WWII Signal Corps Sgt. Ira Lewis documented defining moments of 20th century
BRANFORD — Black smoke billowing from a torpedo-crippled battleship as it sinks. Blazing fires from the burning oil of fuel tanks on the surface of the waters of Pearl Harbor.
Those were the kind of images World War II Army Signal Corps officer Ira Lewis watched develop from the negatives in the darkroom at the Army War College in Washington, D.C., days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Certainly the pictures shocked me,” said the soft-spoken 97-year-old on a recent afternoon at his Branford home. “But I also had to follow orders. So I gave the pictures to an officer who was on duty at the time. Where they went I don’t know.”
Not so for the rare cache of photos he’s kept from his Bronze Star-decorated tenure with the Army and ensuing career as a staff photographer for CBS.
Some of those photos were lost during his move from New York to Branford seven years ago. And there are none from his childhood in the Bronx, N.Y., when, for his bar mitzvah, the son of immigrants from Russia and Hungary was given a camera.
Then came a serendipitous referral to Eileen Darby, a photographer renowned for taking pictures of stars such as Lawrence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich and Marlon Brando in countless Broadway shows that “helped define the memory of some great productions,” as her New York Times obituary detailed.
“My mother’s cousin had a little shop in Manhattan and Eileen Darby had a darkroom next door,” he said.
While he never accompanied her to Broadway, “at first I watched her in the darkroom, how she processed the film and made the print. Then she let me assist.”
After that, he said, “I was sure that’s what I wanted to do.”
This was during the Depression. Jobs were scarce. The war in Europe seemed distant. The Army was offering training in photography for three years of service in the Signal Corps. In October 1940, he enlisted. He was 20.
After a short stint at Fort Monmouth, Lewis was assigned to the Army War College. There, he learned, as he put it, “the technical aspects of photography, the chemistry, the optics, what happened between a click and a shutter to make a picture.”
Then came Pearl Harbor.
“Everything changed,” he said. Lewis was transferred to the Army Pictorial Center in Astoria, Queens, the hub of Army filmmaking.
Roaming around the movie-studio-scale lot and beyond with his 35 mm Bell & Howell movie camera, Lewis worked alongside professional cameramen and sound operators, using “skilled actors, convincing sets, and dramatic scripts,” according to www.armypictorialcenter.com, to train soldiers, and inform and influence civilians.
It’s the still photographs from his next assignment, as an official army photographer in the Far East, that show Lewis’ talents coming to the fore. One, taken in the bloody aftermath of the battle for Manila in February 1945, pictures an emaciated Filipino collaborator looking with empty eyes into the photographer’s lens.
“He was captured and beaten,” Lewis said. “Japanese soldiers would make Filipinos kiss their feet. This shows how they felt about one of their own going to the other side.”
As a roving photographer, Lewis saw firsthand the wages of battle.
Take the picture of a storefront sign reading “Atomic Bomb Variety Show” amid passersby on a busy sidewalk. “That struck me,” Lewis said. “Truman had just dropped the bomb, and enterprising people were making a show out of it.”
There are other examples of his gifted eye. One is a photo from a mundane assignment for pictures of the southern Philippines, which dramatically captures two dozen nurses dwarfed by towering trees deep in the jungle.
“We traveled there on a Jeep through some dangerous territory,” he said. “At one point we had to remove the wheels and just rode on railroad tracks.”
The hospital, he said, “had been set up under the trees so it couldn’t be seen from the air. The nurses were wearing dresses made out of parachutes. I stood on a hilltop to take that shot.”
The assignment was a bright spot. “Everyone was so welcoming toward us,” he said. “They appreciated the supplies the U.S. forces had provided and they were grateful to us for publicizing the work they were doing.”
At CBS, where he was a photo technician and staff photographer from 1951 to 1986, Lewis continued to memorialize watershed events of the 20th century. Among those was his involvement, in conjunction with NASA, in capturing the first moon landing in still photos.
“We were shooting pictures off the screen so CBS could have the photo credit on what would certainly be historic photos,” he said.
There are also black-and-white publicity shots of network personalities such as Bill Moyers, Charles Osgood and Dan Rather; stars of stage and screen, incldung Oscar-winner Patricia Neal and Marlo Thomas; and soap opera characters from “As the World Turns” and “The Edge of Night.”
On the side table beside him was a photograph of a young Ira Lewis, clad in a starched Army uniform. Holding his Speed Graphi c 4x5 combat camera, he looks into the middle distance, a quiet grin on his face.
“All I ever wanted to be was a photographer,” he said, cradling in his arms a 35 mm Nikon from his years at CBS and wearing that same grin. “And I got my wish.”