John A. Bushemi · 2001

"Make Sure These Pictures Get Back to the Office Right Away"

From the time he bought his first camera in high school until he was fatally wounded by a Japanese mortar shell, John A. Bushemi’s approach to photography remained the same: capture the heart and soul of his subjects through candid shots that cut through all pretense. He did so with an unparalleled skill that coupled professional truthfulness with personal emotion. His images demonstrated so much empathy with his subject that a viewer could easily forget that a man and his camera were behind the image.

John Bushemi’s life was a metaphor of the American Experience. Known to his family and friends as Johnny, he was the seventh of nine children. This son of Italian immigrants was born on April 19, 1917 in Centerville, Iowa, while America fought in World War I. Johnny, his brothers: Mike, Emil, Sam, Joe and Frank; and his sisters: Margaret, Carmella and Mary Ellen were a hard-working and closely-knit family. Their father Pietro was a coal miner, their mother Angelina, a cook in the family-owned Bluebird Cafz. Coal mining would define the Bushemi household until the 1930s when, beckoned by the promise of employment in the steel industry while the Great Depression tightened its grip, the Bushemi family moved to Gary, Indiana.

As the Depression settled in, Johnny quit school during his junior year at Lew Wallace High School to join his father and brothers in the steel mills. It was there, under the searing heat of the blast furnaces, that John Bushemi decided that photography was his passion. Determined to become a professional photographer, he spent most of his savings on camera equipment.

In 1936, the Gary Post-Tribune hired the 18-year-old Bushemi as an apprentice photographer. His eagerness to learn, engaging personality and fearless attitude earned him assignments with veteran reporters. During the next five years he became best known for his sports photos but was equally at home racing to a breaking news story or capturing the tranquil beauty of the Indiana Dunes.

While at the Post-Tribune, Johnny was nicknamed "One Shot" because of his skill at catching fast news action with one lens manipulation.

In July 1941, Johnny Bushemi enlisted in the U.S. Army and took basic training at Fort Bragg, NC, where he was appointed the official photographer of the base public relations department. One of his closest friends there was Marion Hargrove, whose best-selling book about Army life made Bushemi a celebrity. In See Here, Private Hargrove (1942), Bushemi was described as having "an unfailing energy and an unfailing sense of humor." Hargrove added: "He has a good imagination and a sense of beauty, and he makes good pictures."

After his shot "An American Soldier," taken while he was still stationed at Fort Bragg, was featured on the front cover of the "Field Artillery Journal," Bushemi was assigned in June, 1942 to the staff of Yank magazine, the Army weekly. In July 1942, he was assigned to the New York City editorial office of Yank and worked with M. Sgt. Joe McCarthy, the managing editor. He was transferred to Hawaii in November to open Yank’s pacific bureau. There he learned the techniques of film making from Col. Frank Capra, the former Hollywood director, and subsequently made several Technicolor movies cutting and editing them himself and writing his own subtitles. At the beginning of each movie would appear the words, "A One Shot Production."

One film of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Guadalcanal was repeatedly used by the first lady as entertainment for her dinner guests at the White House. During the war years, Bushemi’s photographs were part of the exhibition "Yank Illustrates the War" held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the spring of 1943.

Chafed at not being where the action was, Johnny was finally able to island-hop to such combat zones as New Georgia, the Gilbert Islands, Kwajalein, Guadalcanal, Munda and Vella LaVella, specializing in what his partner, Yank correspondent Merle Miller, labeled "photography from a rifle’s length vantage point."

On January 10, 1944, Bushemi wrote to Post-Tribune reporter Edward Brennan about his experiences on Tarawa. "When we arrived there, we saw bodies floating around in the water–hundreds of them–all American Marines. The courage of our marines was magnificent, and it made me proud that my brother, Sam, is a member of the Corps."

On February 19, 1944, Johnny Bushemi was photographing the American landing on the island of Eniwetok. His left arm was in a sling from having fractured his hand at Kwajalein. When the fighting became intense, most journalists retreated, but Bushemi remained at the front. Suddenly, as he was shooting scenes with his camera, an enemy mortar shell exploded. Merle Miller heard him cry out, "Where’s my camera?" Then to his horror he saw Bushemi’s shattered leg and gaping neck wound.

As a medic attended to Bushemi, Miller put his buddy’s camera on the litter carrying the wounded photographer. Bushemi died less than three hours later aboard a Navy transport ship, his last words being "Make sure these pictures get back to the office right away." In a telegram to John’s family, Joe McCarthy, managing editor of Yank, stated: "Until the last, he was only thinking of one thing. He was trying to do his job."

In its "milestone" section, Time magazine reported Bushemi’s death: "Killed in action, Staff Sergeant John Aloysius Bushemi . . . probably the best known noncom in the Pacific area . . ."

Back home in Gary, Indiana, his death saddened the Gary community. He was a "dapper, darkly handsome youth," the Post-Tribune eulogized, "whose ready quip and irresistible grin were never to be denied." His fame as a combat photographer was a source of civic pride, and his vibrant, daring personality caused local residents to consider him their "representative" soldier. Indeed, he was the inspiration for a "Dear Johnny" Post-Tribune newspaper column that summarized local events for GIs overseas.

Reporter Erwin Crewe Rosenau drew the assignment of covering the March 3, 1944 memorial service for his former friend. His story began: "Under a gray and lowering sky which itself seemed to verge on weeping, hundreds of those who knew and loved Johnny Bushemi as an elfin boy, as a genial young man eager to make his mark in the world and as a gallant soldier impatient to give his all to his craft and his country, filed into St. Mark’s Church this morning to bow their heads in memory of him."
In November 1947, his coffin was brought home from its shallow gravesite on Japan Island and interred at Mt. Mercy Cemetery next to his mother who had died when John was only 18.

Reporter Erwin Crewe Rosenau drew the assignment of covering the March 3, 1944 memorial service for his former friend. His story began: "Under a gray and lowering sky which itself seemed to verge on weeping, hundreds of those who knew and loved Johnny Bushemi as an elfin boy, as a genial young man eager to make his mark in the world and as a gallant soldier impatient to give his all to his craft and his country, filed into St. Mark’s Church this morning to bow their heads in memory of him."

In November 1947, his coffin was brought home from its shallow gravesite on Japan Island and interred at Mt. Mercy Cemetery next to his mother who had died when John was only 18.

Johnny Bushemi is said to have had more World War II photographs published in American magazines than any other Army photographer and he was not soon forgotten. Awards and buildings were named after him, and institutions exhibited his photos, some of which had appeared in the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post.

[This biography is a compilation of: (1) a biographical article by James B. Lane, professor of history at Indiana University Northwest (Aug. 3, 1975), (2) letters from Merle Miller, Yank correspondent who worked with John A. Bushemi, (3) excerpts from See Here, Private Hargrove by Marion Hargrove, (4) articles taken from the Gary Post-Tribune, (5) articles taken from "Yank Magazine." The information contained here within was compiled by Johnny Bushemi’s sister, Mary Ellen Cessna, and his two nephews, John P. Bushemi and Kevin Cessna, and was edited and revised by Daniel Tromblay, husband of Johnny’s great-niece.]

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