Pictures from the war
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Pictures from the war

Photographer’s images from the Pacific tell an extraordinary story

ON THE COVER: Herman Schnipper took these black-and-white shots, including the self-portrait, when he was a sailor on the USS Astoria. He used a Speed Graphic camera like the one here.
ON THE COVER: Herman Schnipper took these black-and-white shots, including the self-portrait, when he was a sailor on the USS Astoria. He used a Speed Graphic camera like the one here.

Most of the people who fight most of our wars are very young.

They’re sent off from home hopeful, or jaunty, or nervous; they return home, if they’re lucky, much older, even if objectively speaking they haven’t been gone that long. After they’re back, they’re jumpy. They’re grumpy. They’re explosive, or they’re quiet, or they’re both. They’re changed.

Often they don’t talk very much about what happened, except at times to each other.

Often the time they spent at war is the time that will most affect the rest of their lives.

Herman Schnipper set his camera to take this picture of himself; the detailed label is an example of how precise he was with his work. (Herman Schnipper)

Often they suffer from what we call post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that now is increasingly diagnosed, studied, understood, and dealt with compassionately. Until now, it’s generally been ignored.

At times, these people — overwhelmingly men — who came home from those wars talk to each other. Sometimes, when they grow older, they talk to their children and grandchildren.

“Days of Steel Rain” grew out of Brent Jones’s questions about his grandfather’s war, and even more strikingly about his great-uncle’s.

As he began his research, Brent met an older man, long retired from the Navy, who had been on the heavy cruiser USS Astoria, as his great uncle had been.

That older man, Herman Schnipper, who died in 2016, when he was 93, grew up in Bayonne, moved to Teaneck when he got married, and later lived in Hackensack. He was the Astoria’s photographer from 1945 to 1946. Herman was very active in many of the Astoria veterans’ get-togethers, and he’d comb the internet looking for information about World War II in general and the war in the Pacific in particular. He discovered Brent’s website, found some errors in it, and got in touch with Brent. Their relationship soon turned into a real friendship.

The Astoria shoots down a kamikaze plan diving into another American ship, the Essex. Both the plane and the bomb, visible here plunging into the sea, missed the ship.

Herman’s daughter Sari lives in Tenafly now, with her husband, Dan Schlufman, and their children. She and her sister, Rachel, have a trove of their father’s photographs — it seems hackneyed to call it a treasure trove, but those photos truly are treasures, extraordinary works of reportage and art combined, so no other word suggests itself — and it is through her father’s obsessive curating of those photos, and of the experiences behind them, that brought Brent and Herman together.

Brent’s book developed as a result of his hunt for his great-uncle Lawrence Jones’s story; he set up a rudimentary website, and as more and more of the Astoria’s survivors found the site, the more he learned, and the more the story came together.

Herman became one of Brent’s most assiduous partners in this quest.

The sailors on the USS Astoria found themselves in the South Pacific at the furious end of the murderous war. The ship was named after a sunken ship that carried the name first, and the story has vague overtones of Moby-Dick in its hunt for its implacable enemy (although it’s far easier to read than Melville’s opus). The sailors withstood the deadly typhoons that almost overturned the huge ship, explosives set off on neighboring ships, and the incomprehensible terrors of kamikazes, although none landed directly on the Astoria. They saw things that they rarely talked about afterward, although many of them — including Herman — had nightmares about them for the rest of their lives.

Some of the Astoria’s officers clowing around on deck in May 1945. (Herman Schnipper)

Brent’s book tells the story of the ship. It’s built on solid research, including hundreds of hours of interviews with surviving crew members and their descendants. Herman was chief among those men. The book is illustrated with Herman’s photos.

Herman Schnipper’s parents had emigrated from Minsk; everyone from their families who had remained in eastern Europe was murdered in the Holocaust. Herman, the youngest of their three sons, was drafted in 1944, when he was 20; both of his brothers already were at war, and somehow all three survived. Herman was an Eagle Scout and an athlete, Brent tells us; boot camp wasn’t a problem for him. But he also had a rudimentary skill that the Navy needed. He’d been interested in photographs; he already knew how to take pictures and then how to develop them.

The Navy wanted a photographer on each ship, Brent said. “His official job was to record events, ordinary daily things, for the Navy, which commonly would send photographs back stateside for use in newspapers. At the time, a lot of it was public relations — you know, ‘Three sailors from Rochester enjoying themselves on the ship,’ sent to their local newspaper. And some of it was for morale-boosting, on the ship and for the home front.

“Internal Navy magazines also would have pictures; they’d generally use positive images, ships at sea, guys at attention. It wasn’t until later that more graphic images would emerge, of ships being blown up, of kamikaze planes flying into them.”

