Rare, Intimate Korean War Photos Published Online for the First Time

Trainees in silhouette during bazooka training at Fort Ord
Trainees in silhouette during bazooka training at Fort Ord

On Sunday, June 4th, 1950, Hanson A. Williams, school photographer and editor of the yearbook, graduated from George Pepperdine College in Los Angeles, California. Three weeks later, in the early hours of June 25th half a world away, North Korean soldiers with Russian tanks crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, launching what would become known as the Korean War (1950-53). By the close of the year, Williams, only twenty-two years old, found himself drafted and engaged in basic training at Fort Ord, up the coast near Monterey. He brought his camera with him, and his photography skills were soon put to use as a member of the U.S. Eighth Army Signal Corps serving in the Korean War.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, Pepperdine University Libraries are pleased to announce the launch of the Korean War Photography of Hanson A. Williams, a new online collection published through Pepperdine Digital Collections. This collection includes nearly 2,400 of Williams’ photographs, providing an intimate, rarely seen, and visually stunning vision of the Korean War. Images document basic training in California, the cramped journey by ship to Japan and Korea, and the full spectrum of the soldier’s experience during the protracted stalemate of 1952. Williams also took his camera into the villages of South Korea, documenting Korean culture and the resilience of a people devastated by war. All images derive from the Hanson A. Williams, Jr. Collection of Photographs and Negatives, which was generously donated to Pepperdine University by his widow, Talma (Tommie) Williams.

To create the digital collection, we scanned all negatives in the collection, scanning prints only when there was no corresponding negative. About 45 images are represented by both the negative and a representative print to demonstrate Williams’ work and creativity in the darkroom. Our goals in creating this digital collection were to honor Williams’ achievements, both as a photographer and as a veteran; to recognize the sacrifice made by all veterans of the Korean War; and to provide new resources for research and education on the Korean War, with an anticipated audience ranging from historians to K-12 students.

Although many photographic collections of “the Forgotten War” exist, the Williams collection is unique for its intimacy and breadth. As a fellow soldier, Williams captured the detail of daily life, whether in the barracks during basic training or the bunker-lined ridges of the Korean front line. Williams did some of his best work away from the battles when he turned his camera toward Korean subjects in the small towns, villages, and rural areas. Years later, he would reflect on the challenges in capturing a “true representation” of the Korean people: “Candid photographs are the best, but the Koreans knew every move I made, so it was difficult to get that true ‘candid shot.’ Once in awhile, I was lucky.” Since film and supplies were scarce, Williams did not have the luxury of bracketing his shots (taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings), so he had to try his best with a single shot.

Writing more than half-a-century after the Korean War, Williams summarized his relationship with his Korean subjects as a photographer and a soldier:

“As I recall, my motives for photographing people in villages and small towns was to capture on film the spirit of survival. The utter destruction of war can make a hard life even more difficult. Food, shelter, and basic need override everything else. When you look at Korea today, they have won a victory over disaster. Fifty-four years later, they have turned their country into an international export economy. We in America can be proud that we contributed a small measure to their success. Without their determination, it could never have happened. Don’t believe my pictures…you won’t find the same Korea.”

Hanson Williams (right) and another soldier posing with human skull
Hanson Williams (right) and another soldier posing with human skull
Soldier reading on the USS Meigs en route to Korea
Soldier reading on the USS Meigs en route to Korea
Possible inspiration for "Painless Pole" Waldowski of M.A.S.H fame?
Possible inspiration for “Painless Pole” Waldowski of M.A.S.H fame?
Korean woman with a baby on her back sifting through rubble
Korean woman with a baby on her back sifting through rubble
Young Korean girl standing against war-damaged building
Young Korean girl standing against war-damaged building
Rare, Intimate Korean War Photos Published Online for the First Time
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