Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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David Douglas Duncan



Photo by Cpl. Var Keljik

The photographs from these years are a varied lot in terms of their subject matter. Nonetheless, they reveal a remarkable range of techniques and styles while attesting to a growing maturity of composition and artistry. The young photographer preparing to depart for World War II would soon leave his “amateur” status far behind. Duncan enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in Miami on February 17, 1943. At the end of that day he wrote to his parents with the news: “Childhood and youth are finished. Only He knows how much of my race has been run.”


Second Lieutenant David Douglas Duncan completed his basic training at Quantico and, following brief postings to California and Hawaii, worked his way into the theater of war as a combat photographer throughout the Solomon Islands and the western Pacific. Although based with the Marines’ only photo-bomber air squadron at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, his orders from the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT) were broad and wide-ranging. He had access to most military bases and operations and was able to document all aspects of SCAT’s operations throughout the many island bases covering the Pacific Theater.

In one dramatic instance he saw action with Fijian guerrillas fighting behind the Japanese lines on Bougainville Island. On Okinawa, he flew inside a plastic-nosed belly tank attached under the wing of a P-38 fighter plane, in order to obtain aerial pictures of close air support of the infantry. In the end he even managed to photograph the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.



Photo by Lt. Commander Richard M. Nixon




Throughout these years of active military service, Duncan’s talent for “getting the story” never deserted him. Unlike the general class of military photographers, he brought himself and his cameras in as close as possible, providing a composed but powerful insight into the men and women involved in the operations, and not merely their hardware. World War II helped Duncan prepare for survival and success in the battles and wars he would record in future decades. Above all, however, it helped him learn how to seek out and define the human perspective of any situation or story.


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