Being a historian of World War II puts you in touch with the most interesting people. It is a rare day that my email does not contain a message from someone I’ve never met before asking me a factual question about some aspect of the fighting, or calling my attention to a new book I ought to read, or asking my advice on some memorabilia that Dad or Granddad brought back from the war. Indeed, it’s one of the great aspects of studying World War II: you meet the nicest and most interesting people.
Today’s proof for that rule is Mr. Bruce Sadler of Evansville, in my former home state of Indiana. Bruce is a plain spoken guy, down to earth and a delight to talk to. He messaged me the other day out of the blue and told me that his father, Paul, had been a G.I. in the ETO, and had brought a photo album back with him when he returned to the states. My ears perked up, but only a little. Photos of World War II? Dime a dozen. It was the most photographed war of all time, after all, and anyone who studies it for a living begins to feel that he has seen every picture ever taken, anywhere.
But then Bruce sent me a couple of examples, and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so jaded. These are high quality images, 1940-43, in both France and the Soviet Union—beautifully composed, nicely lit, clearly the work of a professional German war photographer. They run the gamut from action shots in the field to staff meetings, parades and ceremonies, and the commonplace of everyday life. I know the photos of this war as well as any historian, and I hadn’t seen these before.
There’s a back story here. Paul paid some heavy dues for that photo album. On May 1, 1945, he arrived at a small Bavarian town named Dachau, two days after the U.S. Army liberated the camp there. Dachau was never officially an “extermination camp,” but by the end of the war, overcrowding, mass starvation, and epidemics of just about every contagious disease known to man had all down their awful work. Paul saw some scenes that, frankly, he didn’t feel like talking about in much detail—and he never really did.
He’s passed now, and his son Bruce is on an unusual quest: trying to identify the persons, places, and things in these photos, and perhaps even identify the original photographer. I told him I’d print a couple of images and see if The Best Informed Readership in America might have some hints. Let’s start with these two:
What about it, readers? Any thoughts?