This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and as veterans of that generation grow older, recording their memories of their experiences during this critical turning point in history has become more important for posterity. Five years ago, photographer Sasha Maslov began making portraits of men and women from around the world who served in the war. In intimate profiles, Maslov shares brief stories of the lives of those who served in different roles, whether on the ground fighting, in tiny European villages treating the injured, as partisans, or as prisoners of war.
His collection is unique in that it spans the globe, documenting men and women from a number of countries, among them India, Latvia, England, Italy, and Japan. In an interview with New Yorker Photo Booth in 2014, Maslov remarked that “the geography is one of the most interesting parts of the project…Living rooms, bedrooms, even kitchens can tell you what someone went through in their life. The quality of life is reflected in their environment—what’s on their shelf, what kind of clothing they are wearing, and what is reflected on their faces.”
Here are some of their stories.
“My name is Sidney Owen. When war broke out on my birthday in 1939, I tried to enlist. I was in Birkenhead. I went to the Naval Recruiting Office because I thought I would like to be in the navy. When I got my call, I went back to the office and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to be a conscript. I volunteered on the Third.’ I was sent to Portsmouth in early December, 1939. I joined 19 Squad there.
I went to the gate and they took me to the company office, where I saw a sergeant. And he said, “What’s your name?” and took all my details. He said, “Do you want to go home for Christmas?” I said, “Yes sir.” He said, ‘You don’t call me sir, you call me Sergeant.’ I was there for a fortnight and I got leave over Christmas. I was in marine uniform then. Next time I went, I was in officer’s uniform.
It was a rough time because all the other newly appointed officers had a three-month course to prepare them, but I was just thrown into the deep-end. I was given charge of 13 Platoon in B Company, under Major Phillips. The battalion formed on April 1. The next month we were put on twenty-four hour notice to go on an operation. We weren’t told where we were going. We were only told to take care not to upset the natives. It turned out to be a takeover of Iceland. We set sail up the north sea in two cruisers and it was a rough passage; there was a gale blowing. Only some of the chaps had ever been to sea before. There was a great deal of seasickness. The Icelanders were pleased to see us. Denmark had just been taken over by the Germans and they were worried about what was going to happen to them.”
“My name is Ioanna, and I was born on July 8, 1933 in Chonia, Greece. My older sister Rena was born on September 8, 1926.
Our life was carefree until the war started. The Germans were tyrants who were rapidly invading Europe. It was pretty clear that Crete was in line to be invaded by the Germans, especially after they occupied mainland Greece. At that time, our family leased our house to the British consulate. The British were here to protect us, as well as a lot of soldiers from New Zealand and Australia. Still, we all felt very uneasy about the possibility of war.
In May 1941, my father took us to a village north of Chania, trying to find a safer place to live. Soon the German invasion began. There was heavy fighting and the British soldiers fought for our island like it was their own. Still, the Germans won and Crete was under occupation. We remember the first day of the battle. We were playing in the yard when out of nowhere a plane appeared right over our heads. We saw a German pilot pointing his gun at us. Our mom ran out of the house and dragged us inside. That plane was flying so low we still can remember the expression on the pilot’s face.
Later, when we returned to Chania it was already governed by the German administration. One day my mother walked me through our neighborhood. I saw our home and ran to go inside, but saw a strange man on the porch. I was very confused. My mother quickly grabbed me and told me it was no longer our house.”
“My name is Jack Jerry Diamond, which is not my birth name. My birth name was Udell Moishe Diamond.
The Second World War started when I graduated from Miami Beach Senior High School. My uncle sent me to join the Riverside Military Academy in my senior year. I enlisted in the army even before my 18th birthday. I ended up in the 106th Division and we were stationed at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. We provided close support to the infantry. Our field position was on the front line. I spent a short time in a military school in Indiana, ranked as an army private (PVT). We left from New York on a ship known as Aquitania, and landed in Scotland. We were stationed for some time in a small town outside England. Our division crossed the English Channel and landed in France where we went to our first combat position in Belgium. And BOOM! It was the time after D-Day and there were not many Germans left in France as the battle moved to Germany.”
“My name is Alfie Martin and I was born in Finaghy, near Belfast, on March 26, 1920.
In 1938, the time of Munich Agreement, I made an application to join the Royal Air Force to fly at weekends. I signed up and went home that evening, but my mother indicated the dangers of flying and suggested to cancel it. Therefore, I went the next day and cancelled my joining notice. In January 1939, the things were still heading towards war and I felt very nationalistic so I joined the Territorial Army Royal Engineers. I was in the Territorial unit where we were paid £5 a year as a bounty, which is roughly equal to £100 today. The officer in charge was Maynard Sinclair, who later became the Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland. I was in the camp in June 1939 but after that, I continued my civilian job in an insurance company. I was away for company business when I received the telegram from my office on August 28, 1939 to immediately report to TA. Thus, I took a bus and traveled to Kilroot, which is beyond Carrickfergus, from where I walked down to the camp.”