The men of the Astoria stand for inspection on February 3, 1945. (Herman Schnipper)

A Navy photographer was in an unusual position. He was confined to ship, just as everyone else was. A ship at sea is a vessel from which there is no escape. The Astoria “was about two football fields long; there were hundreds of men packed into it, sailors and officers,” Brent said. But “as part of the job, the photographer was given free run of the ship, no matter what was going on. Herman never stood watch. It was not as if when the general quarters sounded he had to run. Everyone else had a place they had to be. He ran throughout the ship.”

The job befitted someone with a solitary nature, but it came with its own drawbacks. “The photographer is a very solitary role aboard ship,” Brent said. “Everyone else has a peer group. It’s sorely lacking for a photographer.

“And his faith” — the fact that he was Jewish — “made him an outsider too. There were some Jews, but it was a solitary way to be.

“It is kind of ironic that the same people who would come up to him and hit him up for pictures would call him a dirty Jew behind his back,” but that is what happened, Brent said.

Herman always had a good eye, but he had no formal training. His pictures grew increasingly better as he took more of them; he re-enlisted in 1947, and served aboard another ship, the battleship USS Wisconsin, from 1947 to 1949. On that ship — where he was more experienced, and also not at war — he took stunning images.

Chaplain Al Lusk, a Baptist minister, helped oversee Friday night services on the Astoria.(Herman Schnipper)

“When you look at his work on the Astoria in chronological order, you see fewer and fewer of men posing for him and more and more of men doing their jobs, shot from above or shot from behind,” Brent said. “It’s almost like he started dodging people because they were hounding him for photos.

“He started sleeping in his darkroom. Everyone else was sleeping in bunks; they were racked five high, so you might have to step over four guys to get to your bunk, but he was in his darkroom. No one ever told him not to. It was as if he had his own one-man efficiency apartment.”

Sailors generally were sent off to ships based on where they came from; Brent’s uncle was from Salty, Texas, but he “was an outlier on the Astoria,” Brent said. Most of the men on the Astoria — it was named for a town in Oregon, not the neighborhood in Queens — are from the northeast, and most of the survivors and their descendants live there today. That makes them easy to find. Brent’s uncle got to the Astoria because he’d been drafted, trained as an electrician, and then sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard; he went to the Astoria from Brooklyn.

Brent is from Austin, and his undergraduate degree, in economics, is from the University of Texas at Austin. He started his career at the Container Store as a seasonal worker, but by 2010 he was a project manager at the company’s Dallas headquarters. “I gravitated toward logistics, and I was heavily involved in opening stores,” he said. “I worked behind the scenes, doing fulfillment, as online fulfillment grew as an enterprise, and I ran with that. At the same time, I had this side project, learning about my uncle’s World War II experiences.” So when his work for the Container Store took him to the branches the company opened in Manhattan — in Chelsea and on the Upper East Side — he was able to meet people for his book, and use his skills in logistics to track their stories at the same time. “It was fortuitous, and worked out perfectly,” he said.

The Astoria crew gather to watch a boxing match on March 10, 1945.
The ship is anchored at Ulithi, an atoll in the South Pacific. (Herman Schnipper)

One of the people he got to talk to was Bobby Thomson, who had hit “the shot heard round the world, the most famous home run ever,” for the New York Giants in the National League championship playoffs against the Dodgers in 1951. It put the Giants into the World Series against the Yankees — the Bronx Bombers won — and broke the hearts of Brooklyn fans. “I’m a big baseball nerd, and I learned that Bobby Thomson’s brother, Jim Thomson, was on the Astoria,” Brent said. “I just wrote to Bobby Thomson, out of the blue, and I said ‘I’m not writing to you about the home run or for your autograph. It’s about your brother.’

“He wrote back within 24 hours, and the signature on the bottom was a spot-on match for the signature at the bottom of his baseball card. He put me in touch with his nephew, Jim Jr., who was career FDNY and had been heavily involved in 9/11. I called him, and I said, ‘I just talked to your uncle.

“I was getting ready to go to New York on a business trip, and it was Fleet Week. Jim Jr. lives on Staten Island. He picked me up, and he said, ‘I have my dad’s diary. Do you want to include it?’ And that’s how Bobby Thomson’s brother Jim became a significant character in my book.

“It’s a crazy path you pursue when you pursue leads. It never hurts to talk to people and to ask things.”

That’s how he came to know Herman Schnipper, and to tell his story in “Days of Steel Rain”; it’s how Brent Jones, a young Protestant from Texas, came to find himself shoveling earth into Herman’s grave about 10 years later, and to have been profoundly moved by Herman’s story, and by his family.

