“Sometimes they got the picture nobody had asked for,” LIFE’s editors wrote in a Nov. 5, 1945, tribute portfolio to the 21 staff photographers who served as correspondents in World War II. But in a lineup that included Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, George Rodger, and W. Eugene Smith, that statement perhaps applied most acutely to John Florea.
The subject of an exceptional exhibition at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City, John Florea: World War II, on view through Dec. 19, Florea was a LIFE staffer from 1941 to 1949. He photographed celebrities in Hollywood before being drafted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the Pacific from 1942 to 1943, then moved to Europe where he contributed some of the magazine's most important, unexpected images: massacres and executions, atrocities and degradation. His work was so monumental that he received a full page in the Nov. 5 portfolio; Bourke-White, Rodger, and Smith all had to share theirs.
But today he’s all but forgotten. Anais Feyeux, curator of the exhibit at the Kasher Gallery, thinks it’s because, unlike Capa or Bourke-White, Florea wasn’t a war photographer. He was a photographer who, like most Americans who went off to war, had a job to do, did it, then came home. “Some people, like Robert Capa, knew before what war was. Not John Florea,” Feyeux says. “You can feel it in the photos. It was a terrible shock to him.”
His first assignment was aboard the aircraft carrier Essex. He shot bombs scrawled with messages from servicemen to the Japanese, broken-up planes on the deck and aerial pictures of the November 1943 invasion of Tarawa. “There’s just the sea, there’s no real battlefield. It’s very abstract,” Feyeux says. “In the Pacific, in the beginning, even the soldiers still have some humor. It’s a kind of innocence he totally lost when he arrived in Europe.”
Florea’s introduction to the Western Front was the Battle of the Bulge. He found himself, quite suddenly, in the thick of the fighting. As he slopped through mud and took cover from incoming bombardments, his photography became raw and kinetic, intimately capturing the fear, confusion, and brotherhood of soldiers running from bombs, considering an overturned tank or burying their dead.
On his march through Europe, Florea also documented war’s impact on civilians: a hardened German woman sitting atop all her possessions in the rubble of a bombed-out Cologne, or German children peeking around a ruined wall as American jeeps roar through town. It was during this time that he made one of his most arresting photographs: an image of a 15-year-old German soldier crying after being captured. It is an image that sits at the intersection of war’s wholesale destruction of the individual and Germany’s specific brand of wartime depravity.
Indeed, Florea witnessed some of the war’s worst crimes, not least of all the Malmedy Massacre, where 84 unarmed American prisoners were murdered by German troops on Dec. 17, 1944. Florea’s photographs of the carnage—bodies strewn in the snow, their arms up in an act of surrender, their faces hollowed out by pecking birds—are as wrenching today as they were 71 years ago.
“Have you ever really gotten hit in the gut hard and lose your breath and fall to your knees? You know how that hurts,” Florea told fellow LIFE photographer John Loengard in 1993, reflecting on his time as a war correspondent. “I felt someone had hit me so hard—I actually cried.”
It only got worse from there. In April 1945, Florea and the First Army freed American prisoners of war from the notorious German prison camp Stalag 12-A. The men they found had only been there for three months, yet they looked more skeletal than human. Florea’s photo of the bony body of a man named Joe Demler stretched out on a hard wooden bed, as well as a haunting portrait of an unnamed man whose penetrating gaze bored through the camera’s lens, would later prove to be two of the most indelible images of the war.
The scope of Nazi atrocity was realized a few weeks later with the discovery of the Nordhausen concentration camp. There, Florea and the troops found the ground strewn with bodies, warehouses stacked full of corpses and a pit filled with the ashes of 60,000 people. Florea tried to capture the incomprehensible by shooting not only numerous photos of the dead, but also the genocide’s impact on the living. One triptych shows a man and his son, survivors, burying their wife and mother. In the end, LIFE chose to run just one of these photos: a vertical shot of 3,000 bodies arranged side by side, stretching from the front of the frame to the horizon.
After two harrowing years in Europe, Florea returned to America and, like so many servicemen, to his life. “I think when he comes back, he’s a civilian,” Feyeux says. “Some people disappear because they do something else.”
In Florea’s case, that was television. After a falling-out with LIFE executive editor Wilson Hicks that cost him his job, Florea gave up photography for TV. He directed episodes of hit shows like Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt in the late 1950s and worked steadily in the industry through the mid-1980s, directing and producing episodes of CHiPs, V and MacGyver.
“I got into an environment that I enjoyed,” Florea told Loengard. “But I’ll never be remembered for that. The only thing I’ll be remembered for is what I had done for LIFE magazine.”
With the work Florea accomplished during his time with the magazine, that’s a legacy worth reclaiming.
(279) The US weekly magazine Life (21/05/1945, page 36), comments: ‘The bodies of almost 3,000 slave laborers being buried by US soldiers. These dead worked in underground factories in the manufacture of V1 and V2 rockets.
In actual fact, these dead were the victims of the US terror attack on Nordhausen on 4 April 1945. Although the war was almost over, German cities continued to be bombed. Thus, the city of Nordhausen was bombed and almost totally destroyed on 4 April (2 days before the evacuation of the camp to Bergen-Belsen), also destroying the Boelke barracks in which the inmates were being housed. (From the series of publications from the Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, number 21, Stuttgart page 194, Prof. Martin Broszat).
The high-resolution image above shows the bombing's devastation to camp facilities. Life magazine published a cropped version---what Time magazine called "a vertical shot" of 3,000 bodies.
The video below contains a newsreel clip shot and narrated by the U.S. military unit that liberated Nordhausen, stating the 3,000 political prisoners died at the "brutal hands of SS troops and hardened German criminals who were the camp guards." Moreover, the American official describes Nordhausen as a "a depository for slaves found unfit for work in the underground V-bomb plants, or in other German camps and factories." (Apparently they hadn't yet got the memo asserting anyone unfit for work was immediately selected at the railway siding and sent to a gas chamber.)
It's difficult to tell from the image above if the dead consist solely of men, but it seems probable, given the American assertion that the camp held political slave laborers who were too ill to work. This makes Time-Life's claim that Florea had photographed "a man and his son, survivors, burying their wife and mother," seem highly unlikely. And even with a high rate of starvation and tuberculosis amongst the living and dead, military officials knew what had caused the vast majority to perish within this great sea of unburied dead---and that was the United States Army-Air Forces' terror bombing campaign days earlier.
Nordhausen Concentration Camp,
Transcript:The slave labor Camp at Nordhausen, liberated by the 3rd Armored Division, 1st Army, at least 3,000 political prisoners died here at the brutal hands of SS troops and hardened German criminals who were the camp guards. Nordhapartyusen had been a depository for slaves found unfit for work in the underground V-bomb plants, or in other German camps and factories. Amid the corpses are human skeletons, too weak to move. Men of our medical battalions worked two days and nights binding wounds and giving medications, but for advanced cases of starvation and tuberculosis there often were no cures. Survivors are shown being evacuated to Allied hospitals