“My name is Leon Lebowitz. I was born October 18, 1921. I was called into active duty in 1944.
I reported to Fort Walters in Mineral Wells. From there I took basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas. It was an old army cavalry base, and there were still some horses there. I attended advanced training in Fort Meade, Maryland. From there, we shipped off to North Africa, going from Casablanca, Morroco to Algiers and Oran, Algeria, eventually ending up in Naples, Italy.
After some difficulty with the Germans, we occupied Rome. We were in relatively small groups. I remember visiting different parts of the city. The Vatican, the Coliseum. I got to see a lot of the relics the Romans had left behind. There were some Italians that were glad to work with us while we occupied. They got rations, food they otherwise might not have had.
We went back to Naples for more training, then took part in the invasion of Southern France. We came up through the Rhone Valley, to Alsace-Lorraine. To Germany. I was in Nuremburg when the war ended. I read about it in the Stars and Stripes. I was excited to get home. By that time, I was First Sergeant of my company. I got along well with my men. I returned once the war in Europe ended because I was in a reserve unit. I was discharged at Fort Riley in December.”
“My name is Ken Smith. I was born on April 12, 1922 in Portsmouth.
I loved football and a friend of mine said, ‘Join the Royal Marines, you’ll get plenty of football.’ I joined when I was eighteen. I did six months training near Dover, where we expected the invasion to begin. Every night we used to stand on the beaches. When the invasion didn’t happen, I was moved to Plymouth where I did a naval gunnery course. I passed two naval gunnery courses, and was sent up at a ship in Newcastle, HMS Manchester.
We used to go around Iceland looking for German weather ships. Those days they depended on their weather ships to forecast the British weather. We’d live on the upper deck in the bitter cold. We’d live around the guns. We pulled into Scapa Flow for supplies and I was on the meet party to our biggest battle cruiser, which was the HMS Hood. I went aboard to get supplies to take over to our ship. The next morning, I received a telegram that said my father was dying. I tried to get leave to come and see him. And I put in a request to see the commander. Because I was a gunner, he said no. I asked for the captain of the ship, he said no. So I said, can I see the admiral? He was on the Hood.”
“My father moved to Argentina in 1915, during the First World War, but he decided to return and enlist. He became a hero because the army was fleeing after a defeat and forgot a cannon on the field. During the night, my father went back alone to retrieve the cannon with a cart. He was shot between the ribs. This gave him asthma. And when the Germans came to our door during the Second World War, my father went downstairs and they took him. We thought we would never see him again. The Germans thought he was a partisan, then they determined that because of his asthma he could never be an active partisan, though he might be someone who aided the partisans.
When the war ended on April 25, on Liberation Day, I was headed to work. I met a man that was a fascist and he asked why I was going to work. He told me not to go to work. ‘Today is a special day,’ he’d said. ‘Nothing is going to happen.’ There were a lot of people gathered in the town square. The partisans were able to come out of hiding. They gathered twenty people they suspected of being fascists and put them in trucks and took them to the woods and shot them. I knew a girl that owned a hotel. The Germans had occupied it during the war. The partisans decided she was a spy, though she only owned the hotel, and they killed her. After killing those fascist men, the partisans displayed their wives in the square with shaved heads.”
“My name is Munshi Ram, and I was born in India in 1921.
In 1939, my country was in serious conflict. British Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared our entry into the war and India started seeking volunteers. As I remember it, if you had a certain amount of males in your family, they would let the oldest males into the service. I happily volunteered to serve my country and provide for my family, who needed serious financial assistance. I had married my wife then and felt a duty to make her life more comfortable.
Once I was enlisted, I was sent to Bareilly to train for six months. There, they taught us everything we needed to know about being effective soldiers. I gained stealth survival skills and became adept at different tactics of combat. We were trained as relentless fighters, ready to fight our enemies to the death. I can remember the long, hard days of training, and the mantra we were taught: ‘never step back!’ As I was building myself into a warrior, I realized even if it came down to losing my life, that’s just what would have to happen. It was all about the greater good.
It didn’t take long for me to realize Germans were the most powerful people in the world. The Nazis were fighting numerous countries at once and were successful in just about every conflict.”
“My name is Michele Montagano. I was born on October 27, 1921, in Casacalenda, Italy.
