Growing up, Zach Coco’s hero was his grandfather Anthony, a veteran who served in World War II’s Pacific theater as a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Rushmore. Though the Los Angeles-based photographer had always wanted to interview his grandfather about his wartime experiences, Anthony passed away before he could do so. Faced with this loss, Coco decided to embark on an ambitious venture: namely, connecting with as many World War II veterans as possible.
“Each time I do an interview, it’s kind of like I get to spend another day with my grandfather,” he says.
Five years later, Coco has photographed and interviewed more than 100 men and women who served during World War II. In 2019, he published a selection of these portraits and testimonies through his nonprofit organization, Pictures for Heroes. (The book is available for purchase via the project’s website.)
Smithsonian spoke with Coco to learn more about his project—and the individuals he’s dedicated his life to honoring. The photographer also shared a selection of 12 portraits featured in the book (see below).
What have you learned from your discussions with these men and women?
I’ve learned so much more about the war in general and how multifaceted and involved the entire thing was. When I was in school, they just touched on the big events, like Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb. You don't really get to do a deep dive into a lot of that stuff, so just learning about things that I had no idea had even happened was fascinating.
Several of the veterans you interviewed detailed the racism they encountered before, during and after the war. How did these individuals reconcile discrimination experienced at home with the desire to fight for their country and its ideals?
I don’t want to speak for them, but just to share the sentiments that I heard from them, especially with the Japanese American soldiers: They were imprisoned by their own country. [The internment of Japanese Americans] was a bad move on our part. But the patriotism from these gentlemen never waned, and they used it as a battle cry. There was an almost all-Japanese American regiment, the 442nd, and their motto was “Go for broke.” They essentially took it upon themselves to go all out in everything they did and prove that just because their ancestry was that of the enemy, it didn’t mean that they were the enemy. They ended up becoming the most decorated unit of World War II.
How did the veterans you spoke with readjust to everyday life following the war?
One gentleman, Jack Gutman, was a medic on D-Day in Normandy, and he saw horrific things. He ended up living with PTSD for 60-plus years afterward, and he was really candid about his experience. Alcohol was his best friend, and anywhere he went, he'd always have a gallon of wine with him. He hit rock bottom on Thanksgiving one year, when he got too drunk and fell asleep at the dinner table. His face hit the plate, and that was a wake-up call for him. He was in his 80s when he finally reconciled with everything.
I actually went back to Normandy with him last June for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. That was his first time back, and it was a really emotional experience for him. It brought a bit of closure.
Why is it so important to share these stories?
We kind of realize where we came from, why we live in the country that we live in today, why we live with the freedoms that we live in today. One of the big eye-opening experiences for me was when I traveled to Normandy last year. I was accompanying seven World War II veterans, and everywhere we went, it was like traveling with the Beatles. Everybody wanted to stop and shake their hands and get a picture with them. They were just crying and so grateful for their freedom.
We don’t have that outward appreciation because our liberties were never really in jeopardy like theirs were. France was occupied for years under Nazi rule, so they know what it was like to lose their liberties. I think it’s important to educate Americans on what these men and women went through to make sure we never had to go through that.
How has the veteran community responded to your project?
The response has been really positive overall. During the interviews, some of the veterans would be enamored with the whole process, because I’d come in and bring lighting and have a pretty elaborate set-up. I don’t think it’s anything that they’d expected, and a lot of times, I’d have them taking pictures of me taking pictures of them because they couldn’t believe what was happening. They’re in the last stage of their life, and most of them are homebound. They don’t interact with a lot of new people, and I think they really appreciated somebody showing interest in them and letting them know that they're not forgotten.
As a sailor stationed on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Adolfo Celaya witnessed the famed flag raising at Iwo Jima, survived a Japanese kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa and unknowingly transported boxes containing components of the Little Boy atomic bomb. But his most harrowing wartime experience took place on July 30, 1945—the day a Japanese submarine sank the Indianapolis with two torpedo strikes.
Celaya was sleeping on the ship’s top deck when the first torpedo hit. “If I hadn’t had my blanket on, I would have been burned up,” he told Coco. Surrounded by terrified sailors, Celaya jumped into the water, swimming away from the sinking vessel and making his way toward a life raft.
The men expected to be rescued within hours or a day, but help failed to materialize, leading them to conclude that no one knew they were stranded at sea. Four days passed before an American pilot spotted the survivors and dispatched aid. By that point, many had succumbed to exhaustion, dehydration, starvation and even shark attacks. Celaya recalls some sailors hallucinating after drinking salt water.
