Photos by Barney Rosset.
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 105 in 2001.
A letter from Barney Rosset to his parents:
May 6, 1945
Dear Mother and Dad:
It seems that some people doubt whether or not the Chinese soldiers 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.
In 1944-45, Barney Rosset was an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps Photographic Service, based in China. He had enlisted in the army in Chicago in 1942 at the age of twenty. The photographs in this show, taken by the then Lieut. Rosset, have never been publicly shown before.
Rosset's outfit, the 164th Signal Photo Corp, was responsible for covering the photographic history of China, Burma, and India (known as the C.B.I.), and was headquartered in New Delhi, India. At best, personnel had to be spread very thinly over that vast area. Rosset, through luck and his own perseverance, ended up the photo officer at an actual confrontation point between Chinese and Japanese units. Most of these photos were taken in the early summer of 1945 when the Japanese, under pressure from the U.S. forces in the Pacific, had begun a begrudging and slow retreat.
After the war, in 1951, Rosset purchased the small, dead-ended Grove Press, which was brought to his attention by his then-wife, the painter Joan Mitchell. Grove's public fame came initially through its battles against government censorship. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which Rosset first read in 1940 as a freshman at Swarthmore College, became a matter of central importance in his life; in his mind its publication in this country was imperative.
Grove's publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959 and Tropic of Cancer two years later were the first and most conspicuous examples of Rosset's determination not only to publish these books but to carry through unprecedented legal battles until they were won. Less noticed then, but equally important, were other authors Grove published during the same years--Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, and Jean Genet, among many others. These writers, mainly unknown when Grove and its magazine, Evergreen Review, first published them, went on to become central figures in the literature of the twentieth century. Under Rosset, Grove Press developed into one of the most influential publishing companies of its day.
In the early fall of 1944, I was shipped out from Norfolk, Virginia, with 10,000 other G.I.'s on a new troop ship. It was considered fast enough to outrun submarines, and therefore we traveled without escort. It was some cruise--42 days of dehydrated eggs and fraying nerves, taking us through the Panama Canal, around Australia, and then to Bombay.
The boulevard along the way is drab, the landscape somewhat between a construction project and a slum. There is traffic, but what a contrast to the bustle and life of Bangkok.
Kunming is still a "Thou-Shalt-Not" place. The only touch of sensuality is a pair of chic, good looking young women who are in our hotel elevator as we get in. The elevator stalls, then reopens, and framed in the door is a stunning Chinese gowned young woman stationed in front of the elevator bank. She speaks a few harsh words and a policeman appears and pulls the two, now frightened women, out. We then speed up to our floor, where stands the ever present watcher, hands folded primly in front of her face, the obsequious house cop making sure that we go straight to our room.
Kanchapara was the name of the tent camp near Calcutta in which the army kept soldiers who were waiting assignment. There were too many other men, sweating each day and freezing each night, as jackals stole the shoes from our tents and rooted in our garbage.
Finally a transfer for me to go to New Delhi arrived. I was assigned to the 164th Signal Corps Photographic Company, whose area of operations included China, Burma and India, with headquarters in New Delhi. I was billeted with other American officers at the luxurious Imperial Hotel, with even less work to do, if that were possible, than I had in Kanchapara. My chance to leave came when one of the my officers in my outfit reportedly committed suicide in Kweiyang.
We took off from Assam for Kunming, my unit's HQ in China. I was a raw, semi-trained 2nd Lt. in the Signal Corps, 22 years old, and without a clue as to what was going on. Scarcely able to walk under the weight of my equipment, I struggled onto the airplane, and sat on the floor next to some uncommunicative Chinese soldiers. I leaned back in the curve of the bare fuselage, hugging the heavy parachute which was a totally foreign object to me. We were in a death crate called the C46, a hulk of a cargo plane barely sustained by two undersized motors. As we puffed oxygen through our masks, the planet's highest mountains glowered beneath us and loomed on both sides.
