Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs

Khalid Elhassan - April 10, 2023

A photo of Abraham Lincoln looking “normal” was desperately needed in the 1860 presidential campaign, to dispel a narrative that he was grotesquely ugly. Photographer Matthew Brady came to the rescue, with an edited picture that Lincoln credited with securing him the presidency. After his assassination, an image of Lincoln in a heroic pose was desperately needed. None existed, so a portraitist simply slapped Lincoln’s face on somebody else’s portrait. It took a century before anybody noticed. Below are twenty five things about those and other iconic photos and images.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Stalin receiving flowers from Gelya Markizova. Vox News

A Popular Photo of Stalin With a Little Girl, and its Dark Aftermath

Ardan Markizov toiled as an official in the remote Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in Siberia. A devoted communist, he named his daughter Engelsina after Friedrich Engels, and his son Vladlen, after Vladimir Lenin. In 1936, he traveled to Moscow as part of a Mongol delegation to meet Stalin, accompanied by his seven-year-old daughter, Engelsina “Gelya” Markizova. Gelya stole the show when she gave some flowers to the Soviet dictator. A pleased Stalin picked her up and placed her on the table. Photographers snapped pictures, and a photo of Gelya hugging Stalin became a sensation. The editor-in-chief of Pravda newspaper enthused: “God himself sent us this little Buryat girl. We’ll make her an icon of happy childhood“. The photo, nicknamed “Children’s Friend”, went viral. After the photo was published, the hotel lobby was filled with toys and other presents gifted to her.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Stalin and Gelya Markizova. Wikimedia

When Gelya went back to Buryat, she was greeted like astronauts were later. A famous sculptor even created a monument to Stalin and Gelya. The fame did not save her family from the horrors of Stalinism, however. In 1937, her father was arrested by the NKVD amidst the Great Purge, accused of being a spy, Trotskyite, and subversive plotter. Gelya’s letters to Stalin begging for mercy did not help, and her father was executed in 1938. Her mother was also arrested and exiled to Kazakhstan, where she died, probably killed by the NKVD. Once a celebrity, Gelya was now shunned as the daughter of an “enemy of the people”. The images and sculptures of Stalin with the daughter of an enemy of the people were awkward. Too many to destroy, officials simply changed the girl’s name from Gelya Marizova to Mamlakat Nakhangova.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
1863 photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner. Five Colleges Museum

Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign Had to Battle Rumors That He Was Grotesquely Ugly

Many consider Abraham Lincoln to be America’s greatest president, or at least in the top three. However, before he got the gig, Lincoln had to pass the job interview and audition: the 1860 presidential election. In that election, Lincoln’s campaign had a problem: the candidate’s looks. Photography had been invented by then, but had not yet widely spread in the media, so many Americans did not know what Lincoln looked like. In that vacuum, rumors – spread and amplified by his opponents – abounded that Lincoln was ugly as sin. As the Houston Telegraph put it, Lincoln was: “the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly“.

Another newspaper described him as: “coarse, vulgar, and uneducated“. A woman claimed Lincoln was “grotesque in appearance“. His opponents concocted a rallying cry that ended with: “We beg and pray you – Don’t, for God’s sake, show his picture“. It was petty, but contra what we were told as kids, looks do matter. At least sometimes, and an election in which enough voters might be turned off by a candidate’s mug to impact the result is one of those times. So Lincoln turned to famous photographer Matthew Brady. As seen below, Brady came through.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union photo. Library of Congress

The Photo That Saved Lincoln’s Presidential Campaign

Matthew Brady had Lincoln pose for a photo, just before he gave an early 1860 speech at Cooper Union that secured him the Republican nomination. It became Honest Abe’s first widely disseminated image. Lincoln was rumored to be ugly, and gangly to the point of ungainliness. To address the ugly, Brady focused extra light on Lincoln’s face. It highlighted a visage that, while not exactly handsome, was not nearly as grotesque as his political opponents claimed. To make Lincoln’s neck look proportional, Brady touched up the photo to artificially enlarge the collar. He also had the future president curl up his fingers, so that their excessive length wouldn’t fuel the “gangly” narrative.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
A portraitist simply slapped Lincoln’s face on an engraving of John C. Calhoun. Library of Congress

