On this day eighty years ago, August 9, 1943, a poignant scene was playing out in front of a home in the little town of Sant’Agata, Sicily. A U.S. Army medic administered blood plasma to a wounded American soldier at a makeshift aid station in an alleyway off the main road, while the family who lived there looked on from their doorway. An Army Signal Corps officer captured the image for posterity. Although he was a skilled professional photographer, the composition and, more importantly, the facial expressions of the people in the photograph were a lucky shot, particularly in the chaos of battle.
I remember when I first saw the photograph, some forty years after it was taken, when I was a teenager in the mid-1980s. It was featured in an oversized book of photographs, Collier’s Photographic History of World War II. It’s what we’d call a ‘coffee table book’ now. Published in 1944, the war was still raging, but optimism for an Allied victory was strong enough to warrant the publication of this already nostalgic tome. My father, who had been a child during the war and recalled the era with his own nostalgia, had encouraged my burgeoning interest in World War II and had borrowed the book from a friend for me.
Gingerly leafing through the pages, I came upon the plasma transfusion photo and was immediately entranced by it. In the foreground, the handsome young soldier, wounded in the nearby fighting, looks peaceful as his comrade earnestly administers the life-saving plasma. Then one notices the women and girls in the background: an old woman looks on the scene with a knowing gaze. A younger woman, who I take to be the mother of the two girls, watches with the most piteous expression. Michelangelo could not have sculpted a more moving Pietà than this. This is the look of a mother seeing the unthinkable: her child dying. The little girl watches the scene with downcast eyes, clutching a cross around her neck and curling her bare toes as if to prevent a flood of tears. Only the older girl looks out at something in the distance, as if knowing the scene playing out at their feet is the least of their problems.
Immediately, I wanted to know more about the soldier. Who was he? The vague caption included no names, just an encouraging statistic about the utility of blood plasma: the mortality rate of wounded soldiers had been reduced to 1.2%, in part by the miraculous use of blood plasma. So he had clearly survived. I tried to figure out who he was, but this was before the Internet, when information was primarily in books. I found the photo reprinted over and over, always without names. I figured out that the soldier had been a private in the Seventh Infantry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division, but nothing more.
I abandoned my sleuthing, figuring the wounded soldier would remain a mystery to me. Decades passed, and I finally came across the photograph again on the website of the U.S. National Archives, now including a full caption. The soldier was Pvt. Roy W. Humphrey of Toledo, Ohio. The medic was Pfc. Harvey W. White of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This renewed my interest in finding out about the soldier, and I set out to research him, hopeful he might even still be alive and could tell me about that day himself. In all the years since I’d first seen the photograph, it had never occurred to me that he was one of the 1.2% who had succumbed to his wounds, but that is what my research quickly revealed. He had died the day after the photograph was taken.
The photographer, Lt. John Stephen Wever, never knew that, either. He had gone on taking photos of the Sicilian Campaign and later Italy, and was gratified that his plasma transfusion photograph became well known after being published in newspapers across the U.S. on September 2, 1943, resulting in a surge in blood donation. Often reprinted, the photo was used in Red Cross ads and even considered for the Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve spent years researching this photograph, visiting the National Archives and FDR Presidential Library to view original photos and documents, scouring digitized records online, interviewing the families of the soldier, the medic, and the photographer, and, most importantly, visiting the very spot where it was taken for the 75th anniversary of that day in 2018. Thanks to the efforts of Sicilian researcher Ciro Artale, I got to meet the family of the women in the photograph, including two other sisters who watched the scene unfolding on their doorstep, and learn their story.
Someday, I will tell the full story of this photograph, as it deserves to be told. But, just like the photograph itself, it is the stories in the background that become most compelling when you look beyond the expected tale of military heroism.
It’s the story of the single mother, supporting her three children during the Depression after her husband abandoned the family. She worked in a laundry and later in factory jobs, as her two sons joined the army and went off to war, the older one to the Pacific and the younger one to the Mediterranean. One night she was sure she heard her younger son calling for her, impossible because he was fighting on Sicily. The dreaded knock from the telegram messenger came soon after. Only one son came home, but he was never the same. In a way she had lost them both.
It’s the story of the sister who never got over the loss of her beloved brother. Even decades later, suffering from dementia, her grief was still so sharp that she destroyed his letters to dull the pain.
It’s the story of the sweetheart back home, who never really knew what had happened to her first love, never knew he was the soldier in that famous photo. Although she married someone else and had a family, she still kept his framed portrait and fondly remembered their dates going for ice cream in his little red roadster. After she’d gotten word that he’d been killed, one of his buddies had told her that it had happened instantly and he hadn’t suffered. She’d believed that kind lie from someone who couldn’t have known the truth for over seventy years, and I wasn’t going to be the one who told her what really happened.
It’s the story of another mother, an ocean away, who had watched her own son die at home the previous year, after being conscripted into the Italian Army and serving in Africa before being sent home suffering from a lung ailment. He was just twenty-one, the same age as the wounded young man lying in the street outside her home.
It’s the story of five sisters who lost their only brother and found the war playing out literally at their feet.
And maybe it’s partly the story of a woman who saw that photo when she was the same age as the teenage Sicilian girl looking off into the distance. Now older than the mother of the wounded soldier, he looks to her like a boy who died needlessly, not a handsome and courageous young man.
Someday I will get the whole story written, although it may be a disappointment to those who expect a certain kind of story to be told about World War II. All of the many World War II stories I have spent years researching might be disappointing when I finally present them, as each seemingly disparate thread has inevitably led to the same conclusion: that I can no longer perpetuate what poet Wilfred Owen, before his own needless death in World War I, called “the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”