Of the Indianpolis’ 1,200-man crew, just 317 survived the sinking and its immediate aftermath. On the trip back to the U.S., Celaya—a Mexican American teenager who’d experienced prejudice throughout his time in the Navy—faced one final ordeal. Forced to perform work detail for three days in a row, the still-recovering sailor reproached a lieutenant, saying, “We have another 300 survivors here that could probably do a little bit.” As punishment for his “insubordination,” he spent two days in solitary confinement with nothing but bread and water as sustenance.
“Any jobs that were not taken by a white person would be given down to anybody that had Hispanic blood,” Celaya later said. “You couldn’t do anything about it. If you tried, it got worse.”
Noboru “Don” Seki
In early December 1941, Noboru “Don” Seki’s parents returned to their home country of Japan. The couple’s 18-year-old son, who had been born and raised in Hawaii, opted to remain in Honolulu, where he was employed as a construction worker. Seki’s decision proved fateful: Just three days after his parents’ departure, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war after two years of neutrality.
Initially barred from enlisting due to his Japanese heritage, Seki was only allowed to join the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team—made up almost entirely of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese immigrants—in 1943. His unit fought in Italy, capturing the cities of Florence and Leghorn, in addition to leading a daring rescue of Texas National Guard troops surrounded by the German army. As a result of injuries sustained during this mission, Seki had to have his left arm amputated.
Speaking with Coco, Seki pointed out that if he’d gone to Japan with his family, he would’ve been drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and pitted against his former countrymen. Instead, he said, he continued to live “in the greatest country and be a good American.”
George Hughes’ lifelong love of swimming secured him a spot as the commander of a secret underwater demolition unit. His first wartime mission took place on the island of Saipan, where he and his naval commandos spent their nights ambushing Japanese raiders who’d refused to surrender after suffering defeat. (Hughes later described the experience as “killing men at night with knives.”) When a Japanese officer killed two members of the team, the Navy decided to withdraw the men and reassign them to projects more in line with their unit’s stated purpose.
During a typical mission, the sailors rode amphibious aircraft out to sea, where they boarded a submarine that transported them to their target’s general vicinity. From there, the men—armed only with battle knives—swam ashore, fulfilled their objectives and made their way back to the submarine. Hughes’ assignments included destroying a radio station supposedly used by the infamous “Tokyo Rose” and rescuing Army bombers involved in the daring 1942 Doolittle Raid.
On April 9, 1942, more than 75,000 Allied troops stationed on the Bataan Peninsula surrendered to the Japanese. Days later, soldier Harry Corre escaped his captors during a forced transport now known as the Bataan Death March. Breaking away in the middle of a stormy night, he made his way to shore and swam four miles to nearby Corregidor, where thousands of Allied forces were still holding out.
Corre’s brush with freedom was short-lived. Corregidor fell on May 6, making the gunner and infantryman a prisoner of war once again. He spent the next three years in various POW camps, enduring brutal treatment, starvation and inadequate medical treatment.
Toward the end of the war, Corre worked in a condemned Japanese coal mine, where he and the other prisoners defied their enemies by undertaking subtle acts of sabotage. After the mine’s guards abandoned their posts following the August 9, 1945, bombing of Nagasaki, the POWs spent two months waiting for American liberators. When none appeared, the men ventured into Tokyo, where they encountered General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation forces—and finally regained their freedom.
As a member of the only African American family in a rural Ohio town, Allen Wallace faced discrimination from an early age. In high school, he was barred from competing in athletic events and voted “least likely to succeed” by his classmates. Even the mayor exhibited blatant racism, pressuring the school system into holding Wallace back so the local leader’s son wouldn’t end up in the same class as him.
After Wallace joined the Navy as a steward in 1943, he continued to experience pervasive prejudice—a recurring theme echoed by many black, Hispanic and Asian American veterans. But he refused to accept this treatment, instead acting with dignity and adhering to advice offered by his father: “If you are a man, be a man.” Thanks in large part to this outlook on life, Wallace told Coco, he eventually won the respect of his white officers and fellow sailors.
On December 7, 1941, pilot Robert Thacker received orders to fly a B-17 bomber from Seattle to the Philippines, stopping midway to refuel at Hickam Field, a base near Pearl Harbor. Upon reaching his destination, he saw black smoke looming over the landscape. Initially, Thacker thought that local farmers were simply burning their cane fields, but an air-traffic controller soon informed him that Pearl Harbor was under attack.
“They were just as surprised as we would be if a nuclear weapon hit this house right now,” the colonel explained to Coco. “What do you do? Where do you go? What takes over is survival.”
Thacker and his crew decided to hide in a patch of shrub growth between Hickam and the commercial airport. “That was the smartest decision I ever made in my life,” he reflected. “Because about 15 minutes, here come about 13 horizontal, straight and level Japanese bombers. And they wiped out that airfield.”
