Nadine Whalen has been on a mission— a mission of history, remembrance, and camaraderie that her husband began more than 50 years ago. And Now, Mrs. Whalen is seeing it to completion. Lieutenant Howard W. Whalen took more than 80 color photographs during the first 10 days of the amphibious landings on the small island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Preserved in a slide tray for a half-century, the photographs provide yet another perspective on one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Whalen took most of his photographs from a 36-foot captain’s gig that he used to coordinate and control the movement of amphibious tractors (amphtracs) and Higgins boats, also called LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel). As a boat group commander on board the attack transport USS Sanborn (APA-193), Whalen was responsible for getting men and supplies to the island and transporting the wounded back to the ships. He led the first wave of amphtracs at Blue Beach 2, which was on the farthest right flank of the invasion.
After retiring from the Navy in 1946 as a lieutenant commander, Whalen showed his images to family and friends and to students of his high school history class in Bakersfield, California. He stopped showing them altogether in 1952 after becoming an administrator. Following Commander Whalen’s death, Mrs. Whalen, who now lives in Ventura, California, submitted the photographs to National Geographic magazine, which published one of them in its February 1995 issue commemorating the invasion’s 50th anniversary. Interest from veterans in seeing the photographs led Mrs. Whalen to begin showing the images publicly.
From veterans’ groups to Marine and Navy reunions, the photographs still serve as a reminder of sacrifice of the common serviceman and provide a solemn forum for veterans to tell their remembrances of fallen comrades.
The rare color photos represent another gift—that of Mrs. Whalen to her late husband. The same photographs he used to court her have come full circle. “He would come over to my house and visit my family, showing us his slides and telling us about his adventures in the Navy,” she recalls. “I remember being very impressed with both the photos and what he had to say. I’m sure that was his intention.”
Ironically, the same photos that won over Nadine Kennedy, the future Mrs. Whalen, nearly sank the career of the young lieutenant. Orders had forbidden any photography during the Iwo Jima invasion. When a processed roll of Kodachrome film came back to the ship, Whalen was reprimanded severely by the ship’s executive officer. Some of the pictures were confiscated, but Whalen kept most of them.
“The fur really flew,” says Andrew Klein, a consulting engineer in Forest Grove, Oregon. He was a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Sanborn and knew Whalen. “The executive officer called a meeting of all the officers and reminded them that no photographs were allowed.”
Klein knew Whalen had taken the photographs. The two discussed the order forbidding photography, but Whalen told Klein that history demanded a photographic record be made. Klein did not see Whalen take the photographs. Days after the invasion, Whalen told him and some of the other junior officers about what he had done.
“He said that he sat on the bow of his boat snapping pictures like crazy,” Klein says. “He knew he was exposing himself to enemy fire, hut he felt it was important to document the invasion.” Lieutenant Whalen carried with him a 35-mm Leica camera and several rolls of Kodachrome film he had bought in 1944 while on leave to attend his mother’s funeral. The color transparency film, introduced in 1936, was the first color film to use three emulsion layers on a single base, making it practical for casual use.
Whalen’s photographs are the most comprehensive set of color images of the Iwo Jima invasion, according to Chuck Haberlein, head of the Photographic Section for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. A few other color photos were taken by unknown photographers, but no others match the depth and action of Whalen’s collection, he says.
In fact, Whalen’s photographs join a short list of color photography taken of U.S. Navy action during World War II. Very little color was taken, and only a small percentage of that is of actual combat, Haberlein adds. And of that photography, only the shots taken on Kodachrome film have maintained their color fidelity. According to Klein, the colors are absolutely perfect. “The photographs show that we had gorgeous weather—but it was no day at the beach.”
Whalen shot four rolls of film. One roll was mailed to the United States for processing. Two or three months later, when the processed slides were returned, Whalen received his severe reprimand. Klein believes some of the photos were not returned because Whalen did take some shots on the beach, including some fairly gruesome shots of U.S. dead and wounded.
“That was the last time I saw the photos,” Klein says. “After the war, I lost contact with Howard. Then one day, 50 years later, I heard that National Geographic had just published a color photo of the invasion. I knew it had to he one of Howard’s photos. I raced home to see my own issue, and there it was.”
Nadine Whalen says her husband understood the historic significance of what was happening. “He knew of the regulation forbidding photography,” she remembers. “He said to me, ‘I did not have the authority, but like many things during war, I knew it should be done.’”