Herman Schnipper took this photo of sailors and their new friends at Portsmouth, England, on July 14, 1947, on the Wisconsin. (Herman Schnipper)

“My father didn’t talk about what he’d been through,” Sari said. “He was a very quiet man. He didn’t talk much about himself. He was a hard worker, and his family always came first. He did what was best for everyone else. If you asked him to go out for ice cream at 11 at night, he would go out for ice cream at 11 at night. He was selfless. No one is perfect, he had issues, but he was a father you could depend on. And he was very strong physically.”

He also was an artist; the kind of man with the kind of eye that always saw shape and form and color and beauty, and also imperfection in his own work. He would print and reprint and re-reprint his photos in his darkroom; he’d learn new technology, tinkering with PhotoShop and talking — just a little, because he wasn’t a big talker — about what he could have done with it had it been invented sooner.

When he left the Navy, Herman became a lithographer. “It was in those days what graphic design is today,” Sari said. “He was putting color into things. Lithography is a dying art now, but he worked in New York and New Jersey; he designed ads and movie posters.

“He had an ability to see shades of color.” (Which of course is particularly fascinating given the extraordinary power of his black and white images.)

American sailors visited Edinburgh a few years after the war. Herman Schnipper was among them. (Herman Schnipper)

As Herman and his wife, Julie Kugel Schnipper, brought up their two daughters, Herman always took pictures, and he meticulously labeled and filed everything. He was always good with his hands; he built cabinets exactly to the specifications he needed for his photos. When both their parents died, and Sari and Rachel had to clean out their Hackensack apartment — the apartment that had a whole room devoted to his photos, because such a room was a nonnegotiable demand in his move from their Teaneck house — they were overwhelmed by the number of stunning images in it.

Herman had been a rule follower in most ways, Sari said, but there was one way in which he broke the rules. “Right after the war, men would take things off the ship with them. When my father developed the negatives, he made a copy for himself. He took the negatives off the ship with him. I’ve always wondered about how heavy that bag must have been.

“And it’s a good thing he did,” she added. “My dad went to the National Archives to look for his photos — and he found that the majority of them had been destroyed.” According to Brent, only 27 of the approximately 1,300 of them survived; the archives threw away Herman’s images, along with thousands of others, “to make room,” he was told. (Apparently no one specified what use was made of that newly freed room.)

The bow of the Astoria cuts through a heavy South Pacific sea on December 23, 1944. (Herman Schnipper)

Many things that he had seen haunted Herman. “My dad had an aversion to blood,” Sari said. “And Brent talks about how his uncle also was squeamish around blood. He was a strong, capable man, but if he’d cut himself he’d almost faint.” The memories were almost too horrific for their conscious minds to bear.

There was one incident that Herman never could overcome; it eats at Sari too, because of the effect it had on her father, and it upsets Brent, for the same reason.

At the end of the war, Brent said, in August of 1945, “after they had been in hellish combat for months, an officer wanted Herman to take personal photographs for him. Herman said no. It was against regulations. The officer didn’t like that, and he wrote Herman up on report. His case was handled differently than most cases like it — only a few African American sailors I’ve heard about were treated in that way — he wasn’t given a full court review. Instead, the executive officer said that he was insolent to the officer.” Herman lost his rank — he’d been made a photographer’s mate, then busted back down to seaman first-class.

“I firmly believe his faith had a lot to do with that,” Brent said. In other words, that Herman was treated more harshly than he should have been because he was Jewish.

This story, an ugly tale of entitlement and mistreatment, had a far longer life than it should have. Not only was Herman treated badly, he took that bad treatment to heart in ways that most likely no one could have predicted. He found it not only profoundly embarrassing, but unforgettable, and it caused him pain for the rest of his life. He tried to fix it later — he tried to get his rank back, and Brent backed him in that struggle, as did other men who had fought with him — but he could not.

The family gathers for Herman’s grandson Noah’s bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El of Closter; from left, Sari Schnipper, her husband, Daniel Shlufman, their children, Dina and Noah; Herman Schnipper, his daughter Rachel Schnipper, his wife, Julie Schnipper, and Rachel’s daughter, Aliza Ohnouna.

The effects of PTSD are long-ranging; this story, which should have been a minor blip in a long and well-lived life, ended up causing Herman deep sadness.

Now, however, Herman’s daughters, Sari and Rachel, have the record of their father’s artistry, as well as his close-up brush with history, all carefully developed, catalogued, and curated, sitting in their houses. Through Brent Jones, they’ve been able to have their father’s story told, and some of his art published.

Brent’s book “Days of Steel Rain,” was published by Hachette Books, and it’s available, among other places, on Amazon.

So now what? What do loving daughters, careful managers of their father’s legacy, do with all this art? (Not to mention the approximately 100 cameras and shelves full of art and photography books he amassed.)

That’s an open question. They’re working on the answer.

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