Earnest Thomas “E.T.” Roberts was the first man to disembark from his Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) upon reaching Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944. Weighed down by his pack, Roberts immediately sank into the water. By the time he made it to Normandy’s shores, he’d lost all of his equipment.
On the beach, Roberts encountered a mortally wounded man whose eyes had been rendered bloodred by mortar blasts. The dying soldier offered up his rifle, urging Roberts to “shoot as many so-and-so’s as you can.” By day’s end, the private was one of just seven men from his LCI still together and in fighting shape.
“You’re not trying to protect yourself; you’re trying to protect others,” Roberts later told Coco. “You’re trained as a group to take care of one another.”
He added, “You’re carrying a 72-lb pack, wearing a 5-lb helmet, carrying a canteen and a heavy belt of ammo around you. You’re constantly having to lay down then get up, run, duck. And you do that until you get ‘er done.”
The night before Christmas 1944, a full moon illuminated the sky above a makeshift U.S. Army hospital in Liège, Belgium. Eager to return to action following a week of fog and low visibility, German pilots began ruthlessly bombarding the area.
“I stepped outside the tent to take a look. All these red flares were dropping through the sky,” recalled Muriel Engelman, a nurse stationed in the hospital’s surgical unit. “The plane flew back and forth over the hospital tents and nearby enlisted men’s tents, dropping antipersonnel bombs and strafing the tents. Many patients and hospital personnel were killed or wounded that night. It was a night of horror.”
In the days that followed, German bombers continued to clash with American fighters. Some even dropped German paratroopers disguised as Allied soldiers in hopes of infiltrating enemy bases. But the tide of battle soon turned, and over the next two weeks, said Engelman, “[W]e saw huge, constant waves of our planes by day and those of the [Royal Air Force] at night. It was the most heartwarming sight and sound in the world.”
As a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division (famously immortalized in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”), Thomas Rice participated in three pivotal European campaigns: the invasion of Normandy, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
On D-Day, he was one of thousands of soldiers forced to form improvised units after landing outside of their planned drop zones. Leaving behind “the crazy bric-a-brac, death dealing equipment” he’d jumped with, Rice soon encountered a live grenade lying in a ditch alongside the road.
The war, he said, “was on from there.”
When Anthony D’Acquisto was 17 years old, he enlisted with high hopes of becoming a pilot. But his lack of schooling prevented him from pursuing this dream, so instead, he channeled his lifelong love of airplane engines into a position as a U.S. Navy boiler tender. Initially assigned to the U.S.S. Cottie, an attack transport ship that he later likened to a “shuttle service,” D’Acquisto was transferred to the U.S.S. Randolph in January 1945. There, he spent his free time watching planes take off and land on the aircraft carrier.
The Randolph supported troops at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, escaping unscathed but falling victim to a Japanese attack while docked for repairs at Ulithi Atoll. “I heard the blast and thought ‘My god, what happened?’” D’Acquisto said. He survived, but multiple sailors onboard were killed or seriously injured.
“I was lucky,” he told Coco. “I was in the engine room.”
During World War II, the U.S. government incarcerated approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps across the country. Yoshio Nakamura was a junior in high school when his family received orders to report to an internment center in Tulare, California. Though he and many other Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, hoped to prove their loyalty by enlisting, they found themselves barred from serving. Nakamura was only able to join the Army after undergoing loyalty tests and receiving a white friend’s sponsorship.
“In war, you can’t paint your enemy kindly, but with the most awful things you can think of,” the veteran recalled to Coco. “Unfortunately, they painted us with the same awful brush.”
Like fellow interviewee Noboru “Don” Seki, Nakamura was assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an almost entirely Japanese American unit that eventually became the most decorated military division in U.S. history. He carried mortar shells on missions in northern Italy and helped break through German lines at the notoriously steep Mount Folgorito. Upon reaching Genoa shortly after the war’s end, he and his fellow soldiers joined in a “big celebration with parades” thrown by the “anti-fascists, [who] were so happy they were free of the fascist rule.”
After landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one, Ernest Martinez’s unit was tasked with liberating nearby Trévières. Frustrated by the Americans’ limited progress, Martinez decided to ride a bike directly toward German lines. Instead of shooting him on sight, the Germans—perhaps confused by this unexpected act—retreated from their defensive positions, enabling the Americans to move forward. Martinez received a Silver Star for his efforts.
In October 1944, Martinez was injured by a German artillery attack. He received surgery in Paris before being moved to England, where doctors managed to save his leg from amputation. “As a parting gift from the war,” writes Coco, “he spent the whole trip back [home to the U.S.] suffering from seasickness.”