Politicians routinely edit their photos nowadays, but in 1860, what Brady did was revolutionary. The resultant photo was so positively received, that Lincoln remarked: Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president. It was not the only – and nowhere close to the most extreme – old timey photo editing of Lincoln’s image. After his assassination in 1865, the public was desperate for a then-popular “heroic pose” image of Lincoln. So portraitist Thomas Hicks went to extremes. He took a heroic pose image of extreme racist and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, Lincoln’s total political opposite, and swapped in Lincoln’s head. It took a century before anybody noticed.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
The US Navy during the invasion of Iwo Jima, with Mount Suribachi in the background. Wikimedia

The Most Iconic American Photo of World War II

On February 19th, 1945, US Marines landed on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, and fought a vicious five week battle. On February 23rd, they captured Mount Suribachi, the island’s dominant geographical feature and highest point. A US flag was quickly raised atop Suribachi’s crest, but it was small, and an officer ordered that it be replaced by a larger flag. So a large flag that measured 96 inches by 56 inches was found and carried to the mountain’s top.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal made it to the top of Suribachi in time for this second flag raising, and was in place when five Marines and a Navy corpsman prepared to hoist it. He almost missed the photo shot while he piled rocks to stand upon for a better vantage point. As he described it: “Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Time Magazine

A Great Shot, With a Tragic Aftermath for Half its Subjects

As it turned out, Rosenthal had snapped not just a good photo, but one of the greatest photo shots of all time. The film was sent to Guam for development, and when he saw it, his editor exclaimed: “Here’s one for all time!” It was immediately transmitted to the US, and was soon picked and published by hundreds of newspapers. As to the picture’s subjects, things did not go well for many of them. The event took place early in the battle, and there were still many weeks of horrific combat ahead.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
United States Marine Corps War Memorial. Wikimedia

President Roosevelt wanted them taken from Iwo Jima to use in publicity and propaganda work. Before anybody knew it, however, two were killed in action, and a third followed them soon thereafter. As well as one of the most iconic American images of WWII, Rosenthal’s shot also became the only photograph to win a Pulitzer in the same year as its publication. In 1954, the photo was reproduced as a bronze sculpture, the United States Marine Corps War Memorial. Also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, it was erected at an entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Explosion of a freighter in Havana Harbor. Radio Habana

The Background of Che Guevara’s Iconic Photo

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967) rose to prominence in the Cuban Revolution, and became famous as an innovative guerrilla, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti-imperialism, and his death fighting in Bolivia made him a martyr to leftists worldwide. Born in Argentina, Che was an asthmatic who nonetheless excelled in athletics. He studied medicine, and as a youth in the early 1950s, motorcycled through South America. In his travels, he encountered conditions of dire poverty, inequality, and injustice, that radicalized and set him on the path to Marxism. By 1955, Che had relocated to Mexico. There, he met and befriended Fidel Castro, who was planning to overthrow the Cuban regime. Che accompanied him and a small force to Cuba in 1956 to launch a revolution. He became one of Castro’s main advisors and chief military commanders.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Alberto Korda’s ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ photo. Time Magazine

Che led his men to final victory in 1959. His iconic photo was taken on March 5th, 1960, by photographer Alberto Korda, as he covered a funeral for victims of a freighter that had exploded in Havana’s harbor. Korda focused on Castro, and only shot two frames of Che as an afterthought. His newspaper published only Castro’s shots, and Che’s were returned to Korda. It remained obscure for seven years, until a rich Italian got a hold of it and helped make it famous. When Guevara was killed soon thereafter by the Bolivian army with CIA help, the Cuban regime embraced him as a martyr and revolutionary symbol. Korda’s photo was the perfect revolutionary romantic image. It rocketed to global fame as Guerrillero Heroico (“Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”), and became a shorthand symbol for rebellion and one of the most recognizable images of all time.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Japanese soldiers on confiscated bikes in the Malay Campaign. Asia One

