Photojournalism: Departments

Rewind: Wars and Memories

by Dirck Halstead



This war story, as you read it, will probably make you say "no way...this is too strange."

All I can tell you is, this story is true.

In the last week of June, 1954, I graduated from Bedford Hills High  School in New York  state.

In the preceding two years, I used photography as a way to create an identity for myself. I wound up being editor of the High School  yearbook, and also created a job for myself with the a local newspaper chain--they needed photos--I worked cheap.

There was a strange rush in the last month of my high school experience.  I had covered Rita Hayworth leaving a court building in White Plains, after she had filed suit against her husband Ally Khan. I shot it with a  4x5 Speed Graphic, and the New York Daily Mirror used the picture on the  front page.

A week later. I took a train to Washington, and covered the  Army-McCarthy hearings, in which Sen. Joe McCarthy held the collective  lives of a lot of good decent people in extreme jeopardy.

These photographs, along with a photo of Joseph Welsh, the Army Counsel, who said "At long last Senator (McCarthy), have you no sense of decency?" were used on the front page of the Patent Trader, the newspaper I worked for.

It also inspired me to write an editorial for the Bedford Hills High School Newspaper. It called into question McCarthy's tactics.

There was a furor surrounding the publication of my editorial. When I graduated, there was no mention that I had ever been the editor of the school paper.
So, here I am, graduating, driving my '41 Chevy down the hill from the
high school, and wondering what I am going to do next.

I was listening to WNEW's "Make Believe Ballroom" when a news bulletin broke in: photographer, Robert Capa, has been killed in Vietnam.

Robert Capa dead? Robert Capa was my hero.


Well, first off, he was the epitome of a war photographer... handsome... brave... had an affair with Ingrid Bergman...

What was really fascinating about him, though, was that he had CREATED HIMSELF. Robert Capa was really a struggling photographer named Andre Friedman. While covering the Spanish Civil War, he invented the American war photographer, Robert Capa, in order to sell his photographs. A photograph of a Spanish Loyalist militaman being struck by a bullet at the moment of his death became an instant classic.

The newly created Capa quickly became a legend in the new field of  photojournalism.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy. Somewhere in my teens, I decided that being a photojournalist was better.

As I listened to the WNEW broadcast, I heard that Capa was being brought home for burial in a cemetery in Amawalk, New York, within my "coverage" territory.

On the day of the ceremony, I arrived at the Quaker Cemetery early. I wandered inside, looking for the site. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, a bunch of photographers from the New York dailies had shown up at the front gate of the cemetery, waiting for the body to arrive.

A few minutes before the burial was supposed to take place, John Morris, who was then the head of Magnum Photos, came up and asked me to leave.

At this point, a rough, wooden casket, almost like a shipping box was ushered into the cemetery. On it was stenciled the words ROBERT CAPA, PHOTOGRAPHE, MORT EN INDOCHINE, 24 JUIN, 1954.

To this day, I don't know why, but I began to cry.

John Morris suddenly looked stricken, and he asked me to wait.

A moment later, he came back to me, and said,"you know, you are a photographer, he would have wanted you here."

So, I photographed the burial, and that week I wrote a story for the Patent Trader about what Robert Capa meant to me.

A week later, I called John Morris in his Chappaqua home, and delivered a set of prints to him.

As I was leaving he said, "What are you doing this summer?"

Well, I had no really important plans. I was supposed to enter Haverford College in the fall.

Morris said "we have a story that's  been suggested to us at Magnum, but we don't know what to with it."

A group at Cornell University suggested to Magnum that they cover an expedition by their students to build a school in Guatemala.

On my way to Morris' house I heard a news bulletin on the radio that a war was impending in Guatemala.

The CIA had sponsored a coup attempt under a leader, Carlos Castillo Armas, to overthrow the Communist government led by Jacobo Armenz.

Every war correspondent and photographer was on their way to Guatemala.

I seized the opportunity.

The next day, I showed up at LIFE, asking for an appointment with the Director of Photography, Wilson Hicks. It turned out that he was on vacation, so I got a meeting with his acting director, John Bryson, who was a great photographer in his own right.

All I had was that week's newspaper, which had my picture of the Army-McCarthy hearings (not a little deal, for a small town paper), and the Rita Hayworth pictures.

For some reason, John Bryson (bless his soul) took me seriously, and led me in to see LIFE's Education Editor, David Drieman.

