On the eighth day of July, 1944 – or “D+23” in Saipan time – PFC Thomas Ellis Underwood took a drink from his canteen.
Underwood (who went by “T. Ellis” or just “Ellis”) was a fire team leader in Company B, First Battalion, 24th Marines. A veteran of Roi-Namur, he would earn a field promotion to corporal on Saipan, and go on to serve on Tinian and Iwo Jima, where he was killed in action.
This isn’t the most famous photograph of Underwood – it’s probably third, after the two shots taken at the same moment by well-known photographer W. Eugene Smith. (I’ve written at length in defense of PFC Underwood in these photographs, as opposed to Army Sgt. Angelo Klonis; for background, please see Part 1 and Part II.) While Smith’s are emotionally evocative and iconic, I’ve always liked this shot by Stanley Troutman. (One will note the date 7/21/1944 on the cutline; this is the date that the photo was released for publication. The date taken is sourced from W. Eugene Smith’s original captions; the photographs were very clearly taken at the same time.)
There are so many great little details to notice, and that tickles the lapsed reenactor in me: here’s how a real combat veteran wears his gear and what he carries. Answers for so many little practical questions are shown: did some Marines keep their gas mask bags? (Yes.) How did one carry a souvenir sword in combat? (Tucked in the belt under the arm.) Did guys have to augment the firepower of that M1 carbine? (Apparently; in wider crops of this shot, Underwood is carrying a .45 on his hip, something that was definitely not issue for a PFC in a rifle squad and which begs the question of where he got it.)
Lots of little answers, but it also leaves one with some bigger questions. Chief among them: did Ellis ever see this picture of himself? Did his family know that the grizzled and tired Marine on Saipan was their loved one? Since Ellis was killed in action, I figured he never knew about his low-level fame.
However, happily, I was wrong.
The photograph did make it back to Ellis’ native Florida, thanks in part to the professionalism of the photographer. Stanley Troutman was working his first wartime assignment on Saipan, but he was an experienced professional with ACME News Pictures in civilian life.
I contacted Mr. Troutman a few years ago while working on the original Underwood/Klonis article series. With his daughter, Gayle Rindge, acting as an intermediary, Mr. Troutman very kindly answered some questions about how he came to be on Saipan, and about the press photographer’s experience in battle.
All quotes from Mr. Troutman were recorded and transcribed by Gayle Rindge on 26 May 2014, and provided to the author.
“I was a staff photographer with ACME News Pictures for 6 years before I became a War Correspondent. A War Picture Pool was established when the war began made up of ACME News Pictures, Associated Press, International News Service and Life Magazine. The War Picture Pool was established so that any picture taken by any of the War Picture Pool correspondents would be made available to those four news agencies. It was ACME’s turn to send a correspondent to the War Picture Pool and ACME asked me to go overseas.”
“I entered the war in 1943 and ACME bought me an officer’s uniform. The correspondents were given the rank of Major in the Army. In the Navy we were a
Lt. Commander. I wore my officer’s uniform to Pearl Harbor and then the Marine Corps outfitted me with Marine fatigues and high top shoes which I wore for the next couple of years. I was not issued a weapon. ID’s were issued in Pearl Harbor and my assignments came from the War Picture Pool coordinator stationed in Pearl Harbor. My first assignment was Saipan. Being away from my wife and two year daughter was an adjustment. Adjusting to the food was tough because the Marines didn’t bring in their kitchens for a week or more and I had to eat C-rations which tasted like dog food. I would take one bite and lose my appetite. Adjusting to seeing death was the most difficult.”
“I worked with Eugene Smith on Saipan for approximately three weeks. Every day we went out to take pictures. We were the only two photographers assigned to Saipan…. All the writers and photographers were housed together in one tent.”
“The camera I used was a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera and I used film packs, not rolls of film like Eugene Smith used. A film pack was a holder that held 12 shots in a pack. I would shoot the 12 shots or less and send it in to Pearl Harbor for processing into negatives and censorship. I kept track of each shot by hand on a note pad which I sent along with the film packs. I might send one or more film packs in at a time depending on the action going on. The Army or the Marines supplied all the film depending on which branch of the service I was assigned to.”
“For the particular photo [of Underwood] I would have noted Marine drinking water from canteen, the Marine’s name and his city. (Eugene and I would have personally talked to the Marine to get his name, rank and home town.) The negatives and notes were sent from Pearl Harbor to ACME and they wrote the captions and shared with the other members of the War Picture Pool for publishing. Eugene Smith used 35 mm rolls of film, not film packs and his film was sent in to Pearl Harbor for processing and censorship, too.”
As an experienced press photographer, Stanley Troutman knew the importance of accurate information – which is how the Tampa Bay Times came to run the photo of a hometown boy in battle.
Interestingly, this was not the first nor last time Ellis Underwood appeared in the Times. As a teenager, he worked for the Florida Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company in Tampa Bay, and caught the attention of a photographer running a story in 1942.
After running the Troutman photo, the Times took an interest in Ellis. On 7 August 1944, they published excerpts from a V-Mail missive from the field:
“Just a few words to let you know that I’m okeh. I know you have been looking for a letter from me for some time, but I haven’t had much chance to write until now. I’m on Saipan and have been since the first day of invasion! It was plenty tough and the fighting was rugged, but it is pretty well mopped up now. In fact, I suppose you people at home know more about what is going on than I do. There isn’t much I can tell you.”– “More News From Saipan,” The Tampa Bay Times, 7 August 1944
Then, most fascinating of all, they ran proof that Ellis saw his photo. Evidently his parents clipped the picture from the July edition of the Times and sent it along with their next letter. It crossed paths with a package heading back to St. Petersburg, containing a bayonet and a Japanese sword taken as souvenirs on Saipan.
“I received your letter and the picture out of the paper that was taken on Saipan,” wrote Ellis. “It was funny about that. I never had any idea that it would get home. I just bent down low to take a drink and my picture was taken. The fellow asked me my name and home address. Heavy fighting was going on where the picture was taken and the island wasn’t secured for about six or eight days later.”
The souvenir sword, incidentally, is visible in Troutman’s photo – tucked safely under Ellis’ arm, with just the tassel and hilt exposed.
Ellis didn’t make it home to go fishing, as he wished in his last letter. He was wounded early in the fight for Iwo Jima, recovered, and went back to his unit just in time for the attack on the Meat Grinder on 1 March 1945. Three days later, while serving as a squad leader in the assault, his carbine was shot from his hands. Ellis grabbed a BAR – his weapon of choice – and led a successful attack on a Japanese strong point, only to be killed by a falling mortar round. He received a posthumous Bronze Star for his valor in action.
The Underwoods added the decoration to their remembrances of Ellis, along with the souvenir swords, his letters, and copies of the photographs by Troutman and Smith.