The Photo That Captured the Decline of Britain’s Colonial Fortunes in Asia

In 1942, the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula from the north, and brushed aside or sidestepped all opposition. Although outnumbered by the British, they swiftly reached and captured the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip. That convinced the British that their foes were natural “jungle fighters”. However, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle combat than any other people who dwell well north of the Tropics. The Japanese won because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill-trained. Japanese soldiers were also innovative and adaptable. For example, their vanguard commandeered bicycles to speed up the advance, while British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent. British generals saw all the greenery of the Malay Peninsula, assumed it was impenetrable jungle, and thus never expected an advance on Singapore from that direction.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
The surrender of Singapore. History Net

British commanders set up defensive positions, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle” on one or both sides. However, much of the foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but on the ground they posed no barrier, comprised as they were of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush. They formed straight leafy boulevards, through which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade. The result was a humiliating surrender of a large British garrison in Singapore to a smaller Japanese force. Images of the surrender, capturing the British commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival as he toted a Union Jack while an aide carried a white flag, circulated around Asia. That broke the spell of British colonial invincibility, and hastened the fall of the British Empire after the war.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. New York Herald Tribune

Construction Workers’ Lunch Break High Above Manhattan

The Great Depression produced many memorable photographs that captured the gloom, doom, misery and uncertainty of a nation amidst a severe economic downturn. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper went against that grain. On September 20th, 1932, an unknown photographer snapped a photo of one of the most dangerous, yet lighthearted, lunch breaks ever. Seated on a steel girder more than 800 feet above Manhattan, 11 ironworkers took a break from toiling on the Rockefeller Center to eat, smoke, and chat in a carefree manner, seemingly oblivious to their peril. The image appeared in the New York Herald Tribune of October 2nd, 1932, and caused a sensation. It was embraced by New York City ironworkers as a badge of their profession, and by the Big Apple as affirmation of its image as the place where the impossible was routine.

For the rest of the country, the workers, seemingly thumbing their noses at both danger and the Depression, became a symbol of American grit, resilience, and daring. As it turned out, the photo was part of a publicity stunt on behalf of the Rockefeller Center. The workers were real enough, but the event was staged as part of a promotional campaign for the massive skyscraper complex then under construction. In 2012, the New York Times asserted that there might not have even been any danger involved: a completed floor probably stood just a few feet below the girder, out of the frame. Nonetheless, regardless of authenticity, the image was a rare bright spot in the middle of dark times.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag’, by Yevgeny Khaldei. Time Magazine

The Russians’ Most Iconic WWII Photo

Victory comes at a price. Few knew this better than members of the Red Army in WWII, who withstood the German surprise onslaught on the USSR in 1941 only by dint of superhuman sacrifices and tenacity. By the end of 1941, the Red Army had lost about five million men, and civilian losses amounted to millions more. Forced to retreat until the enemy came within literal sight of the Kremlin in the winter of 1941, they hung on by the skin of their teeth, and beat the Germans back from the gates of Moscow. Another onslaught the following year brought the Germans all the way to the Volga River, before the tide was turned with a Soviet comeback victory at Stalingrad. They then clawed their way back, fighting gargantuan battles and campaigns until they reached Berlin.

Four fifths of Germans killed in WWII perished on the Eastern Front. It did not come cheap: Soviet death estimates range from 25 million killed at the conservative end, to a high of 40 million or more. It was against that background that photographer Yevgeney Khaldei arrived in Berlin in 1945, with a Leica camera and a massive Soviet flag that his uncle, a tailor, had sewn out of red tablecloths. On May 2nd, 1945, he snapped the most iconic Soviet photo of the war, Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag. It captured two Red Army soldiers, Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov, raising the Soviet flag atop the Reichstag – viewed as a symbol of Nazism – with the wreckage of Berlin beneath them. As Khaldei described the event: “this is what I had been waiting for for 1400 days“.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
The coronation of Emperor Bokassa I. Pinterest

