Max Desfor, a photojournalist whose image of hundreds of Korean War refugees braving a bombed-out bridge as they sought safety from advancing Chinese troops helped win him the Pulitzer Prize, died Feb. 19 at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 104.
The cause was complications from strokes, said his son, Barry Desfor.
Mr. Desfor spent the majority of his career with the Associated Press, starting in 1933 as a messenger and darkroom assistant. After serving as a combat photographer in World War II, he volunteered to cover the Korean War for the news service when the North invaded the South in June 1950. He parachuted into North Korea with U.S. troops and retreated with them after forces from the North, joined by the Chinese, pushed south later that year.
He was in a Jeep near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang when he spotted a bridge that had been hit by U.S. warplanes. Thousands of refugees were lined up on the north bank waiting their turn to cross the Taedong River.
“We came across this incredible sight,” he recalled in 1997 for an AP oral history. “All of these people who are literally crawling through these broken-down girders of the bridge. They were in and out of it, on top, underneath, and just barely escaping the freezing water.”
Mr. Desfor climbed a 50-foot-high section of the bridge to photograph the refugees as they fled for their lives. “My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera,” he said. “I couldn’t even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold.”
The Pulitzer jury in 1951 determined that Mr. Desfor’s photos from Korea the previous year had “all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography — imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest and the ability to make the camera tell the whole story.” The Pulitzer board honored his overall coverage of the war, based on a portfolio of more than 50 photos, and cited the Taedong River bridge shot in particular.
Noarn Mitchell Desfor was born in the Bronx on Nov. 8, 1913. He was the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe; his father was a tailor.
After completing high school in Brooklyn, he attended Brooklyn College but quit after a year. “I hated math,” he told the New York Times. He then landed a job at the AP because his other brother was in the art department doing touch-up work on photos.
He taught himself the basics of photography and moonlighted as a baby photographer before he was hired as a staff photographer in 1938. Initially based in Baltimore, he moved to the Washington bureau a year later.
He told the Times that on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he was on assignment covering a football game when he heard an announcement ordering military personnel to report to duty urgently. He phoned the AP and was told Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese.
He was dispatched to the State Department. He recounted to the Times that “Secretary of State Cordell Hull was berating two Japanese envoys sent to talk peace. He was really yelling at them.” He then went to the Japanese Embassy and saw diplomats setting fire to sensitive documents. “One guy with a broom was chasing photographers,” he said. “When they ran, we took pictures. When he chased us, the others took pictures.”
Mr. Desfor said that he tried to enlist in the Navy but was turned away because of his age and his role as his family’s sole breadwinner. He instead became a wire service war photographer assigned to the staff of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz’s fleet in the Pacific.
He photographed the crew of the Enola Gay after the B-29 landed in Tinian from its mission to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. He was with the first wave of Marines at Tokyo Bay shortly after Japan’s surrender that month and photographed the official surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
After the war, Mr. Desfor worked for the AP in India, where one notable photo showed Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru attending a 1946 All-India Congress committee meeting. Following Gandhi’s assassination, he covered the funeral in 1948. He subsequently reported from Rome.
Eventually Mr. Desfor became supervising editor of Wide World Photos, the AP’s photo service, and returned to Asia in 1968 as Tokyo-based photo chief for the region. He retired from the AP in 1978, then moved to the Washington area and joined U.S. News & World Report as photo director. He retired about five years later.
His wife of 59 years, the former Clara Mehl, died in 1994 of injuries sustained in a car accident. In 2012, when he was 98, Mr. Desfor wed his longtime companion, Shirley Belasco, then age 90. She died in 2015.
Survivors include a son from his first marriage, of Wauconda, Ill.; two stepchildren; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Although the bridge picture earned him the most praise, Mr. Desfor said another photo he took during the Korean War held particular meaning to him. Walking near a field, he spotted two hands, blue from cold, sticking up in the snow and photographed them. The hands, which had been bound, belonged to one of several civilians taken prisoner and executed, their bodies left to be covered by snowfall.
“I labeled that picture, later on, ‘Futility,’ because it’s always been — I’ve always felt that it’s the civilians caught in the crossfire, the civilians, the innocent civilians, how futile it is for war,” he said for the oral history. “That epitomized it to me.”
CORRECTION: The obituary incorrectly reported the place where the bomber Enola Gay landed after its mission to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was the island of Tinian, not Saipan. The story has been revised.