Monday, August 11, 2014


I came across this picture earlier today while doing some research for work. The original caption read, simply "Private Roy W. Humphrey of Toledo, Ohio is being given blood plasma after he was wounded by shrapnel in Sicily on 8-9-43".

If it were just the two figures in uniform, this would be a fairly unremarkable picture. Distressing, perhaps, but sadly not unusual. The medic (No stripes, combat helmet. Not a doctor.) is trying to do his job while visibly discomfited by the presence of the photographer. Given the point in the war that this picture was taken, it's quite possible he'd never given a transfusion to a wounded man before.

The young man on the stretcher is either unconscious or close to it, the ragged bandage around his neck hinting at the severity of his injuries. He probably endured an excruciatingly painful trip back from the frontline, getting bounced and dragged on the ground as his comrades scrambled him to the dressing station, but now he's gone somewhere calmer: morphine, probably. He's not dead, incidentally, or at least he wasn't at the time this picture was taken. A quick search on google turns up a Roy W. Humphrey (1919–1981) buried with full military honours at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. He lived a long (for a working-class American who grew up during the depression) and probably blessedly uneventful life after the war. 

The thing that I find fascinating about this picture is the audience of Sicilian civilians (say that five times fast). The first thing you notice about them is their poverty. Mussolini’s largesse clearly never reached this part of Italy. Their clothes are ragged and worn, tatty to a degree that looks -- to modern eyes -- like stage dressing from an over-the-top production of Les Mis. Only one of them has shoes. There is a young woman and a child who is presumably her daughter, but no father. I expect he was in the army somewhere, or (more likely by this point in the war) whiling away the days in an allied prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in Scotland or Canada. The only man visible is old and bald, sitting off to the edge of the frame.

The two older women both wear expressions of concern, their eyes locked on the life-or-death struggle unfolding in front of them. The seated woman grimaces and the standing woman wrings her hands. The young man on the stretcher in front of them probably looks a lot like the sons or grandsons that were taken by the army a year or two before. The old man looks annoyed, if anything. He's not looking at the wounded man but at the photographer. Why is he taking pictures?

The young woman is not looking at either the wounded man or the strange photographer, but at something in the distance, over the photographer’s left shoulder. She looks worried, scared. More wounded men being carried up the road, perhaps, or the smoke of battle.

The little girl stands in the oddly contorted, fidgety position of a child watching something they find equal parts scary and fascinating. Her legs are crossed, one hand clutches her dress, the other holds onto her mother's back. She's twisted up like she's trying to hide behind herself. She watches with half-closed eyes, ready to close her eyes and recoil in squealing horror if something disgusting or terrifying happens. All the same, she clearly feels safer within arm’s reach of her mum than she does anywhere else. I expect ground was shaking with every bomb blast and artillery shell.

I wonder how clearly she remembered this event when she was older. She doesn't look much more than five years old, but probably old enough to fix things in her mind.