A Bizarre Emperor and Imperial Coronation

Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1921 – 1996) was a military dictator of the Central African Republic, who declared the small landlocked country an empire. He then proclaimed himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. When Central Africa gained its independence from France, the president invited Bokassa, who had been a captain in the French colonial army, to head the military. He accepted, then staged a coup and seized power. An admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa imitated him and crowned himself emperor. He then bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million dollars, with a diamond-encrusted crown that cost 20 million. The photo shoot, with such conspicuous spending amidst widespread poverty, was grotesque. Bokassa’s rule was marked by a reign of terror in which he personally oversaw the torture of suspected political opponents, before feeding their corpses to crocodiles and lions kept in his private zoo.

There were also accusations of cannibalism, triggered by photographs in Paris-Match magazine, of a deep-freezer that contained children’s bodies. Bokassa’s most infamous atrocity was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 because they or their parents refused to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. His imperial guard murdered over 100 of them, under Bokassa’s personal supervision. That was a final straw, and French paratroopers deposed him soon thereafter. Exiled to France, he soon wasted the millions he had embezzled and fell into poverty, which came to light when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. Bokassa returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried, convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1993, and died three years later.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
An inflatable dummy tank used in Operation Fortitude. Alchetron

WWII Inflatable Tanks

In World War II, British intelligence sought to deceive the Germans about the time and location of the intended invasion of Europe in 1944. So they devised Operation Bodyguard, which had three goals. First, conceal the time and date of the invasion. Second, convince the Germans that the main invasion would land in the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. Third, convince the Germans, even after the Normandy landings, to maintain a strong defense in the Pas de Calais for at least two weeks.

The hope was that if the Germans thought the Pas Calais was about to get invaded, they would keep their soldiers stationed there in place, rather than rush them to help the hard-pressed defenders in Normandy. A sub-plan, Operation Fortitude, created a fictitious First US Army Group in southeast England under the command of general George Patton. FUSAG sold its existence to the Germans with fake radio traffic between fictitious units. The Allies also allowed German spy planes to fly over concentrations of FUSAG tanks and transports that were actually inflatable dummies.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
An inflatable dummy truck, part of a vast D-Day deception plan. Warfare History Network

A Massive Deception Plan

German intelligence was also fed fake reports via double agents and turned spies about FUSAG’s intentions to invade the Pas de Calais, so as to tie down the German defenders there. A subsidiary, Fortitude North, created a fictitious British Fourth Army in Scotland, and convinced the Germans that it planned to invade Norway, so as to tie down the German divisions there. Bodyguard convinced the Germans that the Normandy invasion of June, 1944, was not the main event, but the first in a series of landings.

So the Germans kept units to guard the Pas de Calais, threatened by the fictitious FUSAG, instead of send them to reinforce Normandy. Bodyguard sought to convince the Germans to stay put in the Pas de Calais for two weeks after D-Day. Instead of two weeks, the Germans remained in the Pas de Calais for seven, before finally releasing the units there for use in Normandy. It was too late: by then, the Allies had been given precious time to build a powerful beachhead in Normandy, before breaking out to liberate France and Western Europe.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Stjepan Filipovic. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

A Photo That Captured Anti-Fascist Defiance Until Death

There is regular daring, which is exceptional and badass in of itself. Then there is shouting defiance against tyranny and oppression while the oppressive tyrant’s noose is around one’s neck type of daring, which takes things to another level. Stjepan Filopivic managed to pull off the latter in WWII, when he shouted to a gathered crowd “Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!” with a Nazi noose around his neck. They were his last words on earth, just a split second before his execution.

Stjepan Filipovic was a Croatian, who was born in 1916 in what became Yugoslavia after WWI. He left home at sixteen and became a metalworker. In 1937, he joined the local workers’ movement and became an activist member. Arrested for political activity, Filipovic was sentenced to a year in jail. Imprisonment further radicalized him, and upon his release in 1940, Filipovic joined the Communist Party. In 1941, Germany invaded and overran Yugoslavia. Filipovic volunteered to join the partisan resistance against the Nazi occupiers, and was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Statue commemorating Stjepan Filipovic’s final defiant stand. Kostatadic

Martyrdom of an Anti-Fascist Icon

Given responsibility for recruitment and weapons procurement, Stjepan Filipovic excelled in his duties. He showed so much promise, and displayed so much daring, that by year’s end he had risen to command an entire partisan battalion. Filipovic was captured by the Nazis in February, 1942, and was sentenced to be publicly hanged in Valjevo’s town square. At death’s door, he had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors in his last seconds on earth.

