Celebrating a Lifetime of Courage and Photo-Journalism
By Dennis Brack
Editor’s Note: The trail of this story leads back to an Alan Taylor retrospective in The Atlantic magazine, which has published a retrospective of Max Desfor’s life and work . Our link to that story appears below the following, which is an exclusive account of Desfor’s life written for 70+ Life at the Top by a fellow Washington White House photographer whose work often appears here.
Max Desfor started with the Associated Press as a retoucher, then moved to the darkroom and worked his way to the street as an AP photographer in New York. When he was transferred to Washington he remembers covering the Redskins vs. Eagles game at Griffiths stadium on December 7, 1941, and hearing announcements like “Admiral so and so call your office,” “Captain so and so call your office.” Sensing breaking news, he found a payphone and called the AP. Bureau. “Max, get your ass back here—we’re at war!” yelled the deskman. Max got back to the bureau and was sent to the State Department, then located in what would become under Eisenhower the Executive Office Building. He photographed Secretary of State Cordell Hull cajoling Japanese diplomats as they made it to their cars. After covering the Pacific during the war, he would see one of these diplomats again on the deck of the USS Missouri at the signing of the Japanese surrender.
World War II was not to be Max Desfor’s only war as a photographer. Five years after witnessing the surrender he volunteered to return to Japan to help Charlie Gory in the AP’s Tokyo bureau as the wire service covered the Korean War. The AP cabled an order that Desfor was not to go to Korea, but he said later that he never received the message. Desfor was with a British unit when he heard about a parachute jump behind enemy lines to rescue Army prisoners of war on a train headed to North Korea. He borrowed a jeep and driver and headed for Tempo Air Force Base. When he got there he was told the mission was to take off at 5:30 the next morning. The supply officer gave him a parachute and rigged up a bag with a strap around his shoulder and down around his leg to hold his camera and gear. Desfor got on the plane with the soldiers—he thought of them as kids because they were so young, and they thought of him as an old man because he was in his early thirties. As they were flying to the drop zone, the soldier next to Desfor asked if he had ever jumped before. Desfor told him he hadn’t, and the soldiers advised him to bend his knees before he hit the ground. That was Desfor’s only parachute training. The green light came on, Max shot one frame, stuffed the camera in his bag, and jumped. About 30 seconds later he hit the ground and immediately started making pictures. He had asked to be on the first wave of planes so he could make pictures of the second and third waves of paratroopers— and he did.
Looking back, Desfor remembers taking his best pictures when the North Korean army took the city of Pyongyang. To avoid being captured, he and his reporter got out of town and over the Yalu River in a jeep driven by a friend, a signal corps photographer. After they had crossed the river on a pontoon bridge, Desfor looked to his right and saw something that might make a photograph. The others wanted to keep going, but he insisted that they head to what they now could see was an old bridge covered with people. The bridge had been destroyed by bombing, yet people were crawling on what was left of the structure. Hundreds waited their turn to escape the North Korean army.
Desfor climbed up the ridge and found an overlook. He had to conserve his film– the slow Pan X (100ASA) –so he only made a few photographs in the freezing weather.He was using 4×5 film packs for his press camera, which held 12 sheets of film and were less bulky than carrying 4×5 holders. When the Pulitzer Prize committee honored Desfor the following year, in 1951, it cited the image of the refugees fleeing across the battered bridge as “an outstanding example” of his photographic coverage of the Korean War. Desfor worked in AP bureaus in Europe and the Far East and eventually made his way back to Washington, where he became the director of photography for U.S. News and World Report. His friends keep celebrating his birthdays, and the picture with this story was taken on his 102nd. Max Desfor is now living somewhat less excitingly in Bethesda, MD.