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This is Smith's most famous photograph from Saipan, taken during a two-day mission when the Marines methodically searched out Japanese soldiers and civilians, from caverns on Mount Nafutan. They slowly combed the area in squads, looking for caves amidst the undergrowth. It was a grisly task: one chamber after another was filled with bodies, and the dead decomposed rapidly in the heat and humidity of the jungle, attracting clouds of insects. As they inched along one ravine, the Marines heard a whimper. They discovered an infant boy had been hidden by his fleeing mother. The baby's head was misshapen, his body was covered in scratches, and insects swarmed over is eyes, which were encrusted with tears and pus--but he was alive. The men carefully conveyed the helpless infant hand-to-hand up the ravine, until Paul White--in the distance with a cigarette--passed him to Johnny Popham at the top. Smith photographed Popham gently but securely holding the child. The baby was carried to a Jeep and then rushed to a hospital. This print is carefully cropped so that the child's head falls in the middle of the composition, visually sheltered by the two Marines. A mirror image of this photograph was published in LIFE in summer 1944, illustrating an article on the Saipan operation. The image has become the model for the recurrent trope in war photography of the warrior nurturing the child of an enemy, implying generosity to the vanquished. Such an image of compassion in war makes a righteous, powerful propaganda symbol.
from Acton, A History of Photography at the University of Notre Dame: Twentieth Century (Notre Dame, 2019)