They reviewed my suggestion, and asked me if film and $1,000 would be enough to get me started.

Are you kidding?!

Film, and $1,000 in 1954 (extrapolate that one), to a kid who had been getting $10.00 per picture!

The most important thing that I asked for, in retrospect, was a note from Drieman on a plain old TIME Inc. memo pad saying, "To whom it may concern, Dirck Halstead is on assignment for LIFE magazine, and whatever you can do to help him would be greatly appreciated."

The group going to Guatemala that I was joining was made up of Presbyterian students from Cornell University. They were led by an affable and energetic man named Lee Klear. The idea was that these twenty some undergraduates were going to travel on two open trucks from Ithica, New York through the Southwest, across into Mexico, down through Mexico City to the border of Guatemala. Then onto what were in those days almost jungle roads to the capitol of Guatemala City. The drive would take about ten days.

The day before my father was going to drive me from our home in Mount Kisco, New York, up to Ithaca, I made a beeline for the nearest Army-Navy store. Using some of my new wealth that I had obtained from LIFE, I bought military fatigues, an army cap, a knapsack, a web belt with canteens and a fanny pack, combat boots...everything I could imagine a well-equipped war photographer would need. With some additional help in the form of a going away present from my parents, I also picked up a couple of brand new Leica IIIfs with a wide angle and a 90mm lens. My trusty 4x5 Speed Graphic would sit this one out.

The Sunday we left for Cornell, dawned with leaden skies. As we were about to turn onto the interstate heading North, I asked my father to make a detour.

We drove to the Quaker Cemetery in Amawalk where a week earlier, Capa had been buried. There was no one among the graves as I walked to Capa's tombstone. The wind started to kick up, and a clap of thunder echoed through the graveyard as rain started to pour down. I just stood there, over his grave, as the rain drops ran down my face, just concentrating on the grave.

For a moment, I could feel the great photographer's presence, and allowed his spirit to mingle with mine. By the time I turned to go back to the car, I was convinced that I had taken on part of Robert Capa's spirit, and that I was going to be covering my first war.

About the time our open-topped trucks got to Cleveland, I started to spread out my equipment and military gear on the mattresses that were strewn throughout the truck bed. The other students, clad in T-shirts and shorts were aghast.

"What do you think you're going to do with that stuff? Go to WAR?" "We're supposed to be building a schoolhouse for pete's sake!"

Obviously, these kids just hadn't heard about what was going on in Guatemala. When I explained that we were heading into an active war zone, one of them said, "Oh, that! That was all over yesterday!"

Sure enough, the previous day, as the CIA-led guerrillas approached Guatemala City, the Communist leader Arbenz had been made an offer he couldn't refuse, and had fled the capitol. Castillo Armas' men had entered the city without a shot being fired...the war was over...all war correspondents were going home.

But for some bizarre reason, it didn't phase me in the least. I would continue to shuck my Kodachrome canisters into my belt pack, just smiling and saying, "When we get there, there will be a war!"

Five days later we arrived in Dallas. I wanted to make sure my new cameras were operating properly, or more accurately, that I knew how to operate them. I found the local newspaper, the Dallas Times Herald, and walked in with a couple of rolls of black and white to see if they could process them for me.

I was met by a compact and feisty man named Charlie McCarty. He was the Southwest Division Newspictures Manager for United Press, and he had just taken over the management of the Times Herald Picture Department. He was looking for new photographers. As I took the film out of my brand new Leicas, I talked about my mission and showed him some of my tearsheets from the previous week's Patent Trader.  Included were the Capa funeral, my coverage of the McCarthy hearings, and Rita Hayworth leaving the courthouse.

He offered me a job on the spot, but I wasn't the least bit interested. After all, I had a war to cover!

That began a relationship with Charlie McCarty that would lead to my returning to Dallas a few years later to work for him. It would also lead to a life-time mentoring relationship.

Convinced that my cameras were in fine shape, I stood at the rail of the flatbed, as our trucks headed south across the border into Mexico.

Arriving in Mexico City, we were supposed to be granted our visas to enter Guatemala. Here's where the expedition ran into big trouble.

It turned out that the Guatemalan counsel in Mexico was the former Arbenz appointee. He had not the slightest interest in doing anything for the new government, let alone issue visas for twenty school kids from the United States.

