The photograph itself seems incongruous with the surroundings, the situation even. The naked gunner stands flexed, water dripping off his body as he mans his battle station on a Consolidated PBY Catalina.
Captured by Horace Bristol, one of six photographers recruited to serve in the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic unit under the command of famed Captain Edward J. Steichen, the photo (understandably) made waves stateside, appearing on the front page of the Dayton Journal-Herald among others. The image however, belies the heroic act that had just unfolded.
One day prior, on February 19, 1944, while flying fighter cover in a Corsair over the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul, a young First Lieutenant Robert A. Schaeffer was shot down by a Zero after a 20mm shell blew out his controls.
“I had not the slightest idea where I was, with all the confusion,” Schaeffer would later write in his own account. “After getting in my little boat I saw that I was in the middle of Rabaul harbor looking at the end of the Jap runway. My position wasn’t good. Then I heard a big splash in the water about 100 yards away and then another, about 50 yards away. The bastards were shooting at me.”
After some 25 hours in the water and suffering from serious burns, exhaustion, and exposure, the first lieutenant was semiconscious and near death.
In a 2002 article from Black & White magazine, Bristol recalled the rescue of Schaeffer: “The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes. As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.”
The identity of the crewman, dubbed the “Naked Gunner”, has never been established, but that hasn’t stopped appreciation from pouring in, even 76 years on.
Re-tweeted out by Marina Amaral, a digital colorist and author, the Twitter-verse naturally had some thoughts:
the naked gunner image lives rent free in my mind
— theo (@TheoVelociraptr) October 14, 2020
God bless America.