with U.S. Army Rangers in World War II.
Copyright Phil Stern Archives
Published May 24, 2018
Published a month ago
Photographer Phil Stern (1919 – 2014) took some of the signature photos of America's most enduring icons. James Dean, Marilyn, Sinatra, JFK: Stern's portraits of these and countless others inform how we picture much of the 20th century. But before he chronicled the beautiful and famous, Stern was a war photographer — and a damn good one. Here, in rare and never-seen pictures from a new book by the award-winning LA-based journalist, Liesl Bradner, "Snapdragon," FOTO celebrates Stern — a Purple Heart recipient — and his service in North Africa, Italy, and beyond. Pictured above: An American sentry watches an enemy tank column burn near El Guettar, Tunisia, 1943.
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesRanger in TrainingIn this rare photo, a fully loaded Ranger trains in Scotland, 1942. While training, Rangers had to pack heavy supplies like collapsible rubber dinghies and demolition gear in addition to the usual infantry equipment. Some even cleverly made space for snacks. This soldier was one of Darby's Rangers, commanded by Lt. Col. William O. Darby (1911 - 1945), which were the forerunners of today's Army Rangers — elite light infantry troops that have deployed in every modern conflict, from WWII to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesPhil Stern: Photographer, RangerLt. Col. Darby agreed to accept Stern, pictured here in a never-before-published shot in Scotland in 1942, as official photographer for his unit — as long as Stern could handle the rigorous training faced by all Rangers, including speed marches, bayonet training, and more. (He could, and he did.) "I first met Phil in 2010, when he was in his early 90s," Liesl Bradner told FOTO. "He had a show at his own gallery in downtown LA, featuring his photos of John Wayne, and I was writing about it for the LA Times. Phil and Wayne were good friends, despite Wayne being a far-right conservative while Phil, in his own words, was 'ultra-left.' I went to interview him at his home, a little bungalow across from Paramount studios, and we immediately hit it off. He was sweet, and quirky. I was smitten."Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesAbove ArzewDuring the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa in 1942, Ranger Corporals Robert Bevan (left) and Earl Drost engage snipers barricaded in a warehouse in the port city of Arzew, Algeria. This photograph has rarely been seen. In 2014, Stern and his son, Peter, asked Bradner — by then a friend to both — to help organize an exhibition of Phil's WWII work at the newly built Veterans Home in West LA. The photos here and in "Snapdragon" are just a sliver of the thousands of images — contact sheets, rolls of film, prints — that Bradner spent countless hours poring over in Stern's bungalow. "Snapdragon," which Phil Stern began and Bradner completed, grew out of that initial request.Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesA Waking NightmareWith its lines of soldiers advancing through a rubble-strewn landscape, this rare photograph of American troops making their way north in Italy, after the invasion of Sicily in 1943, has the feel of a quintessential World War II image. Not far from this spot, Phil Stern experienced a waking nightmare that, Bradner told FOTO, haunted him until he died. One day, after facing constant German sniper fire, the tense, battle-weary Rangers saw a "metallic glint" from a window in a building near Comiso, and opened fire. "We approached … and discovered a woman holding a pot in one hand, that was the reflection, and in the other arm she was cradling a baby torn by our shots … I did not know the war until that moment. But once inside, I realized the only way to endure it was not to think."
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesA Boy and His RifleIn this never-seen photo, a boy named Achmed marches in North Africa, late 1942, with an automatic rifle slung across his shoulders. Fond of sweets, he made a deal with the Rangers: when they tired during speed marches, he would carry gear in exchange for their chocolate rations. "To be honest," Bradner said, "when Phil's son, Peter, told me that his dad had been with Darby's Rangers, I didn't even know who the Rangers were. But I quickly learned, and was amazed. Their history, the battles they were involved in, the sacrifices they made — just extraordinary men." Darby was an Arkansas native, a born leader, and a man for whom Stern had profound respect. Killed in action in Italy in 1945, he was posthumously promoted to brigadier general.Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesCaught With Their Pants DownA never-seen picture of Rangers guarding French (Vichy) troops captured during the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The caption to this picture in "Snapdragon" reads: "In total [two Rangers named Lodge and Altieri] apprehended 70 French soldiers, some half-dressed, shocked and anxious to surrender, while others were reportedly indignant when caught with prostitutes."Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesCute CaptureFritzi, a mutt, had been the mascot for a unit in German Gen. Erwin "Desert Fox" Rommel's Afrika Korps, and was adopted by the Rangers after one of many battles with seasoned German troops in North Africa. Stern crafted this little "prison" specifically for this picture.
