WE DID RETURN: MEL VICTOR’S WWII PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE PHILIPPINES AT THE WOLFSONIAN
Yesterday marked the seventieth-year anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s historic walk through the surf on Leyte Island, marking the return of American troops to the Philippine soil–“soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples” as the general addressed U.S. servicemen by radio. MacArthur had been ordered by President Roosevelt to evacuate from the Philippines, and had made his famous vow “I shall return.”
General MacArthur’s landing in Leyte inspired Filipino resistance fighters and U.S. soldiers that the tide was turning in the Pacific. But MacArthur’s landing and radio address was only a symbolic victory, and one that would be followed by a desperate and bloody struggle to liberate and take the Philippines back from the Japanese occupiers and the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy that still dominated the seas around the islands. Thanks to the generosity of Donna Victor, I can share with you today some images of that ferocious fight in the Philippines taken by her father, Melvin Victor, an official war photographer.
Mel Victor’s photographs document just how hard-won the battle for the Philippines would be. Some of his aerial photographs of Leyte Island show deceptively peaceful and idyllic views of the island immediately adjacent to rows of U.S. landing craft delivering military equipment and supplies to support the U.S. liberators.
Other photographs from the Mel Victor WWII Pacific Theater Collection show some of the strafing and bombing runs made in the Gulf of Leyte against the Japanese Navy prowling the waters adjacent to the Philippines.
One of the most famous of the Victor photographs taken during the war was one showing a “Jap destroyer” or frigate “sunk in the S. China Sea.” What makes the image so compelling is its capture of the human dimension of the life and death struggle in the Pacific.
Liberation of the Philippines came with a hefty price tag. The month-long battle for the Philippine capital in February 1945, involved some of the worst urban combat experienced in the Pacific. By the end of the battle, the U.S. Army had suffered more than 6,500 casualties, the Japanese had lost more than 16,500, and some 100,000 Filipino civilians had been killed. Victory over the Japanese was achieved only after most of Manila–once lauded as the Pearl of the Orient)–lay in ruins.
A series of Victor’s aerial photographs of the city provide a powerful evidence of the ferocity of the battle.
In one photograph, we see the ruins of South Manila, formerly the “most beautiful section of the city.” All that is left are the charred shells of the Post Office, a large theater behind it to the left, and the remains of the City Hall to the right.
Mel Victor survived the war and made a home, raised a family, and career for himself in Miami Beach. While he continued to work as a photographer, his post-war photos of Miami Beach beauty pageants provide a stark contrast to his earlier work capturing the horrors of the war in the Pacific.
While these latter photographs were beyond the collecting parameters of our own institution, Donna Victor found a great home for them at the Miami Beach City Hall Archive, which is preparing a new digital catalog and exhibitions designed to celebrate the city’s hundred year anniversary this coming March.