On May 8, 1945, the Allied powers celebrated Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), when German troops throughout Europe laid down their arms to end one of the most destructive and lethal wars in history — World War II. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of this pivotal moment in history, National Geographic magazine spoke with some of the war’s few remaining survivors to document “The Last Voices of WWII.” Their poignant stories of strength, tragedy, survival, and resilience are shared alongside powerful portraits taken by award-winning National Geographic photographer Robert Clark. We asked Robert to share his experience capturing the arresting images, which serve as a portal into the last remaining memories of World War II.
NG: What a privilege it must have been to take photographs of the last veterans of WWII. What did meeting each of these impressive individuals mean to you as the son of R.R. ‘Russell’ Clark, himself a WWII veteran, who you photographed for the feature?
RC: It was a very special assignment for me. I had six uncles in either the Navy or the Army Air Corps: a chief petty officer, a mechanic, a fighter pilot and a B-24 Liberator pilot [among them]. The topic of WWII was never far away from the after-dinner conversations. I have a deep respect for what my father and uncles experienced.
Once I started to have conversations with the men and women that I photographed, it all came together like a mosaic. Each person’s experience was separate, but an important part of the whole history of the war.
NG: Your father sustained a football injury at a young age, and he paid to have an operation to correct it so he could join the fight. Would you say there’s a palpable patriotism in the Clark household due to the fact that your father and your uncles fought in the war?
RC: My family is patriotic, for sure. We express our patriotism in many different ways, perhaps differently from our ancestors — as people who believe in freedom of the press, as voters, as active participants in our democracy. I also think WWII was well defined; it was clear who was on the side of justice and who was on the side of evil.
NG: What was the emotion you were hoping to convey with these photographs?
RC: For a photograph to be successful, it has to engage. This is one of those assignments that goes hand in hand with the written documentation. The stories that the writer was able to share only help to make my pictures more powerful, and vice versa.
NG: There’s a common theme expressed by a number of the veterans: humanity. German veteran Wolfgang Brockmann said, “These are the horrors of war, which actually turn humans into monsters.” Soviet navigator Yevsei Rudinsky said, “If you feel nothing, you’re not human. And in the end we’re all human.” It seems that, despite their allegiance, soldiers questioned how basic humanity and morality survived in a time of war.
RC: It is interesting to see the quotes from these two subjects. For Wolfgang Brockmann to share his experience in the war was very brave and only shows his commitment to keeping the truth about the war in the public conversation. The carnage that he witnessed changed his life and turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
For me the most eye-opening experience was to talk with the people of Leningrad. It is hard to come to terms with the horror that the residents in that city endured. Nine hundred days of near-constant attack from the Third Reich. The starvation, inhumane living conditions, and the death. 800,000 people were lost in the city. One story I had never heard about was “the Road of Life.” During the winter of those 900 days, trucks were able to come in and out of the city on Lake Ladoga, bringing in food and taking the elderly and children away to safety. The courage amidst this tragedy is remarkable and worth remembering.
NG: After completing this assignment did any of the stories particularly resonate with you?
RC: One of the first people I photographed at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans was Jack Cox. It is well documented that Jack ran 300 yards on a battlefield under fire to drag back wounded soldiers — his leg was blown off. Jack could not stand the cries for help, and the medics would not go, but Jack did. He was awarded the Bronze Star and it was an honor to hear his story firsthand.
NG: Many of the veterans are photographed with an impressive array of ribbons or war medals. Was this a request made on your part or did they choose to wear those decorations?
RC: I didn‘t ask any of the veterans to dress a certain way. I pretty much shot them as I found them or as they presented themselves to me. The Russian veterans were in the middle of an anniversary celebration marking the end of the siege and they wore their ribbons during that week. People of that generation seem to dress more formally for photographs than people do today.
NG: The article states: “fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war—2.5 percent—were still alive in 2019.” How do you think we’ll continue to tell the stories of WWII and those that served once they’ve all gone?
RC: We can keep the history alive by publishing articles like “The Last Voices of World War II” before the veterans are gone. I have my own desire to do interviews with veterans through an oral history that tells the experiences in the veterans voices. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has dozens of interviews and videos of the veterans who come to visit.
NG: Holocaust survivor Frederick Terna’s drawings from his time spent in a concentration camp were discovered nearly 40 years ago, taken to Israel, and are now considered historical documents. Now 96, he is a full-time artist in Brooklyn painting beautiful canvases and reflecting on these drawings he says, “Yes, our families are gone, but their memory is kept alive. It’s my obligation — and in a way, it’s now yours, to remind the world.” How is art, and in your case photography, a powerful storytelling tool that helps to create a historical archive for centuries to come?
RC: The idea for the story came from my father’s portrait. It was initially to be used for the American Legion Hall in my hometown of Hays, Kansas. But when I started to talk to him more about the war, I looked at the number of men who served, the number of veterans left, and I knew it was something that I needed to shoot. And in years to come these pictures could be seen as a study of a time, when near the end of their lives, these men and women could tell their stories one more time.
See Robert’s photographs and read the accompanying stories in “The Last Voices of WWII,” published in the June issue of National Geographic magazine online now at NatGeo.com/WWII and on newsstands May 26th. Complementing the article, National Geographic pays tribute to the 75th anniversary of V-E Day with a full day of programming on Thursday, May 21, including two powerful prime-time specials that feature stories from the front. Beginning at 8/7c, WWII IN EUROPE: VOICES FROM THE FRONT, narrated by ABC News’ Bob Woodruff, offers viewers a chance to hear from one of the last voices of war that forever changed the world. Then, at 9/8c, the two-hour special HEROES OF THE SKY: THE MIGHTY EIGHTH AIR FORCE introduces viewers to the courageous men of the legendary Eighth Air Force of the United States, who were called into action and entered the brutal air war over Europe.