Behind the door to the cockpit, the third red alert light shone as we descended, a sure sign that Japanese Zeros were tailing us, using us for cover as they bombed the runway. I scrambled from the airplane into the night's bewildering disorder--no contacts, no commanding officers, no what-to-do-next. I ran until I somehow arrived at a dimly lit wooden shack which reminded me of a bar. It was crowded with mostly Chinese patrons, where everyone was drinking hot yellow rice wine. The next thing I remember, was waking up with a hangover in my outfit's billet, the headache. rendered irrelevant by the thrilling fact that I was in the China of my dreams. I had stepped through the looking glass, into the pages of Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, a book which I first read in 9th grade and never forgot.
Of course I was joining up with Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang instead of Mao and the Red Army.
We came to a large town which we knew was very close to the front. It boasted a British consulate, which still showed signs of its previous ownership plastered to it, though the roof was gone, and one wall exposed the remains of the rooms. Some buildings were intact, but many were smashed, and debris blocked the streets. We got lost. We crept forward, got stuck, backed up, slowly made our way through the town. The people were gaunt and they hardly seemed to notice us, although we knew that not many Americans could have preceded us there.
We finally found the American liaison team, located in a half-battered-down house on the outskirts of town.
Of course I was joining up with Chiang Kai-shek¹s Kuomintang instead of Mao and the Red Army.
Its members were in a state of great excitement. The day before an inspection team made up of a Chinese colonel and a Chinese interpreter, along with two more Americans, headed by an American colonel, had arrived in a single jeep. They wanted to see the front. The liaison team warned the Army sightseers that they were very close to the Japanese, but that had not deterred the American colonel. He was determined to see the fighting, so they set out in the jeep again, looking for the enemy. They drove along the torn highway to the last point held by Chinese regulars. A Chinese squad leader tried to stop them, but no Japanese gun positions were in sight, and no one heard any gunfire. So the colonel ignored the squad leader's warnings and continued on. The road was on flat ground, but it snaked between two hills that overlooked the road for several miles. As the jeep drove past the hills, machine gun fire broke out from both. Turning around meant driving back through the crossfire, so they raced on with bullets from the two machine gun positions splattering down on them. A Chinese artillery team observed the inspection team's plight from a few miles away on another hill. When the jeep was almost out of sight, it stopped. The observers did not know why. The driver may have been killed, or the occupants may have decided it was a good place to get out and run.
Before we set off on our "rescue mission", another jeep drove up to the liaison team headquarters. Teddy White, the TIME correspondent, was in it, accompanied by a LIFE photographer. At the time, he was by far the best-known newsman in China. Together, we started out for the place where the incident had occurred.
We arrived at our furthermost outpost, where an air force team had parked their jeep back in a small cluster of trees. We had almost gone past them, but someone called out to us and we stopped. The Chinese built their family houses in clusters with trees for shade, and it was in one of these well-to-do, but now burned-out encampments that we stopped.
The air force team consisted of three men, a captain and two enlisted men. They had a radio they used to call in air support.
Now the problem was to find out what had become of the visiting American colonel and his men. White acted as the interpreter. He was incredibly good. The Chinese officer in command of the area was a mild, disciplined soldier who knew how best to use the little he had to work with. I had encountered him before. He served all of us drinks of scorching white liquor while White explained the necessity of going after the lost men.
We did not make much progress for the next two or three days. White decided he had had enough and he and his photographer said goodbye and turned back. We remained.
Finally we got to the place where the Colonel's jeep was supposed to have stopped. I went into a nearby barn and immediately a horrible smell washed over me. A pile of straw was in one corner. A hugely-bloated, burned corpse was on top of it. I couldn't tell if the body was Japanese, Chinese, or American. One of the men kicked at a pile of dirt in the gully next to the road. Another horrible cadaver lay uncovered. Maggots swarmed over its face and the skull was almost completely devoid of flesh.
Our search had ended.