Vintage Photographs Of Soldiers Show A Range Of Emotions
When we think of soldiers, we tend to think of them in action. Especially in the wars of more recent memory — we imagine the D-Day landings, we imagine storming, we imagine combat. But when looking at vintage photographs of soldiers at rest, you can see a whole other side of war.
At times, it’s just as gruesome, just as difficult to palette. But you can also catch glimpses of the personalities and the lives of the soldiers. So often, we think of the armed forces as homogenous and interchangeable — when we see them charging into battle or war, there’s a certain look. A determination, a focus, a grit.
But the reality is so much more complicated. Soldiers come into war with different motivations, different hopes, different emotions. Some find it a natural calling, others have been forced or drafted into fighting. Some are clear leaders, other thrives off of the comradery.
Before the war and, for the ones who survive, after, they have other lives. Most will have other professions, hobbies, families, and friends. And though you can’t get to know them on an individual level, photos of soldiers at rest gives a quick glimpse of insight into these other worlds.
From catching a few moments of sleep to celebrating a liberation, here are some of the many individual faces of soldiers when they have a few seconds to themselves.
A Moment Of Rest
Livorno, Tuscany, Italy. July 1944.
Curled up, spread out — giving up on sleep altogether. Here you can see American Nisei soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 34th Infantry Division, as they try to catch a few moments of sleep in Livorno following the city’s liberation by American forces.
This particular Battalion was mostly made up of Japanese-American Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans with parents born in Japan). They were largely former members of the Hawaii Army National Guard based in Fort Shafter, Honolulu, Hawaii, ready to show their loyalty and patriotism.
The 442nd Regiment would become the most decorated in the history of American warfare. Of around 14,000 men who served, there were 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 of its members were awarded Medals of Honor.
But here, they are just trying to find a few minutes to recoup in the middle of a hot Italian summer day, with the sun shining down on them.
A Paused Arrival
Near Toulon, Var, France. February 1944. Image was taken by Erwin Schultz.
We all know what it’s like to wait around during awkward, stalled periods of travel, but seeing the Armenian soldiers of the German Wehrmacht’s Armenische Legion (Armenian Legion) arrive in the south of France with suitcases is certainly unusual.
Approximately 34,000 Armenian men were brought in to strengthen the defenses along the Mediterranean coast. Most of the men were former Soviet Army soldiers who were taken as POWs by the Germans and chose fighting over Nazi POW camps. While their backpacks and weapons give an undeniable military feel to the photograph, seeing the suitcases injects a feeling of the pedestrian and the everyday. You start to wonder about the personal belongings, what is precious enough to carry in such small luggage.
After the war, most members of the Armenian Legion were repatriated to the Soviet Union and many faced treason charges and execution or gulags.
Soldiers Caught In Photographs After The Liberation
Le Molay-Littery, Calvados, Normandy, France. June 1944.
There is a lot to see in this photo. At first, you notice the relaxed but accomplished body language of the two U.S. Army MPs. Then, your eyes shift to the French woman beside them, looking not completely comfortable — all under a placard with “Long Live America” obscuring the sign for the pharmacy.
The photo was taken after the liberation of the town of Le Molay-Littery by the U.S. 2nd Armored Division (”Hell on Wheels”) on 10 June 1944. It was only four days after the Allied landings at Normandy.
The dynamics of this image are fascinating. You can see the soldiers surveying the results of their sacrifice, but you also get the ambivalence of the locals — both a jubilant welcoming and a slight unease. It’s hard to imagine the huge range of emotions that would be being processed by every person in this photo. It’s one of the reasons vintage photographs of soldiers are so important.
An Unexpected Surprise
Dnipropetrovsk, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine, Soviet Union. September 1941.
You might not spot the most telling element of this photograph right away — in fact, it’s hard to see it at all. The Italian soldier, standing in front of a Fiat 626 medium truck, is at the focal point of the image — as are the Ukrainian children in Axis occupied Dnipropetrovsk.
But when you look closer, you see why the children are paying so much attention. The soldier holds a rabbit in his arms – his own pet rabbit, in fact. We don’t normally see something so personal juxtaposed with a military setting, but in this image, the rabbit completely changes the tone and the feel.
Dnipropetrovsk was occupied from 17 August 1941 until 25 October 1943.
The First Soldiers To Conquer