Retired Navy photographer aims to capture World War II veterans’ images before they’re lost to history

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Clarance J. Gerwien “CJ” served in the Navy from 1940 to 1946. (Mickey Strand Photo / Facebook)

( — After retiring from a long career as a military photographer, Mickey Strand began looking for some personal photography projects that he could do to expand his portrait skills. One of the themes he landed was an easy choice. Taking pictures of other local veterans who served in World War II.

“Obviously, this was close to my heart,” said 54-year-old Strand, who spent 24 years in the US Navy and retired as chief of the Navy Combat Camera Group Pacific in 2009.

Since July 2017, Strand has photographed and photographed more than 100 World War II veterinarians, recorded audio interviews of the war experience, and turned it into a brief biography on the project’s website, I am. Strand said he was honored to hear the story of these wars and spend time taking pictures of these heroic men and women. But in reality, Strand is in the fight against time.

Of the 106 World War II veterans he filmed in the last five years, more than 100 have died. Many of them were filmed in Southern California veterans’ homes and skilled nursing facilities, and were the last few months of his life, if not weeks. Taking these portraits is a mission and a labor of love.

“What I think when I’m doing these sessions is that I might be the last person to talk about them,” Strand said. “My goal is to leave a legacy. All artists are struggling with the work they are trying to leave when they leave. People see these portraits and say,” It’s a series. I hope I can say, “It was a job.” After I die, that’s what I want to know. “

Find the moment

Strand’s latest veteran photo session was on March 10 with a meeting with Joe Albert Gonzalez, 95, in Claremont, California. He belonged to the US Army’s 381st Squadron and 96th Infantry Division. He won the Bronze Star for his bravery against the Battle of Okinawa. After one of the medical workers holding the pallet was shot dead, he jumped out of the fox hole to rescue one end of the stretcher carrying the injured soldier. Gonzales helped safely carry the injured man through the hail of the bullet.

Strand sat with Gonzales for about 20 minutes and asked about the audio recording service. Gonzales’s memory faded over the years, but Strand was patient and cheerful. He learns to ask the same question in three or four different ways, and eventually the veterans’ minds become more flexible and the story comes out little by little.

Gonzales was born in San Diego and raised in Logan Heights. When the war began, he was fighting as an amateur boxer with an average left hook. He immediately applied to serve with his three brothers.

“I didn’t want to go out. Everyone else was going,” he told Strand in an interview.

For the next 30 minutes, Strand, with his glasses on, took off his glasses, smiled and laughed, and seriously shot dozens of Gonzales. Sit down and then before. His jacket is button-pressed and unbuttoned. Strands moved quickly, squeezing over 100 digital frames with a handheld shutter trigger connected to a fixed camera, and sometimes moving closer for angled shots with a handheld camera.

Strand emphasizes the “line of laughter” on the veteran’s face and shoots in color, but likes to use a flash to convert the image to black and white for portraits.

“Black and white provide the opportunity to actually see the person and don’t get lost in the color of their clothes or the colors around them. It helps them focus on the moment they share with me,” he said. Told.

The “magical” image during this shoot appeared at the end of the session when Gonzales was mentally involved, but his body was relaxed. His expression was natural and his eyes were cheerfully illuminated. When Strand lifted the camera viewfinder for Gonzales to see the final photo, he laughed with approval and then asked for lunch.

His son and Army veteran Arnold Gonzalez said his dad was excited about photography. On April 22, Joe Gonzalez will be 96 years old. He said he couldn’t see 97 in his family. Gonzales believes 96 is his lucky number, as he survived the war with only minor injuries in the 96th Infantry Division. He doesn’t want to seduce his destiny by surviving it.

It does not get in the way

Strand became obsessed with photography as a boy and created an image with his father in the basement of his home in Racine, Wisconsin. He took pictures of high school newspapers and yearbooks, joined the Navy and worked as a photographer. At USS Ranger and USS Long Beach ships and Miramar Air Station. He then taught photography at the Defense Intelligence School in Maryland.

Two years after retiring from the Navy, Strand had a deadly brush. After his appendectomy, he developed a fatal septic infection and fought for six months to recover. From his experience, he came to understand the importance of celebrating his life and capturing its essence in photography.

Unfortunately, Strand’s mentor told him that it was one thing that lacked “life” from the early attempts at portrait photography about six years ago.

“He told me that my work was stagnant and not human enough,” Strand said. “He told me that you had to keep him out of the way to make him that person and find the moment.”

As his homework, Strand began looking for subjects he was interested in doing many portrait series. The first series was “Behind the Cut,” which captured both the hard and soft aspects of motorcycle club members. A “cut” is what bikers call a club vest. Strand himself is a member of the motorcycle club and hopes that his over 100 portraits will help improve the image of the biker club, which he calls “a malicious and misunderstood culture.”

His second major series was the Veterans Project. It began on July 25, 2017 and filmed 16 World War II veterinarians all day at Miguel Covenant Village Mountain, the Assisted Living Center in Spring Valley. The portrait was displayed in the center on Veterans Day a few months later. Since then, he has done similar shoots and shows at veterans’ homes in Chula Vista, Ventura, and Los Angeles. His biggest exhibition was Veterans Day 2019, with 86 portraits at the Museum in the Photo Center in Palm Beach, Florida.

For larger projects, Strand will take his wife to help conduct the interview. When dementia blunts a veteran, Strand can often have his family and caregivers stand behind the camera to capture the moment when the subject’s eyes are recognized and brightened. From time to time, he gives subjects meaningful things like the Bible and cameras to stir up memories of something they love. Some subjects wear old uniforms to participate in the shoot, while others arrive in T-shirts. Many arrive with a picture of themselves during the war at the age of 75.

Ten of the World War II veterans he photographed were women. One of the couples he shot with was veteran Chuck and Annie Mueller. They died within a few months of each other shortly after the double portrait was taken in 2018. The late “Don” Seki, who lost his left arm in a battle with the highly decorated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Herbert, a black sergeant who served as a mechanic in mobile units in Germany, Belgium, and France. Burnham.

The subject of his favorite veteran photo was Point Loma’s Jolenteria, who died in October at the age of 104. Growing up in a Catholic orphanage, Renteria, a Cherokee Indian, was a top secret naval photographer during World War II, taking pictures of enemy bases. From the air, I captured an image of a secret US nuclear bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. He posed on Strand with an oversized camera that took those images.

“That was my favorite shoot,” Strand said. “We loved the amount of his character in the picture.”

To see more photos of Strand, please visit: When

© 2022 San Diego Union-Tribune.


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