Mounting the gallows, and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, he daringly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured in a photo. Urging the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazis and their Yugoslav collaborators, he cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!“. After the war, Filipovic was designated a national hero of Yugoslavia. A monumental statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y-shaped pose in a rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Defense Here

The Background of a Photo That Captured a 1930s Disaster

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin founded Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in 1908, a German company that designed and manufactured rigid lighter-than-air vessels, or airships. In WWI, Zeppelin airships were employed as history’s first long range strategic bombers, and carried out numerous raids against France, Belgium, and Britain. The damage they inflicted was relatively minor, but the giant cigar-shaped Zeppelins became objects of terror to civilians below. The sight of the rigid airships over London in particular – and the efforts to bring them down – became iconic in the war years.

The count’s airships had civilian applications as well. In 1909, the German Airship Transport Company, which went by its German acronym DELAG, was founded as a commercial offshoot of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin to transport passengers. Headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany, it became history’s first airline to earn revenue from the transport of people via aircraft. Between 1910 and the outbreak of WWI, DELAG carried over 30,000 passengers in more than 1500 flights. Then the war came, and hit it hard. First, the German government requisitioned its airships for military use. Then when Germany lost the war, the Treaty of Versailles awarded the company’s best Zeppelins to the victors. DELAG bounced back, however.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Passengers aboard a DELAG Zeppelin before WWI. Airships Net

The Growth of Zeppelin Popularity

DELAG went back to business, and overcame its wartime and postwar setbacks. By 1928, it had designed and built airships capable of nonstop transatlantic flights, years before passenger airplanes had the range to do the same. By the mid-1930s, DELAG had flown commercial passengers for three decades. Its Zeppelins had carried tens of thousands of passengers over a million miles, in more than 2000 flights, without a single injury. As their airships’ popularity soared ever higher, it was widely assumed that they were the wave of the future. Things looked rosy for the company, but there was an overlooked problem.

DELAG’s latest milestone by the mid-1930s was posh giant airships. They flew passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and style, in a mere 60 hours – remarkable for commercial travel back then. Many predicted that airships would dominate global travel. Then catastrophe struck the Hindenburg, DELAG’s flagship and the biggest airship ever built – twice as high and three times as long as a Boeing 747 Jumbo jet. On May 6th, 1937, after an uneventful trans-Atlantic flight, the Hindenburg tried to dock with a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Out of the blue, it suddenly erupted in flames.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
The Hindenburg in flames. Time Magazine

A Horrific Tragedy Captured on Film

Within a mere 37 seconds from when the first spark appeared on the Hindenburg, the world’s biggest airship was destroyed by fire. Of 97 people on board, 35 perished, and another died on the ground. The spectacular disaster, captured on film and photo and widely disseminated around the world, shattered public confidence in that mode of transport. It brought the airship era to an abrupt end, and killed off DELAG’s fortunes along with it. At the time, the catastrophe was commonly blamed on sabotage. The Hindenburg was not only the pride of DELAG, but also a source of German national pride and a symbol of resurgence under the Nazis.

Many were eager to stick it to the Nazis: threatening letters had been received, and a bullet was advanced as a plausible cause for the fire’s start. Another hypothesis pinned the blame on a static spark. Whether an accidental spark or a deliberate shot, the catastrophe would not have happened if not for DELAG’s disastrous business decision to fill its airships with highly flammable hydrogen, instead of a less combustible alternative such as helium. If the Hindenburg had used helium, as airships do today, then neither a spark nor a shot could have so swiftly transformed it into an inferno.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
The Ploesti oil complex. Petroblog

A Raid to Destroy Hitler’s Oil

The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes surrounding Ploesti were a vital source of oil for the Axis in WWII. It provided them with roughly one third of their needs. The Germans defended Ploesti with one of the world’s densest and best integrated air defense networks. It included hundreds of 88mm flak guns, thousands of smaller ones, plus Messerschmitt Bf 109 and 110 fighter planes. On August 1st, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 American B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti.

