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Osprey Publishing
Snapdragon 1 Photo: US Army Signal Corps

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Snapdragon: A World War II Story Told Through Photographs
Liesl Bradner tells us about some of the important images from her book about WWII Combat Photographer Phil Stern
Published on November 13, 2018
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Described by Vanity Fair editor David Friend as the ‘Chronicler of Cool’, American photographer Phil Stern is noted for his iconic portraits of Hollywood stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. During World War II, he served as a US Army Ranger and combat photographer in the much-heralded fighting unit Darby’s Rangers in the North African and Italian campaigns. Shortly before Stern’s death on December 13, 2014, his original, unfinished, tattered wartime memoir was discovered, stashed away in an old folio box in his cluttered Hollywood bungalow. His catchy 1940s lingo, honest and intimate observations, and humor, paired with his striking combat photography, transport readers 70 years back in time to meet the hardscrabble Rangers and experience some of the key battles of the Mediterranean Theater. Combining Phil’s memoir, photography, and details about the war he fought in, Snapdragon documents both his skill as an artist and his wartime experiences, revealing a little-known aspect of the life of one of the world’s most iconic photographers.

The photographs below are some of the many gripping images in Snapdragon which offer an insight into the realities of World War II through the eyes of an expert photographer.

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Snapdragon Image 1

In the years leading up to World War II, Phil was a working photographer with several magazine covers to his name and had also been a set photographer on Orson Welles Citizen Kane. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he was sent to London as a US Signal Corps photographer. He soon grew tired of snapping pictures of two-star generals, working in the dark room and attending high society events. Where was the war, the excitement, shellfire, Nazis, and combat scenes that he joined the army to photograph? His spirits were low until he read about an elite American unit forming in Scotland asking for volunteers. He quickly jumped on a train and made his way to Scotland to join the Rangers.

Photo: US Army Signal Corps

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Snapdragon Image 2

These future Rangers were some of the first Americans to land in the UK during the summer of 1942. Fresh-faced recruits charged through the mud in Corker Hill, Scotland with rifles and guns, wearing M1917 helmets left over from World War I, referred to as shrapnel helmets by the British and doughboy helmets in the US. They would be tested on some of the most challenging courses shelled out by the British commandos

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 3

"What the hell am I going to do with a photographer?" asked the charismatic Colonel William O. Darby upon first meeting with the eager young Stern. "Well sir, I have a belief in our war cause and want to fight it a little more concretely than taking pictures of big shots in London. Also, I feel that the Rangers will be an outfit whose deeds should be recorded in history by pictures – a colorful outfit with a colorful commander." He continued, "...and without bragging, it should have its pictures took by the best cameraman in the Army."

Photo: Phil Stern

4 / 16
Snapdragon Image 4

F Company Rangers gather around for a briefing on the deck of the HMS Royal Ulsterman to get the goods on their first official mission from Captain Roy Murray. They study the map and go over the fine details of the night-time invasion of North Africa.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 5

From a strategic vantage point above the port town of Arzew, Rangers Robert Bevan, E Company, and Cpl. Howard Swicker engage snipers barricaded in warehouses along the waterfront. The attack was so swift that by dawn all the terrain was occupied before the Vichy French realized what happened. Shortly after this picture was taken, the town capitulated.
Corporal Bevan saw action in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples and Rome. He fought in Anzio where 1500 men went into battle and only 97 returned.
Bevan was awarded 5 bronze stars, a unit citation, good conduct medal, and two purple hearts.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 6

Rangers perform a cleanup on the beach after the fight for the port of Arzew a day after the invasion of North Africa on November 11, 1942. The invasion was the first time the 1st Ranger battalion was in combat as a unit. Training would resume promptly a day later under the instructions of Colonel Darby, the new military Mayor of Arzew.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 7

During downtime the Rangers get a chance to unwind with a couple games of baseball in the wide open desert spaces of North Africa. They give lessons and tips to the locals, teaching them this favorite American pastime.