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesKeeping WatchRangers were tasked with rear-guarding troops as they made their way across 24 miles of open ground during the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in February 1943 (above). A few weeks later, on March 23, 1943, Stern was wounded when a German artillery shell exploded near him. His leg was shattered. Shrapnel lacerated his neck. "My right hand was half ripped off … [and] I remember being given the last rites by the Army chaplain," he wrote in an unpublished memoir. "I told him I had to decline because I still had five more payments to make on my car." Stern received the Purple Heart — and, perhaps even more valued, a letter from Col. Darby, assuring him that he "did an excellent job" with the Rangers "from the day you joined until the day you were wounded."Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesSteaming To BattleAmerican Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) motor toward the Sicilian coast as spotter planes fly above, July 1943. "I exposed this frame about 5:30 the morning of the invasion," Stern told Bradner. "The Germans knew we were coming but they didn't know exactly where we planned to land."
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesAll SmilesIn this never-seen picture, Americans smile (some nervously, others eagerly) on board a Higgins boat as they ready for landing at Licata Beach, Sicily, July 10, 1943. Having recovered from the wounds he suffered at El Guettar, Stern accompanied the troops during the invasion of Sicily. Codenamed Operation Husky, the invasion marked the beginning of the Second World War's brutal Italian Campaign, during which Allied troops fought Axis forces for almost two years, from the southern tip of Italy, north to Rome, and beyond.
Copyright Phil Stern Archives
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The Horror"Heading inland from the beach," Stern recalled of the July 1943 invasion, when this rare photo was made, "it was hot as hell. We … were walking toward Comiso when we came upon this German weapons carrier and the charred bodies of two German soldiers amid the twisted wreckage. American gunfire had set off the explosives and ammo it was carrying." Casualty estimates from the Italian Campaign vary widely, but most experts agree that more than 60,000 Allied and 100,000-plus German and Italian troops were killed, along with more than 150,000 civilian men, women, and children.Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesEye on the SkiesA Ranger mans an antiaircraft gun at Palermo Airport, July 1943. American commander George Patton's Seventh Army entered Palermo, the capital of Sicily, on July 22, effectively forcing Italian and German forces from the island. It was in Sicily, in two separate incidents, that Patton famously (or infamously) slapped two wounded soldiers he believed were displaying cowardice by not eagerly returning to the front lines. His behavior caused uproar in the U.S., with some civilians and politicians outraged by his actions while others supported the popular commander. Patton was relieved of field command for almost a year, but was a central figure in key operations late in the war. Stern's assessment? "Patton was a piss poor general filled with braggadocio," he told Bradner.Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesRangers TogetherStern didn't especially enjoy taking staged group portraits, Bradner said. But this picture taken in December 1942 in Tunisia "seems to capture the various personalities that make up the Rangers," according to the caption in "Snapdragon," "from goofy to composed and pensive."
Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesJames Dean, 1955Stern had a long, fulfilling postwar career photographing for LIFE, Look, and other magazines. He met James Dean in May 1955, when they almost ran into each other (Dean was a on a motorcycle, Stern was in a car) at an intersection in Los Angeles. The two — "a Jewish kid from New York, and a Midwestern eccentric," in Stern's words — became fast friends. Stern always swore he had nothing to do with the now-iconic pose in his most famous portrait of Dean. "It was a whimsical statement of his own volition," Stern said, "and I'm eternally grateful for it." A few months later, on September 30, 1955, James Dean died in a car crash near Cholame, California. He was 24.Copyright Phil Stern ArchivesMarilyn Monroe, 1953Stern captured this breathtaking photo of Marilyn Monroe at a children's benefit in Los Angeles in 1953, the star's breakout year when three of her most famous films were released: "Niagara," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and "How to Marry a Millionaire." As with his classic James Dean portrait, Stern said that this picture of Monroe "was a fluke. Dozens of flashes were going off. Suddenly she twitched and I clicked the shutter. I got the shot."Photo by Herb Ritts. Courtesy Fahey/Klein GalleryMan at WorkPhil Stern at work in the bungalow where Liesl Bradner first met him. "I love history, archives, poring over old pictures and papers," she said. "As soon as I stepped into Phil's home, I wanted to dive in and learn as much as I could about him. I had no idea I was meeting one of the most remarkable people I would ever know, and that he would become a dear friend. I feel lucky to have had him in my life, and to have a chance to tell even a small part of his story." Phil Stern died in December 2014. He was 95. On his 95th birthday, celebrated with hundreds of friends, family, and colleagues, he received one last surprise. That day, he was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, as an original member of the 1st Ranger Battalion.