They maintained radio silence, flew at about 50 feet to avoid enemy radar, skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level when they reached land. However, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps. A navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position. A lead navigator’s crash caused bomber groups to arrive over the target staggered instead of simultaneously. As seen below, that was just the start of a series of bad breaks that doomed the raid.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
A B-24 over Ploesti. Wikimedia

Dramatic Photo Images of a Promising Raid Gone Awry

A bomb group leader saw that that all formation was hopelessly lost. So he broke radio silence, and ordered the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. The Liberators were met by alert defenders. Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, machineguns, and a specially designed flak train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter airplanes fell upon them. The low-flying B-24s also had to contend with smoke stacks that suddenly loomed in their path amid the billowing smoke.

Photo images of low-flying B-24 Liberators over Ploesti captured the dynamic drama of the moment. Of the 177 heavy bombers that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. 53 of them were shot down, for the loss of 660 crewmen. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired, and within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Dazzle camouflage in 1918. Wikimedia

The Story Behind Zebra Stripes Ship Paint Patterns

Navies made various stabs at ship camouflage during World Wars I and II. In WWI, vessels were painted grey to help reduce visibility, but that did not always work in the ever-changing environments and sea conditions. The British eventually pioneered “Dazzle” camouflage paint schemes that used bold stripes and bright colors. The patterns did not hide the ship, but disrupted its outline to make it more difficult to judge its size, speed, and heading. That made it more difficult for an enemy to accurately target it. Dazzle and other camouflage schemes were also employed in WWII, but their use declined as the war progressed. Steady advances in radar and range finding technology steadily reduced the effectiveness of ship camouflage. However, early in the Pacific War, the crew and captain of one Dutch warship, the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, came up with an unusual camouflage plan, and successfully pulled it off.

The crew disguised their ship as a tropical island. That allowed the Crinjssen to sail undetected for hundreds of miles through Japanese-controlled waters, until it reached safety in Australia. The Abraham Crijnssen was a Royal Netherlands Navy minesweeper that was built in 1936, and ended up stationed in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. That is where WWII in the Pacific found her, when Japan commenced hostilities in 1941. By warship standards, the Crijnssen was a minnow. She was 184 feet long, 25 feet wide, had a draft of 7 feet, and displaced a mere 525 tons. She was crewed by only 45 men, and was armed with a single 76mm gun plus a pair of 20mm cannons.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
A camouflaged Abraham Crijnssen. Australian War Memorial

A Floating Tropical Island

The Crijnssen was wholly outmatched by the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy ships that descended upon the Dutch East Indies. Her weak punch was complemented by low speed: her engines could propel her at a maximum speed of 15 knots. In short, she could neither fight nor flee if the Japanese found her. When you can neither fight nor flee, your best bet is to hide. So the Crifnssenput all her eggs in the basket of a plan to camouflage herself and avoid detection at all costs. The plan to camouflage the ship as a tropical island was not as nutty as it sounds.

The Java Sea, through which the small minesweeper had to wend its way to safety, has over 18,000 islands of varying sizes. Quite a few of them are mere specs, with just a few trees growing on them. The Crijnssen, which measured only 184 feet in length, was not a huge ship. However, it was big enough to pass itself off as a tiny island if properly camouflaged. So the minesweeper stopped off at the nearest island, and its 45 man crew began to cut down vegetation with a will. The main detection threat faced by the Crijnssen was getting spotted from the air by Japanese planes. So to effectively camouflage the ship, its crew needed to cover its entire surface area with tropical vegetation and foliage.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Part of the Abraham Crijnssen’s escape route. Go 2 War

A Successful Escape

With their lives on the line if the Japanese spotted them, the Abraham Crijnssen’s crew had all the incentive in the world to do whatever it took to avoid detection. The deck was completely covered with vegetation, which was arranged in such a way so as to imitate a jungle canopy. The sailors’ hard work paid off. They covered the entire deck with foliage, and painted any exposed metal in shades of gray to imitate rock formations. By the time they were done, the Dutch minesweeper actually resembled an island. Or at least it resembled an island if seen from a distance. However, a key difference between a ship and an island is that the former moves, while the latter does not.

