“I was of course enthralled by his history and accomplishments, and he appreciated my work with the Army Corps of Engineers – often noting he had only two employers in his life – himself and the US Army.” David Schlesinger, “Tribute to Barney Rosset.”
I was in Bangkok when Barney Rosset died; I learned of it in an email from a Chinese friend in Kunming. I was back in the States by the end of March, and on 9 May took a bus from Washington, D.C. to New York City for Barney’s memorial service. On the bus ride I finished reading “The Tender Hour of Twilight,” Richard Seaver’s memoir of publishing in New York and Paris in the 1950s and ’60s. Seaver had been Barney’s number two at Grove and Evergreen. Barney was much on my mind when I arrived in New York.
In the Great Hall at Cooper Union, I listened to old friends speak of Barney. That night I read their tributes on the Evergreen website. Much was said about all the pieces that made up his rich life – all but one, a piece that was different from all the others.
As Barney told David Schlesinger, he had only had two employers in his life: himself and the U.S. Army. The Army part included China – which was important to Barney – and India, and adventures unlike anything Barney would experience later. At Cooper Union and on the Evergreen website there were a few references to the Army part of Barney’s life, but probably not many of Barney’s friends knew even the highlights of it.
It was in Bangkok some years ago that I had first heard of a World War II combat photographer in China named Barney Rosset. Barney’s friend, Christopher G. Moore, a Bangkok-based novelist told me. I was spending time in China then, particularly in Kunming, the city in Southwest China that had been the center of the American military presence in China – and where Barney Rosset started his journey in China. Decades later he would visit the city again.
Christopher thought Barney’s China wartime photos were great; could I help set up a show of them in Kunming? I was visiting China regularly, doing research on the World War II era, and knew some people in Kunming. In a piece I later wrote for Evergreen, I noted my misgivings: My usual military writing involved fighter pilots and special operations folk. What would I do with some army guy who took pictures?
I was also a bit uncertain about approaching the Chinese with a photo exhibit by one of the great American champions of freedom of expression. I need not have been concerned: Barney’s name didn’t raise any eyebrows in China, but his accomplishments did. The Chinese knew of Barney and his work: the Beats, Samuel Beckett, Malcolm X – Che Guevera, of course – even Lady Chatterley. All were all known in China, some were even taught in school. The Kunming Municipal Museum would be honored to host a show of Barney’s World War II China photos.
Back from Asia, I went to New York to see Barney, to talk about his China photos and the times. As I listened, it became evident that Barney’s army experience was worth a close look. I suggested we do a full interview.
A picture of the young Barney Rosset emerged as we talked about his army career. The character of the young soldier-photographer was not so different from the great publisher he later became. I borrowed a phrase from Allen Ginsberg to title the interview: The “Publisher-hero” as Combat Photographer in China.
Barney, the anti-establishment rebel, was a patriot; he had volunteered for military service. He had wanted to get into the Marines, but after they tested his eyes, the Marines wouldn’t take him. Nor would the Air Force. Only the Army would; they would take anybody then – “if you could walk to get there,” as Barney said.
Early in our talk, I was taken by Barney’s pure honesty. Discussing his interest in getting into the Marines, he said he had been given a tour of one of the biggest marine bases – Quantico, he thought – by the base commandant.
Now how would something like that come about?
“My father… he knew all kinds of people.” Not many of my fighter pilot interviewees would have admitted accepting dad’s help in such a situation.
At first, Barney and the Army seemed a poor fit. He was sent to Oregon, to be an infantryman. “That seemed ridiculous,” Barney thought. It involved a lot of walking and he had terrible feet. And army life was not particularly stimulating: “There were good people there…, but 15 percent of the enlisted men in my outfit couldn’t read or write.” So Barney started to teach reading and writing – and formed a football team, because “they had never played football.” In turn, his students helped him with the difficult physical things, “like taking a gun apart and putting it back together.”
In time the Army also decided it would be better if Barney did something other than march, and sent him to Officers Candidate School – the Quartermasters, “one of the last officer schools still open.” He learned one useful skill, “to drive any kind of truck, which was handy,” and he heard about photography: “I figured that would be perfect for me – out in the open, not too military, pretty much your own boss.”
Barney already had an interest in film making: “My best friend in high school, Haskell Wexler, and I talked about making a film together. He went on to become a great filmmaker. I went to UCLA to study filmmaking. They had advertised a film course, but they hadn’t stared it yet.”
Getting into the Army’s photography school in New York, with its great directors like John Ford, was not easy. Barney managed.
“I told my father. He had become a very good friend of Jimmy Roosevelt… A letter from the head of the Signal Corps named me to the photography school.”
