Melvin C. Shaffer World War II Photographs: North Africa

Melvin C. Shaffer Collection

Collection home page

Shaffer's Personal Accounts

Images of North Africa (see more)

Shaffer's Personal Account

My military service in North Africa lasted from August, 1943 until I left to join the Italian campaigns in January, 1944. I went to North Africa with the United States Army as a medical photographer assigned to the 3rd Detachment, Medical Museum and Arts Service. This unit was a part of the Medical Corps, and our home base was Armed Forces Institute of Pathology/Army Medical Museum -- then located at 7th and Independence Avenue S.W., in Washington D.C.

My associates and I were trained as medical corpsmen and at times served in this capacity. However, our principal assignment was to photograph the medical history of the war and to produce illustrations for Army instructional publications based on early research in the treatment of battle casualties with the new drugs sulfanilamide and penicillin. A variety of additional assignments took me to Oran, Marrakech, Tunis, and Algiers. The many thousands of photographs made in fulfillment of these assignments are on file in the archives of the United States government. None of my "official" military photographs are included either here or in the image collections pertaining to Italy, Southern France and Germany. Rather, these are my own personal photographs, taken with my own equipment.

Before leaving Washington I had purchased a second-hand 2 1/4" by 3 1/4" Watson view camera made by Burke and James, a competitor to Graflex. All the photographs made during my time in North Africa were made with the Watson. While in North Africa, I developed a strong interest in the local civilian population, going about their daily lives in the midst of war. It was these ways of life, and these adaptations and resistances to the war, that I wanted to document for myself.

Although the actual Second World War itself has been well-documented -- in moving and still pictures; in literature and reportage; and in maps and charts and graphs -- the lives of those most affected by the Second World War largely escaped American attention. The "home front" was not a phenomenon limited to the United States. The reality of what the war meant to the homes of our allies and enemies was not something commonly communicated through official United States government channels. It was certainly not something which either my colleagues or I felt was our duty to document. Yet World War II -- "total war," as it has been called -- truly was both global and personal in scope. If, as it turns out, these photographs I make available to the public via this donation do anything to improve our understanding of what actually happened at these other "home fronts" during this pivotal event in modern history, the effort will have been worthwhile.