The camouflage plan was intended for the daytime, during which the Crijnssen remained stationary, anchored as close as possible to actual islands. Once darkness fell, the small ship raised steam and carefully made her way through the dangerous waters of the Java Sea, headed for the safety of Australia. Luck was with the plucky minesweeper. After a hair-raising journey that lasted for eight frightful days, she finally reached safety. On March 20th, 1942, the Crijnssen arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia. She was the last Allied vessel to successfully escape the disastrous defeat in the Java Sea and the Dutch East Indies, and the only ship of her class to survive the debacle.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
German troops parade past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1940. Bundesarchiv Bild

The Story of Hitler’s Photo in Front of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower has been one of the world’s most recognizable structures, ever since its inauguration as the entrance to Paris’ 1889 World Fair. It was initially planned as a temporary structure, to be torn down and sold for scrap after twenty years. Early on, many criticized it as an eyesore, and could not wait until the twenty years were up. However, the tower grew on people, and twenty years came and went without it getting torn down. Eventually, the Eiffel Tower became the City of Light’s most popular attraction, and a beloved fixture of the Parisian skyline that only a philistine would dislike.

The Germans overran Western Europe in 1940, in a devastating blitzkrieg campaign that crushed all opposition, and led to France’s collapse within 40 days. The French government fled its capital, and the French military evacuated Paris, declaring it an open city. On June 14th, 1940, the triumphant Germans marched into and seized the City of Lights. Hitler wanted to savor his conquest from atop the Eiffel Tower. As seen below, he was thwarted by workers who sabotaged the tower to deny the Fuhrer the pleasure of gloating over the captive city.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Hitler in Paris, 1940. National Interest

The French Workers Who Denied Hitler a Propaganda Photo Atop the Eiffel Tower

Hitler fancied himself a man of art and architecture, and growing up, he had dreamt of becoming an artist or architect. His greatest hope had been to gain admission to the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and the rejection of his application – twice – was the most devastating setback of his youth. So when Paris fell, Hitler made a beeline to the captured French capital, not only to savor his victory, but also to savor the French capital’s art and architecture. Hitler looked forward to gazing at a captive Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower.

Backstories Of History’s Most Iconic Photographs
Hitler posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Business Insider

However, prescient members of what would become the French resistance had anticipated that the Fuhrer would derive great pleasure from surveying the French capital from that perch. To deprive him of that satisfaction, they cut the lift cables for the tower’s elevator cars. Without an elevator, the only way to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower was a strenuous climb of 1500 steps. Hitler was in his 50s, and was hardly in the best of shape. So he decided to do without. Rather than treat himself to a view of Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower, the Fuhrer had to settle for a photo with Paris’ iconic symbol in the background.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

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Atlas Obscura – The Great Lengths Taken to Make Abraham Lincoln Look Good in Portraits

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Encyclopedia Britannica – Jean-Bedel Bokassa: President of Central African Republic

Hesketh, Roger – Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign (2000)

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History Network – This Day in History: US Flag Raised on Iwo Jima

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Keegan, John – Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al Qaeda (2003)

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New York Times, November 8th, 2012 – How a Galaway Pub Led to a Skyscraper

Nonument – Stjepan Filipovic Monument

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Smithsonian Magazine, November 3rd, 2016 – The Story Behind Che’s Iconic Photo

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Vintage News – Eiffel Tower’s Cables Were Cut So That Hitler Would Have to Climb the Steps to the Top

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We Are the Mighty – That Time a Dutch Warship Pretended to be an Island to Evade the Enemy