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Margaret Bourke-White: World War II Photographer

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

The following is an excerpt from the autobiography Portrait of Myself, by Margaret Bourke-White.

 

During World War II, Life worked out a wonderful arrangement with the Pentagon in which I would photograph the U.S. Air Force. I flew to England, and my arrival coincided with that of our first 13 heavy bombers, the B-17s. I was allowed to do everything to build up my story: photograph the early dawn briefings, go on practice flights, whatever I needed except the one thing that really counted — go on an actual combat mission.

Fighting for Combat

There was not a whisper of a double standard about the decision, but as though written in invisible ink, it was there for all to read. Male correspondents who applied got permission. My requests got me nowhere.

Then something loomed so tantalizing that it overshadowed the importance of going on a mission. The war was soon to open on another front with an invasion of the North African coast. This plan was one of the best-kept secrets of the war.

For the invasion, I prayed that being a women would make no difference. Then one evening, General Jimmy Doolittle turned up. I knew Jimmy well enough to be sure my sex would not prejudice him against my request to go along on the coming invasion. He gave me permission.

I assumed I would fly to the African front with the heavy-bomb group. But no — the high brass decided that I should be sent by sea in convoy — the safe way.

Our convoy was large, with an airplane carrier, several troopships, and a body of destroyers. Lifeboat drills were called three times a day. I thought this was overdoing discipline a bit. I was soon to change my mind.

The torpedo came almost softly, penetrating the ship with a dull blunt thud.

I heard a voice through a loud speaker, the order to abandon ship. Lifeboat station No. 12 became the most desirable place in the world. I slid into my place and sat in silence with my companions while the moon beat down on us all.

My Air Force friends took me for a drying out at an exotic villa. Right inside the front door I collided with General Jimmy Doolittle. His first words were, "Maggie, do you still want to go on a bombing mission?"

"Of course," I gasped.

"Well, you've been torpedoed. You might as well do everything," he said.

The B-17 was a covered wagon that contained a remarkable amount of machinery. Huge as it looks on the outside, inside it is crammed with metal paraphernalia. To be sure I would be using every working minute to its best advantage, the crew and I held dress rehearsals. Sweltering in high-altitude flying clothes — layers of overalls, jackets, leggings, boots, leaden in weight — I practiced dragging myself and my hunks of cameras around the ship.

The morning of my mission — January 22, 1943 — dawned with clear wide skies promising the good visibility I needed. As soon as we were airborne, I began taking pictures of crewmen at their posts. I wanted to get these shots while I had full use of my hands before donning mittens at 15,000 feet. We were still at 14,000 feet when we crossed from friendly to enemy-held territory. The crossing of the boundary was a signal for the bombardier to disappear into the bomb bay. I followed him.

During the handful of minutes we were over the target the men heard over their earphones a string of high-pitched squeaks unlike anything they had ever heard on a mission before, a voice indisputably feminine: "Oh, that's just what I want; that's a beautiful angle! Roll me over quick. Hold me just like this." Flying evasive action gave me every angle from which to take pictures.

Far below our fleet of planes, things were happening which I could see but not interpret. A white plume rose one mile high into the sky, and next to it grew a twin plume of black, tipped with spasmodic flashes of red. The fiery flashes darted higher. What could it be, I wondered. I'd better take a picture of it, just in case. And suddenly it dawned on me. These are our bombs bursting on the airfield. This is our target we came to demolish!

Bombs Away

Then I saw another spectacle. In the air quite close to us were black spreading spiders, with legs that grew and grew. I couldn't imagine what they were. Suddenly I realized. They are shooting at us! We were hit twice in the wing, but only lightly damaged. Later I learned that two of our airplanes had been shot down.

Next day we got the reconnaissance report of our raid. Timing had been perfect. We had caught the airfield when it was filled with German planes. We had destroyed by bomb blast and fire more than 100 of them. Our mission was effective and successful.

And so I started home. Messages from the Life office reached me along the way. I was later to learn that they were topping the story with high letters like the marquee of a movie theater: "LIFE'S BOURKE-WHITE GOES BOMBING."

 

Adapted from Scholastic Search

Reprinted courtesy of the White family.

  • Subjects:
    World War II, Women's History and Experience, Photography, Women's History Month
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