After they were stored safely away in 1952, the transparencies did not see the light of day until the Whalens traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1979 to give them to the Navy. They were told to keep the slides until closer to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. The concern was that the images might get misplaced, and they reposed in the linen closet for another 15 years. In August 1994, Nadine Whalen returned to Washington, D.C., and gave a duplicate set of slides to the Naval Historical Center and to the National Geographic Society.
Following publication of one of the photographs, her life has not been the same. She was immediately inundated with requests from veterans’ organizations to show all of the slides. Mrs. Whalen said yes to each request, even when it meant bearing the brunt of the travel expenses. “I feel as though I have a full-time occupation,” she says. “Prior to this, I had considered it just a mission to get them turned over to the Navy and Marine archives because I knew my husband wanted that. My son kept reminding me, ‘Dad said to take care of the pictures.’ I’m not sure my husband would have expected this kind of a reaction, but I think he would have wanted me to have as many people see them as possible. So that’s the mission I’m on.”
Just a month after National Geographic published the photo, Mrs. Whalen gave her first public showing of the slides at the Los Angeles International Airport Hilton. There, veterans of the Pacific War gathered for a 50th anniversary return to several islands, including Iwo Jima. Mrs. Whalen did not go on that sojourn, hut her husband’s color slides initiated a bombardment of war remembrances and reunions.
As she started the slide show, she overheard two veterans sitting directly behind her. One had recognized the other and said, “I’ve been looking for you for 50 years to thank you for saving my life.”
Mrs. Whalen was profoundly struck, not only by the emotions the slides provoked, hut by the camaraderie of men who had been separated for 50 years. “Amazing stories come right out of these showings,” she says. “The presentations give these Marines a release. That is what’s so tremendous.”
One of the slides shows an amphtrac about to land on the beach. Mrs. Whalen recalls that during one slide show, a Marine veteran stood up and yelled, “That’s my tank! That’s it!”
While viewing another slide, a veteran ran up and pointed to the screen, indicating where he had landed during the invasion’s first wave. He yelled to his wife, “I got my nose in that black sand and crawled and elbowed my way to the top of the plateau. Then they shot me in the leg. You’d think they would have received me with courtesy and at least shot me down on the beach instead of my wasting all that time!”
The slides do not show the grisly horrors of combat. Instead, they present a broader view of war on a grand scale:
troops gathered on the beach during a lull in the battle
amphtracs moving inland on the volcanic sand
landing craft moving toward the beach
naval bombardment of enemy positions
smoke and haze settling over the island
Mount Suribachi—where Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prizewinning photograph was taken days later—looming over ships, troops, and transports.
To protect the images, Nadine Whalen had them scanned on a Kodak Photo CD disc. As digital negatives, the images will remain preserved for at least 100 years. She also had the images transferred to videotape because so many veterans had requested copies.
One of the veterans who purchased a tape is Hershel Mull of Globe, Arizona. He was an 18-year-old coxswain on board the Sanborn. Mull said the photographs clearly depict the invasion as he remembers it. “Watching the videotape, I recognized all of the places in the pictures,” he says. “The photos give you a good lay of the land. There was no cover except for that ledge on the beach. I got the videotape because I wanted to share the photos with my wife and family. It’s history, and it’s important to remember those events. I will show the videotape to my son when he visits; and when my three grandsons get older, I’ll show it to them, too.”
Mrs. Whalen is encouraged when she hears such things. She hopes to show the slides to high school and elementary classes so students will be interested in asking their grandparents what they did during the war. “The history of the United States is a compilation of stories of people’s contribution to this nation,” she says. “The story of Iwo Jima is one of courage, bravery, honor and sacrifice.” Even with the passing of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Mrs. Whalen’s schedule remains full. She continues to attend as many veterans’ reunions as possible. She even plans to travel to northern Georgia to show the slides personally to a veteran unable to leave his home. “His wife died five years ago,” she says. “He cried on the telephone saying how I made his day.”
Mrs. Whalen narrates the slides during her presentation, sharing experiences related to her by other Iwo Jima veterans. One of her favorites regards a Marine from Liberty, New York. On the 50th anniversary of the Iwo Jima landings, the Marine returned to the exact spot in a stone quarry where he had written a letter to his family—a letter he wrote with the expectation that it might be his last.
“Sharing these photographs brings out these kinds of powerful stories,” she says. “And sharing them was my husband’s wish.”