When it comes to depictions of war, most Hoosiers think of writers—Ernie Pyle and his columns, or Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. But John A. Bushemi of Gary, Indiana, achieved great success by capturing World War II with his camera, until he lost his life while taking the war-time photographs he loved.
Bushemi and his family first moved to Indiana during the Great Depression, when his father got a job at one of Gary’s famous steel mills. Bushemi ended up working in the mills himself, and with the wages from his job he purchased his first camera, a small Univex he used to take photographs of family members and special occasions. He developed the film in a darkroom located in his mother’s closet.
In 1936, Busehmi left the steel mills for good when the local Post-Tribune hired him as an apprentice photographer. He won numerous awards for his sports photography.
Bushemi enlisted in the U.S. Army five months before Pearl Harbor. He traveled to the Field Artillery Replacement Center at Fort Bragg for basic training, but before long the army realized his true skills lay not in firing a 75-mm gun but in photography. Officers assigned him to the base’s public relations office, and he eventually joined the staff of Yank, a newly created magazine run by enlisted men.
The Pacific Theater
Sold to soldiers for five cents a copy, Yank entertained the troops in its early days with such popular features as George Baker’s Sad Sack cartoons and pinups of Hollywood stars.
Soon Bushemi headed to Hawaii to open the magazine’s Pacific bureau, where he picked up visual tips from Colonel Frank Capra, the famed Hollywood director.
Bushemi also began photographing combat in the southwest Pacific, relying on a Bell and Howell movie camera, a Rolleiflex, and a Speed-Graphic camera to capture the war’s jungle operations and sweaty soldiers. “He was always right up there at the frontline,” remembered Sam Catanzarite, another Gary veteran, “getting his pictures.”
In February 1944, Bushemi and Merle Miller, a writer for Yank, accompanied two battalions from the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Regiment, Twenty-Seventh Division, as they hit the beaches of Eniwetok, an atoll located at the far northwest end of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific.
As the American soldiers crept toward their objectives, they were continually sniped at from the side and rear by Japanese troops cleverly hidden in a series of camouflaged foxholes.
What hit Bushemi, however, was a round of Japanese knee-mortar shells. He received shrapnel wounds in his neck, left cheek, and left leg. “The navy doctors had to give him ether so they could tie some severed arteries which had caused him such serious blood loss,” Miller said, and Bushemi died soon after.
But the photographer’s first concern that day wasn’t his wounds, but his equipment. As the doctors tried to save him, Bushemi said to Miller, “Be sure to get those pictures back to the office.” They were his last words.
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Indiana Originals: Hoosier Heroes & Heroines
Hoosier history overflows with bold visionaries, noble heroes and lovable rogues. May Wright Sewall struggled to uplift womankind and unflinchingly called for peace in a world sleepwalking toward conflict. In the guise of Abe Martin, Kin Hubbard graced the Indianapolis News’s back page for twenty-six years with folksy humor. Combat photographer John A. Bushemi bravely faced the terrors of war and perished capturing its violence. Drawing on more than thirty years of experience, author Ray E. Boomhower, the dean of Hoosier biographers, brings together forty of the most notable figures from the nineteenth state.
This article was adapted from Indiana Originals: Hoosier Heroes & Heroines by Ray E. Boomhower (The History Press, 2018 – $21.99)