Our leader, Lee Klear, was beside himself. Fuming, he paced around the trucks all night. Suddenly, I had an idea...that little piece of blue paper that I had been given by LIFE saying, "...on assignment for LIFE magazine, and whatever you can do to help him would be greatly appreciated."

The next morning I presented myself at the Mexico City bureau of Time Inc., looking for the LIFE bureau chief. He was on vacation, but his assistant took one look at the interoffice memo I handed her and said, "Let me see what I can do."

This lady sat down at an old clunky teletype and knocked out a message to New York. All it said was, "LIFE photographer Dirck Halstead is being denied access by the Guatemalan Communist officials here in Mexico City for his group of Presbyterian students that are trying to enter Guatemala to build a school house. Please advise. "

As the machine in New York spit out the message, one of the people looking at it was none other than Henry Luce, the founder and editor in chief of TIME Inc. Harry, as he was called, often checked incoming messages to see what his people were up to around the globe. For Luce, reading the copy, several words jumped out at him...LIFE PHOTOGRAPHER (his guy!), DENIED ACCESS (unthinkable!), COMMUNISTS (God, he hates them!), and PRESBYTERIANS (he was one of the fold!)

Shortly thereafter a seismic event took place at the State Department in Washington. Suddenly, the number one priority of the new Guatemalan government was to get a new counsel to Mexico City and issue some visas to a group from Cornell.

As the trucks lumbered across the border, Lee Klear was still shaking his head.
THE 7:35 TO WAR:

At sunset, the trucks pulled into the rear of a Presbyterian mission home in Guatemala City. The streets were peaceful. Birds were singing in the clear night air.

While my friends were enjoying the buffet that had been laid out for them, I was busy checking my gear. This was too much for my comrades! They began to taunt me mercilessly..."So, where is this war? Dirck can't find his war!! Yahde dah dah!" I just went on loading my cameras.

At dawn the next morning, I woke up, put on my fatigues, strapped on my pack, and headed out the door. I reached the corner just as a tank loaded with troops whipped around it (almost like a city bus). It paused for a second, I reached up, someone grabbed my arm, and 17 year old LIFE combat photographer Dirck Halstead was off to war.

So, you're probably asking, what on earth happened? Thought the war was over?

Well, it turns out that when Castillo Armas swept into Guatemala City two weeks earlier, his CIA-backed ragtag army consisted largely of peasants from the countryside. The officers of the regular army who were left in place, despised Armas and his country hicks. Bad blood festered for two weeks. While Armas was away from the city for the weekend, a group of his liberation soldiers expelled some L'Ecole Militare cadets from a bordello in the city. This was just too much for the regulars, and led them to stage a surprise attack on the liberators' headquarters at the Roosevelt Hospital north of the city.

My tank deposited me right at the fighting. Bullets whizzed around me, as I ran across the fields with the attacking troops. My adrenaline was pumping, and I felt absolutely immortal.

By noon, the war was over and my pack was bulging with exposed film. I made my way to a Western Union office where I called the Guatemala City stringer, Harvey Rosenhouse, a man whose name I had been given in New York.

I calmly said, "Harvey, this is Dirck Halstead from LIFE in New York. I have pictures of the war."

There was a silence at the end of the line, and then Rosenhouse said, "You have pictures? I've been calling people all morning, nobody dares go out...where are you?"

A few minutes later, Rosenhouse showed up at the Western Union office. I thought his eyes would bulge out of his head when he saw this kid in dirty fatigues, with a couple of Leicas hanging around my neck.

Without saying a word, he grabbed me, pushed me back through the Western Union office and into a restroom. "Give me your film now, and stay here. Don't leave this room till I come back."

I had no clue that outside the Western Union office the citizenry was going nuts. They had enough of fighting, and were in mobs, looking for anyone wearing a uniform.

A couple of hours later, Rosenhouse showed up with a change of clothes. He had shipped my film on a Pan Am flight to New York. For the next 48 hours we worked together as a reporter-photographer team covering Castillo Armas' consolidation of power.

A few days later, with my first double page spread in LIFE magazine secured, I was on a plane back to New York. Building a school house never really interested me anyway.

I made enough money from a grateful LIFE magazine to buy a brand new Ford Ranch Wagon to take off to college.

A week later, LIFE ran a story about its youngest war photographer on the contents page. A photo of me was next to Alfred Eisenstadt, and the caption read: "Bless em all...the young, short and tall."