Photo: Phil Stern

8 / 16
Snapdragon Image 8

One of Phil’s rare color photos. On February 1, 1943 he was summoned by Darby to pack up for a top-secret mission. He would board a C-47 transport aircraft from La Senia Airport in Oran and travel to Maison Blanche Airport in Algiers. They carried an eccentric cast of characters that included a World War I pigeon wrangler and his bird, an airsick Stars & Stripes reporter, and the nonstop chatterbox Captain Saam. It would be a very bumpy ride.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 9

Colonel Darby and liaison officers of the US Army Air Force discuss enemy concentration in the nearby hills in early February 1943 near Dernaia Pass in Tunisia. Ranger radio patrols within the enemy lines kept constant contact with the Air Force, directing strafing and bombing sorties from the ground.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 10

Rangers make their way across uneven, rugged hillside and rocky mountains during a maneuver in Arzew in late January 1943. The Rangers often surprised the enemy, who considered attacks from such directions improbable. Darby’s men proved that the hard route achieves the best results during the capture of 200 Italians caught off guard in the mountain pass of Djebel el Ank in the Tunisian hills.

Photo: Phil Stern

11a / 16
Snapdragon Image 11a

In late February 1943, the Rangers were ordered to defend the Dernaia Pass to stop the capture of the Allied base, a well-stocked supply dump in Tébessa. Phil and a couple of Rangers were holding positions at the Pass. They were out on patrol when a brace of German Feldpolizei (secret police) approached their positions. Eight German prisoners were taken, all non-coms apart from one officer. According to Phil he was "out of the movies and out of the world ... one of those arrogant characters. I took his Luger away and was going to blow his guts out but I just couldn’t do it. He was too close." So instead Phil thanked him for the gun and ordered him to surrender in his best Brooklyn Yiddish.

Photo: Phil Stern

11b / 16
Snapdragon Image 11b

In late February 1943, the Rangers were ordered to defend the Dernaia Pass to stop the capture of the Allied base, a well-stocked supply dump in Tébessa. Phil and a couple of Rangers were holding positions at the Pass. They were out on patrol when a brace of German Feldpolizei (secret police) approached their positions. Eight German prisoners were taken, all non-coms apart from one officer. According to Phil he was "out of the movies and out of the world ... one of those arrogant characters. I took his Luger away and was going to blow his guts out but I just couldn’t do it. He was too close." So instead Phil thanked him for the gun and ordered him to surrender in his best Brooklyn Yiddish.

Photo: Phil Stern

12 / 16
Snapdragon Image 12

While recuperating from wounds courtesy of Rommel’s Panzers during the battle of El Guetter, Phil found a camera and got permission to observe and snap a few photos of the doctors in action. They often spent between four and six hours on each man. Phil came across a 17-year-old American tank man, badly shot up by mortar shells. His face was torn to shreds and the plastic surgeons were trying to piece it back together. They did their best to fix his mouth. Phil managed to coax a little smile.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 13

Operation Husky. The first wave of Rangers assault the beachhead in Sicily on July 10, 1943. The landings took place on Falconara Beach near Punta Duc Rocche, a small beach between Licata and Gela. A British sailor can be seen in the foreground on the landing craft. Americans were short on ships at the time, so the Brits supplied the Yanks with a full crew.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 14

Entering the town of Comiso, American GIs shout through the loudspeaker, instructing residents and resisters to report immediately to the City Hall to turn in their firearms. On Palazzo Occhipinti, Italians line up with hands raised high in front of the Fascist backdrop of VINCERE, which means "win" or "conquer", stenciled on the building.

Photo: Phil Stern

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Snapdragon Image 15

Photographer Phil Stern on the set of the 1958 film Darby's Rangers, based on the exploits of the original WWII Rangers. Actor James Garner portrayed Colonel William Darby while Phil and a few of his old Ranger buddies worked as advisors and, on occasion, actors.

Photo: Phil Stern Archives


An award-winning journalist with more than 15 years' experience, Liesl Bradner has contributed to respected national publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, The Guardian, Truthdig, Variety and WWII Magazine. In addition to Phil Stern, with whom she forged a strong bond, Bradner has interviewed nearly 100 artists, actors, screenwriters, authors, politicians and photographers. In May 2016, she was part of a team of writers at Truthdig that won the 2015 Maggie Award for best regularly featured web column (Book Review). Book projects include Frank Sinatra Has a Cold (Taschen, 2015) and the Writers' Room essay for Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (Taschen, 2016).

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