At the school, Barney found himself an amateur among professionals; everyone else had “some link to photography, either still or motion pictures.” But it was the instructors who were the problem. Most had already been in the war, and for that had been given their jobs as a reward. “I had never seen people so lackadaisical, and I just could not get along with them. Maybe because of that I was the first one to get a job and get shipped out” – to India.
Barney found himself in a tent camp outside Calcutta, where hyenas came at night to steal his food. Not a happy place – but there was Calcutta city, “exciting… sort of dangerous … the homes of Indian Rajas were deserted and turned into brothels.”
Barney went there in the daytime. “Why wait till night when everyone is busy.” One brothel “was especially fancy.” Barney got to know a girl there; he would take her to the movies “and all of the British women were agog.” An American Officer consorting with an Indian prostitute – in the middle of the day!
It was China where Barney wanted to go. Reading Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China,” had left a strong impression. He got there in late December 1944, arriving in Kunming, where everybody did, after flying over the Hump – the Himalayas.
Within days Barney was on his way to the war. He went with a driver and a truck he named “Foto-Moto,” that carried what he needed to set up a field photo lab. His destination was the city of Kweiyang, about 300 miles from Kunming. No one had told him much about it, but Kweiyang was surrounded on three sides by the Japanese Army. It was as far as the Japanese Army would get in their Ichi-go offensive, the largest Japanese ground offensive of the war.
Barney found a place in an old inn and settled into local life. There was a social club with “important” Chinese who had walked the 600 miles from Hong Kong. And there were Chinese-American soldiers. Love bloomed between the soldiers and the young ladies who had come with their families from Hong Kong, and photos were needed for marriage licenses. Barney became the man, the wedding photographer.
High spirits and curiosity led Barney in new directions. He made two new friends: Meredith “Muddy” Rhule, once a professional wrestler, was “strong as an ox, and… an unbelievable deadly shot with a gun. He had a strong streak of morality – you couldn’t go out with girls you weren’t married to.” Muddy Rhule led a unit of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA.
The other was a young naval officer, “a free-wheeling spirit.” Where Muddy Rhule was up-tight, this guy liked to have a good time. He was with naval intelligence. The three improbable friends went for runs in the mountains that Rhule organized. “The Chinese peasant women thought we were the finest thing they had ever seen – and they would run along with us.”
Rhule’s OSS job was “to take a squad of Chinese and go out along the Japanese lines, and steal back or destroy all the stuff the Chinese army had sold to the Japanese. I went with him… There wasn’t much in the way of towns where we went, no hotels.”
Rhule had trouble getting vehicles and Barney had a truck. On missions behind the lines, Barney usually drove. “What we would do was to circle around, go way out, way beyond where we knew the Japanese were, and then come back around from their rear. They were not expecting us there… we didn’t want to run into them. We were always afraid of getting into a fire fight.”
They depended on Chinese guides, stayed in secluded areas behind the lines, and dispatched the Chinese teams. “I hardly ever understood what I was doing. There were Chinese officers who appeared from nowhere while we were in enemy territory… I never knew who they were or what they did… It was all very strange then.” Barney depended on his friend Rhule, who “kept everything together by the sheer force of his personal magnetism.”
The Japanese advance stopped, and they started pulling back to the east – with the Chinese Army and Barney Rosset in hot pursuit. There were times when Barney found himself out in front of the Chinese Army. That led to some close encounters with the Japanese rear units. To Barney, that was not at all remarkable – it was the way things were.
There was an encounter with famous Time correspondent, Teddy White, who was looking for a group of Chinese and American offices who had disappeared. “I had read his books; I was the only person who knew how important he was. But he was not friendly, and finally I just hung around with his photographer.”
After about a week Teddy went back to “type up his stories,” and Barney pressed on. The missing Americans had gone past the most forward of the Chinese troops and been told to stop. “The Chinese wisely had not chased after them – but we did.” Eventually, it was Barney who “came to a place that looked suspicious,” and found three bloated bodies.
Barney’s job was to document the Japanese retreat and the Chinese Army chasing after. He really did not need to get as close to the action as his spirits and curiosity sometimes took him. Like Barney the publisher, Barney the photographer took risks.
“We were with the Chinese on one side of a hill, and the Japanese were on the side of another, with a valley between us. The Chinese didn’t seem inclined to move ahead, so I thought that if we – my driver and I – started walking toward them [the Japanese] maybe the Chinese would follow. They didn’t.”
