Behind the Picture: Saving a Wounded Child, Saipan, 1944

Wounded Japanese child and American pilot, Saipan, 1944.
Peter Stackpole—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Wounded Japanese child and American pilot, Saipan, 1944.
History
'40s

In 1944, LIFE photographer Peter Stackpole was in the Pacific, covering the ugly, protracted Battle of Saipan. The battle proper lasted less than a month, with American soldiers and Marines largely taking control of the 44-square-mile island. But Japanese fighters dug in and resisted for months, with one small contingent of Imperial Army officers and troops refusing to give up until December 1945—long after Japan had officially surrendered to the Allies.

In John Loengard’s classic 1998 book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Stackpole discusses the picture above, and how he came to make it:

On Saipan I witnessed suicides during the very last of the fighting at the south end of the island. Japanese propaganda had told the native population that they ought to take their own lives because the Americans were going to torture anyone they captured. That wasn’t the case at all, but I saw girls, all holding hands, jump off the reef in the ocean, trying to drown themselves.

In a truckload of civilians that the Marines had rounded up, I saw a little Japanese kid with his arm badly mangled and some makeshift bandages on it. The kid was about to be in a state of shock, and just then one of those observation planes landed on the road. I took the boy over to the plane and said to the pilot, “Is there any way you can take this kid . . . where he can get medical treatment?” He didn’t want to at first. Then he looked at the kid and said, “Sure.” The kid sat on his lap, I took one picture, and the plane took off.

Hours later, when I got back to press headquarters, my colleagues from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News—friends of mine—said, “You should have been here when that pilot brought that kid in. What a picture!”

“I know all about it” I said. And I was denounced for doing it.

LOENGARD: Denounced?

STACKPOLE: Robert Sherrod, a Time-Life correspondent, let it be known that I had staged a phony and [he] got it killed, I think. The picture never ran, but if I had it to do today, I would do it over again.

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Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

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