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Vivid Images of WWII Combat See Light of Day

GI who shot Marine footage risked court-martial by taking stills with own camera. Now printed, they offer riveting viewing.

December 03, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He spent three years photographing war with a hidden camera so he would never forget its horror.

Then Roy Morris hid the film for 51 years to put the haunting images out of his mind.

"I'd had enough of the fighting," he said. "I felt lucky to be alive. I just wanted to get on with my life."

Morris was a Marine who spent World War II moving from island to island in the South Pacific. He saw some of the nastiest fighting of the conflict, landing on beaches under heavy shelling and then fighting his way through sniper-filled jungles.

Morris, now a 78-year-old retired portrait photographer who lives in Covina, was assigned as a Navy film cameraman, and for that he toted a government-issue movie camera along with a rifle.

But he always carried a decidedly unmilitary piece of gear with him when he hit the beach or crept through the tropical forests: a canteen camera.

Morris kept a German-made Rolleiflex loaded with film and hidden inside a padded canteen holder on his belt.

When he finished shooting combat footage for the Navy, he quietly pulled out the Rolleiflex and snapped a few black-and-white pictures for himself.

Morris never saw any of his movies.

His rolls of film were quickly picked up by couriers and hurried to Hawaii, where they were processed at a Navy lab. Military officials studied the movies for tactical purposes. Then censors looked at them and removed scenes deemed detrimental to the American war effort before releasing the footage to newsreel companies.

The pictures from Morris' Rolleiflex went a different direction, however.

*

Working at night and using chemicals mixed with jungle water, he secretly developed his negatives but had no way to print the 2 1/4-inch-square frames.

"I gave the negatives to buddies of mine in a demolition unit to hide until I could take them," he said. "They kept them for me in empty Japanese bombshells. We knew that nobody was going to mess with those things."

Since Morris was authorized to carry a Bell & Howell Eyemo movie camera, military officers and enlisted men paid no attention when they noticed him snapping pictures with the Rolleiflex.

Good thing: Personal cameras were forbidden. If caught, Morris could have been court-martialed. Or worse.

"Everybody was paranoid about spies in the early years of the war," he said. "I wasn't stupid. I always made sure I buttered up the second-level officers and got good shots for them."

Some of the more heart-stopping situations Morris encountered--like the time a kamikaze fighter divebombed the destroyer he was on--were captured only on movie footage; there wasn't enough time to grab the Rolleiflex.

It wasn't until last year that Morris discovered exactly how wrenching many of the scenes caught by his canteen camera were. Still unprinted after more than half a century, about 1,000 negatives were stored in a box in his garage.

Morris was being treated at the time for a heart ailment at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Uncertain whether he would survive, he decided to give some of his photographs of prewar New York City to his brother, retired West Los Angeles teacher Sidney Schiffer.

Schiffer, 76, was surprised by the gritty, eye-catching look of the city scenes.

"I knew he took studio portraits, but these were wonderful views of real life. I asked Roy if he had any more pictures. He said, 'Just the Marine Corps stuff.' "

Morris fished about 100 wartime negatives from the box and took them to a photo lab to have glossy prints made. Schiffer was stunned when he saw them. The pictures offer intimate glimpses of troops invading the islands of Bougainville, Emirau, Guam and Peleliu--landing in the surf, securing beaches and carving footholds in the jungle.

Some are poignant in their simplicity. One shows a young Marine reading from a Bible over the grave of a buddy whose helmet rests atop a crude cross. Another depicts rows of unidentified soldiers who have been hastily buried in the sand.

Others show Navy ships in action, lines of Marines trudging forlornly into battle and troops trying to settle into base camps.

It's a personal view like perhaps no other of World War II--which lacked the kind of uncensored visual news coverage that became common in Vietnam.

Many of the pictures show the signs of Morris' battlefield film-processing. Some negatives were scratched by dirt or streaked by developer that he was unable to cool to the proper temperature because of the tropical heat.

"I didn't have water to wash the negatives in," he said. "I always tried to cool the chemicals in a river or something, but it didn't always work.

"If I'd had brains, I'd have sent them home to be processed, and the negatives would have been cleaner. But I'd probably have been caught."

Morris said he decided to risk carrying his personal camera into combat because he knew he would get good pictures.

"I was a kid--cocky, arrogant. I thought I was the best photographer in the world," he said. "I thought someday I might do a book."

But by the time the war ended in 1945, Morris had had enough.

Five decades later, he still feels much the same way.

"Looking at these pictures, you realize what a waste war is," Morris said. "You think of what these guys went through. What their parents went through."

Schiffer said, however, that he hopes to have blowups made of the pictures so they can be exhibited.

That's fine with Morris. But he said his brother better move quickly.

"I've got 10 times more negatives still in the box," he warned.

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