So there was Barney, leading his driver in a charge against the Japanese positions on the opposite hill. In the valley below was a railway embankment. Barney and his driver crossed it as bullets were fired over their heads. Then they were in high grass, and the Japanese were on the hill above them. “And then we realized we didn’t have any guns. We didn’t even have our shirts on.” They couldn’t go back the way they came; the Japanese would easily see them. So Barney and his driver crawled all the way up the valley – “terrified” – until they were out of range. “The Japanese could have strolled over and shot us with a pistol.”
A few days later, from the top of a mountain, Barney could see the city of Liuchow in the distance. It was burning. Just as the radio on Barney’s jeep – tuned to a broadcast from San Francisco – was saying that the Chinese had recaptured the city. But the Chinese Army was here, with Barney, miles away. “It was eerie.”
Barney set off for Liuchow. “So now we had two jeeps, and the Chinese army right behind us. We headed for Liuchow, but the Chinese didn’t follow.”
Outside Liuchow city was the biggest American airfield in China. It seemed deserted. Barney and his “team” – two American air force men had joined him – cut through barbed wire and drove down the runways. There were holes dug in the runways, so “we did exactly what the Japanese expected us to do: We went and looked in the holes – and there was nothing there.”
There was nothing in the holes because it was the outsides that the Japanese had rimmed with explosives. “It was a miracle we had set nothing off.”
But later, when American army engineers came to deactivate the Japanese traps, one exploded. It killed about 30 people and blew up Barney’s jeep. The army later sent him a bill: One Jeep – 640 dollars.
Once the Chinese troops secured Liuchow, Barney took his exposed film back to Kunming. Then: “I was sent to Shanghai – although I was not sure why.” The formal surrender of the Japanese Army in China had not yet taken place. There were not enough American troops available to occupy the city. The Japanese were still in charge.
“We landed in Shanghai at what was a Japanese airfield.” It was surreal. “The Japanese were still running the place.” There were scenes that a William Burroughs might have written:
A Japanese driver with a pickup truck drove Barney and several others into town. People along the street looked at them, then started “cheering us, like we had conquered the city.”
Barney went first class, to the posh Cathay Hotel on the Bund. The manager was Japanese. Barney got a suite – “took it over from a Japanese officer, who met me in full dress uniform – with a sword. It was like a dream.”
The Japanese were everywhere. To get to the nightclub district on his bicycle, Barney had to go through a Japanese area. It was raining, the bicycle went out from under him.
“I was flat one my back looking up at all these faces with white uniforms. A bunch of Japanese officers stood in a circle around me. I thought it was the end. They weren’t friendly, but they weren’t unfriendly either. It was very eerie.”
There were Soviets in Shanghai, Russians in the fur business. Many had fled the Soviet Union before the war, now they represented the Soviets. Barney was invited to a party at the Soviet Embassy, “lovely people, beautiful women, mostly Russian-Jews who spoke English as if they were Americans. They started by praising Lenin as a great man, but as the evening went on, they became more and more bitter about the Russians. Here they were, Russians representing the Soviet Union – and they had no use for Russians. It pissed me off.”
The strangest thing was a large community of German Jews who had fled Germany, “and the Japanese had brought many of them to Shanghai.” He found a new friend: “She was a law student in Berlin when she got in trouble with the Nazis… She married a young guy like herself, a Jewish Berliner. He was a musician, and when they got to Shanghai, he played in a jazz band, in a nightclub. It was a weird society.”
The German Jews lived in a ghetto, and Barney found that the the Japanese treated them well. “The Japanese had a kind of farcical control over the neighborhood. There were about two Japanese guys in charge of all these people, who played jokes on them. Everybody thought it was pretty funny.”
“Shanghai was a strange place then. One day in October 1945, I was instructed to go to the airport for transport back to Kunming. That was the beginning of my return home.”
So that was Barney’s war. He didn’t just endure it – he felt he had accomplished something. In a letter to his parents in May, 1945, he said: “Some people doubt whether or not the Chinese will fight so they urgently wanted pictorial proof. Myself and two of my sergeants went out to get it, and if our film shows what we saw then the whole world can know that the Chinese soldiers will fight.”
What Barney saw of war and captured on film is striking: burned-out towns, shattered lives; the dead and the dying. Much is about how the Chinese people bore hardship – troops and civilians alike – a quality Barney came to respect greatly. “I never heard a wounded Chinese cry out, or complain,” he told me.
Barney’s China photos were shown in New York in 2002, in an exhibit called, “China in Conflict.” Those were the photos that evoked the interest of the museum staff in Kunming. An extensive renovation and expansion of the Kunming museum has delayed the show of Barney’s photos in China. Plans remain to show the photos on the museum’s reopening.