A Photographer’s Quest To Document the Lives of WWII Veterans

Sasha Maslov spent six years—and traveled to 23 countries—to record the stories of 100 veterans.

“After they were notified of their duty,” recalls former pilot Ichiro Sudai, “kamikaze pilots would have small farewell parties. We exchanged sake and drank. On one side of a table were the kamikazes and on the other were people of a higher position, who were not seen often. It was a respectful, farewell sake. But toward the end of the war, we didn’t have sake available. We only had water.”
“There was an incredible power of forgiveness, no matter how big the atrocities were that they had endured,” says Maslov of the men and women featured in his book. “It was clear to me how much one’s perspective changes with time.”
New Yorker Stuart Hodes flew B-17s in the Army Air Corps during the war. “I was reassigned to the army during occupation,” he recalls. “But first there was a project to fly troops back to the USA… which turned out to be a lot of fun…. We’d fly across the Mediterranean, past Sardinia, along the coast of Africa. Then we’d turn through the Strait of Gibraltar, drop our soldiers off, and fly back. It was a two-day thing. [O]n one of them, flying to Italy, I heard on my telephone that the Japanese had surrendered. It was Victory in Japan Day. I told the soldiers, ‘You’re going home now. You’re not going to go to the Pacific.’ By the time we landed in our field, they were all too drunk to walk. That was a nice day.”
Canadian pilot Dutch Holland flew Hurricanes and fought the Japanese on the Burma front. “I was flying once when my engine failed,” he says. “I was about a hundred miles into enemy territory…. So I flew a hundred miles back toward our lines. I didn’t have many options on where to land. I was going to land in a lake that I saw, even though I had never learned to swim. I would have drowned landing if it hadn’t been for a voice on the radio. Someone directed me to fly up a bit higher, over some trees, until I saw a swamp. With wheels retracted, I landed right at its edge. It was a frightening experience, but I got out of it without a scratch. I never found out who it was on the radio that told me where to land.”
Chinese pilot Pingching Chen flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with the Flying Tigers under General Chennault. On October 10, 1943, he was part of the preemptive strike to bomb the Japanese navy at Haiphong Harbor. “During the past five missions,” says Chen, “15 unescorted bombers had been downed. This time round, we had learned our lessons. The bombers had to be escorted. We went with 40 planes: 21 B-24 bombers, 17 P-40 fighters, and 2 P-38 fighters. After we finished bombing the harbor, we headed back to Kunming. When we flew over northeast Hanoi, we engaged in an air battle with more than 30 Japanese planes. I managed to hit one Japanese fighter, but it did not go down. Soon after, my plane was hit by the artillery.”
Pyotr Koshkin was the first veteran interviewed and photographed by Sasha Maslov. During World War II, Koshkin was working in an aviation factory, patching up Sturmovik IL-2 aircraft, when an airplane crash-landed on the airstrip. “The plane was pretty beat up; we could see trails of bullet holes in the fuselage,” says Koshkin. “The pilot was in bad shape himself. His face and his hands were all badly damaged, and there was blood all over his uniform. But he jumped out of the cabin like nothing happened. He said that he wanted to talk to the main specialist, and all the guys pointed at me. The pilot didn’t believe them at first, as I was a 17-year-old kid, quite short and skinny. So he found our senior foreman, and the latter pointed at me too, saying that there was nothing I couldn’t do…. My task was to make another cabin for a co-pilot and gunner. Two months later, the new modified plane was ready. In its very first battle, on May 1 [1942], it shot down two German fighters.”

When Sasha Maslov began photographing World War II veterans, his goal was to tell each individual’s story in a portrait. “I’ve always been interested in portraiture in general,” says Maslov, whose photojournalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. “But I wasn’t sure how to tell stories.” The desire to move from documentary photography to portraiture began in 2005, when Maslov photographed a group of inmates staging a play in a Ukrainian prison. “I shot a portrait of a woman whose son was an inmate. It was one of the few times she could visit him, and she came there to tell him that his brother, her other son, had died. And she couldn’t tell him before the performance, she had to wait. I realized that portraits can tell so much, but I wasn’t sure how to do it; I didn’t have the proper training.” 

Five years later, Maslov was ready. On a trip to Moscow in 2010, he began to contact local veterans, asking if anyone would be willing to tell his story and sit for a portrait. Over the next six years, Maslov traveled to 22 different countries, interviewing more than 100 people. The result is the remarkable Veterans: Faces of World War II (2017, Princeton Architectural Press), published this week.  

The people featured in the book—pilots, engineers, prisoners of war, Holocaust survivors, and others—give extraordinarily candid interviews. “Sometimes they seemed to feel it was their final chance to tell their story,” writes Maslov in the book’s preface. “There were a few instances when people told me things they had never spoken about before or had blocked from their memories.”

While each person is photographed in his or her home, the interiors are distinct; “I wanted to include things that would signify the individuals and show their lives through their objects and spaces,” writes Maslov. The results are unexpected: The portrait of B-17 pilot Stuart Hodes, for instance—who, after the war, became a dancer with Martha Graham’s company—shows him surrounded by biographies of Broadway luminaries. He’s photographed in front of a velvet curtain, as if he’s about to go onstage. Ichiro Sudai, who trained to be a kamikaze pilot, went on to design gardens and study workworking. He kneels next to a bonsai pine tree in a room featuring beautiful hardwood floors rather than traditional tatami mats.

Of the 53 people included in the book, Maslov declines to pick a favorite image or interview: “All of them are important,” he says. “Some of the stories are more eventful and thrilling than others, and some are very quiet, but very emotional. But all of them have stuck with me.”

Photographs and text excerpts are reprinted with the permission of the publisher. All © Sasha Maslov from Veterans: Faces of World War II © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press.

Veterans: Faces of World War II

Ichiro Sudai trained to be a kamikaze. Roscoe Brown was a commander in the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators. Uli John lost an arm serving in the German army but ultimately befriended former enemy soldiers as part of a network of veterans-"people who fought in th...

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