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. In tonight’s post I dissect 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.
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 the Company F, 129th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Division.
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.
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 military forum with some information to help……
Apparently, the tanks were covered in oiled tar to protect from rust during overseas transport. This includes the stars, which, in this case, was still partially covered in goop during the first counterattack after receiving the M4 mediums in March of 1944. The above forum post provides a delicious detail, one that would be almost impossible to posit, without the help of a guy who “was there.”
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.”
Further distinguising 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 a an unknown company of the 754th Tank Battalion. I can narrow this down only a bit more, but future research and reader commentary should elucidate some of the murky details.
Back to the previous image of the internet post regarding an angry response by a tanker who fought in Lucky Legs II:
“I said just from the inside of 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.”
The same forum post refers to a US Signal Corps film that depicts the tank in question….. I think I found it…..
And if that wasn’t enough… I found more shots from the same photographic series