“I was pretty much left free to do whatever I had to do to get that done,” said Shaffer, on the phone from outside Tucson, where the 96-year-old lives.
Shaffer was one of eight photographers who were part of the Army’s 3rd Medical Museum and Arts Detachment. Before being deployed, he trained at the Army Medical Museum in Washington. Since the Civil War, the museum has been collecting artifacts and images related to battlefield medicine. (After spending years on the Mall and then the Walter Reed campus, the museum — now called the National Museum of Health and Medicine — is in Silver Spring.)
Shaffer’s new memoir, published by Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library, is called “From Anderson’s Holler . . .” after the tiny enclave where he grew up.
The rest of the book’s title gives a sense of how expansive Shaffer’s war travels were: “to Washington, New York, Newport News, Casablanca, Sicily, Salerno, Naples, Anzio, Rome, Florence, Poltava, Southern France, Dachau, Munich, Berlin, Paris, Washington, Nuremburg and Tokyo.”
Shaffer got around.
“That was the purpose of the roving photographers,” he said. “You can’t take pictures of something if you’re not where it is. If I’d have stayed in a little [photo] lab in Naples, nothing would have happened.”
When Shaffer presented his paperwork at the Allied air base in Bari, Italy, to hitch a ride on a B-17 for its bombing run to Romania, an officer said, “I think this is crazy, but orders is orders.”
Shaffer’s tools included a bulky Speed Graphic camera, a Kodak Cine Special movie camera, a personal box camera and film, all packed in a heavy trunk.
“Plus my tooth brush,” he said.
Shaffer became adept at crawling under a pair of Army blankets to block out light as he loaded film.
Like a “Zelig,” he turned up in every corner of the war in North Africa and Europe. The Signal Corps was responsible for the majority of Army picture-taking, but one day when all of their photographers were tied up, Shaffer was ordered to fly to Gibraltar. No one told him what his subject was, just that he should wait inside a bomber that was painted black, its bomb bay doors sealed.
Eventually, a portly, cigar-chomping man heaved himself aboard the plane. Shaffer was needed to take photos of Winston Churchill on his way to Algeria.
But the vast majority of his photos captured the medical history of the war. Shaffer said he never got squeamish. At age 17, he’d been hired by a doctor to take photos at a hospital in Philippi, W.Va.
“I’d done autopsies and surgeries at that hospital,” he said. “I had no difficulty with all that.”
Shaffer was also a trained corpsman, so whenever necessary, he assisted in hospitals, often picking shrapnel out of injured soldiers.
There were some things nothing could prepare him for. Photos Shaffer took at the Dachau death camp were used at the Nazi war crimes trial in Nuremburg.
I asked Shaffer how he reacts to people who say there were no concentration camps, that the Holocaust didn’t happen.
“They’re obviously idiots,” he said. “I don’t have any time for that.”
By the war’s end, he was emotionally and physically drained.
“I had seen all the violence of the war, down to Hitler’s bunker, for Christ’s sake,” he told me. “Nothing but horror, day after day after day.”
In 1945, a Liberty ship carried Shaffer back to the United States. He spent a year in Washington cataloguing his and others’ photographs for the medical museum. Some are in the museum’s collection. Some are at SMU’s DeGolyer Library. Many, alas, are missing, possibly misfiled and sitting in a government warehouse.
After leaving the Army, Shaffer worked for 37 years at the Medical College of Virginia, eventually heading up the Richmond school’s biomedical communications department. He kept up with photography as a hobby, but when digital started replacing film, he put down his cameras.
“The world’s polluted with 10 billion pictures of everything,” he said. “I don’t see a need to make any more.”
To order “From Anderson’s Holler . . . ,” ($30) visit this website.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.