In 1941, I was called back by the state to enlist as a soldier. Thus I joined the army on Feb. 1, 1941. I took an official army course and became a sergeant. I was sent to Cephalonia and Corfu in Greece with the Acqui Division of the Italian Army. It is the same division that Hitler destroyed in 1943 in the Cephalonia Massacre. I returned from Greece soon, as I had to take another course to increase my rank in the army. I was promoted from being a sergeant to a lieutenant in Italy.
In September 1942, I was sent to North Italy in Gorizia. I was one of the GAF, a group of soldiers fighting against the Tito Partisans. This group of soldiers resembled Alpini soldiers, as they used to wear similar hats. It was a tough situation as it wasn’t only the army against us, but there were people without uniform all around the mountains and valleys who were fighting us. In the daytime, they were smiling and saying hello to us, but during the night they were our enemies. The Tito Partisans did not have uniforms, so you never know who they are, which made it very difficult. Besides that, it was freezing temperatures that winter, which I’ll remember for a long time.”
“My name is Imants Zeltiņš. I was born April 12, 1922, here in Bauska.
The beginning of my childhood was difficult after the First World War. Eventually, my family had managed to acquire some land. By 1939, we were doing very well. I remember these as good times. In 1938, we could afford a bicycle. We had no thoughts of going to war. In school, we were taught that Germany was our biggest enemy. But in 1940, when the Red Army occupied Latvia, that perspective shifted dramatically.
When Germany attacked Russia on July 22, 1941, we thought they would be our liberators. On May 1, 1943, I attempted to volunteer for the army. I was sixteen, so they didn’t take me. They did, however, send me into Russia—a general had us all in a line and said, ‘Those who are underage, step forward.’ There were fifteen of us. They sent me back to Bauska. I found work in a police station. By then, Latvia was under German administration.
In 1944, the Red Army was pushing back and closing in on Bauska. In July 28 of the same year, I joined the volunteer force. I was finally eighteen. But there were people from fifteen years old to eighty years old, and everyone wanted to fight the Russians. No one wanted another Soviet occupation.
We waged guerrilla war for several weeks. I was injured on September 14, 1944. That’s where the war ended for me. I was injured in the fight where twenty-eight Soviet T-34 tanks went up against two hundred Latvian conscripts. We were trying to cross a river, but the Russians came at us from all sides. There were planes flying over.
Many men died trying to swim across the river. We had six mine throwers and all the men that knew how to use them were dead. I tried to use one from a rooftop, but a tank fired at the building and everything caved in beneath me. I was brought to a German hospital. My right arm was only attached by skin, so they cut it off. My left was completely smashed. The doctor there told me I had twenty-eight injuries total.”
“My name is Takeoka Chisaka and I was born on February 3rd, 1925 in Hiroshima, Japan. When I was born, I was so weak my parents asked my uncle in Miyajima to take care of me. They believed the clean air of Miyajima’s mountains and water would help me get better, and they were right. It was such a beautiful place. I loved to be with nature, especially the deer there. After school, I would swim all the time. It was a wonderful experience. Once I felt better, I went back to Hiroshima and enrolled in women’s school.
The war started when I was 11. We were embroiled in a conflict with China. In my sophomore year at Yamanaka Girls’ High School, they stopped teaching English. Because of this, I wasn’t able to study to be a doctor which was my dream. When I graduated, I went to work at a military weapons factory like everyone else. Outside the building, people thought it was a factory for making jam, but we were making weapons inside.
I was 17, making submarine artillery and bombs for the Japanese military. In the early morning hours of August 6th, 1945, I was walking home from an overnight shift at the factory. It was still dark outside. I had planned to go to Miyajima with 3 friends because we were off for the upcoming day. We agreed to meet at 8:15 a.m. at the Koi Station. As soon as I opened my door, there was a huge explosion. I was blown away and knocked unconscious.
When I woke up, my head was bleeding, and I was 30 meters away from my home, or what was left of it. My house didn’t catch fire, but the wind blew it away. I looked up at the sky and there was a dark, gray cloud. The bomb detonated 3 kilometers from my home. I later found out the cloud carried massive amounts of radiation. When it started raining that day, we called it the blood rain. It was hysteria. So many people were trying to escape the area. People were badly burned, awkwardly walking. Everybody wanted water. Everyone was looking for their family.”
“I was born in Texas. Between Fayette and Bastrop. St. Mary’s Colony, down toward Houston.
I didn’t want to go to war. Uncle Sam picked me; he enlisted me. I went to the army and went to Iwo Jima. The lucky men got killed, that’s what I remember. I got back here safely; a lot of them didn’t get back at all. I lost a lot of friends.
I joined the war in 1945. I did a lot of shooting, a lot of fighting, a lot of running, a lot of work. I drove the officers. I was a hundred miles out of Japan when the war ended. Coming home was the brightest memory I have from the war.”