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From The Acorn:

World War II combat photographers focused on a different time
Two local vets witnessed the heat of battle
By John Loesing
Acorn Staff Writer

From Mathew Brady’s haunting portraits of the Civil War to the same-day coverage of the men fighting in far off Afghanistan, the image of war stirs our emotions and opens our eyes.

Some of the most powerful scenes in the history of 20th Century warfare were photographed by two World War II combat photographers now living in Agoura Hills, Art Mainzer and Ed Montagne.

Both have harrowing stories to tell.

Mainzer was the first person to photograph the Buchenwald concentration camp after it was liberated by U.S. forces, and Montagne was an army cameraman who had the opportunity to film Benito Mussolini at the famous gory execution scene in Milan, Italy.

The combat photographers of the Second World War introduced us to a portfolio of horrors we’d never seen before—the detail of their work was far more graphic than in World War I—and gave modern war its familiar deadly face.

"In their hands, the camera became a weapon more powerful than the rifle," said host Tom Hanks in the Steven Spielberg production of "The Shooting War," a 90-minute documentary that aired on ABC television on Pearl Harbor Day, 2000.

The program told the story of 24 World War II cameramen and gave special recognition to Mainzer for the historic footage he brought back from Buchenwald. Grisly scenes of prisoners weighing 60 to 70 pounds—stacked like cordwood throughout the camp—told the story of the Holocaust for the first time to a stunned and saddened world.

Mainzer witnessed the surreal scene through the lens of a camera. In real life, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

"A lot of people didn’t believe that this had happened, but we had it on film," he said.

Mainzer is now 79 and the memories of the concentration camp are unlikely to fade, his age notwithstanding.

Shortly after U.S. troops arrived at the camp on April 11, 1945, dozens of German citizens were led through the open prison gates and ordered to observe the atrocities with their own eyes. As Mainzer rolled his 16mm color film, the men and women covered their faces in an attempt to hide the truth.

Before arriving in Germany, Mainzer was stationed in England where he documented the war from the inside of a B-26 bomber. Some of the footage that has become so familiar to us by now—the bombs whistling down on German cities and factories—came to us from Mainzer’s camera. He served as a photographer in the 9th Air Force.

In one incident, German ground guns scored a hit on Mainzer’s aircraft.

"The plane had a few holes in the wing from the ack-ack (anti-aircraft) fire, but we got back safely," he said.

Mainzer added that whenever the plane was hit he was told to drop his camera and start shooting with a gun instead.

A Dictator Falls

Montagne, who served as a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps, learned about the horrors of war while ducking enemy bullets at Anzio.

Luckily, he said, he never got hit. "It was just a matter of picking your spots, I guess."

Today, Montagne is 90 years old and has been married to his wife, Reah, for 51 years.

From the beginning, the kid from Brooklyn seemed like a natural. He moved to Hollywood in 1922 where his father was a motion picture writer. Soon, Montagne directed two war documentaries on his own: "Army Chaplain" and "Women in Arms." Both were RKO pictures.

Montagne was called to active duty in 1942, received his basic training, and was shipped overseas with his camera in hand.

Montagne’s "weapon" while serving in the Italian theater was the venerable Eyemo 35mm, the camera used by most professional news organizations at the time.

About two weeks after Mainzer had documented Buchenwald, Montagne was traveling north from Rome and entering the city of Milan. He was carrying both his motion picture camera and his still camera when he stumbled across history.

"It was quite a hairy thing because there was still fighting, but I got to the [plaza] where they strung up Mussolini."

The Italian dictator and his mistress, Claretta Petaccim had been executed by Italian partisans while trying to escape to Switzerland and were brought into the city to be put on public display. In medieval Italy, it was customary to hang crooks and thieves by one foot. According to historians, the fact that Mussolini was hung by two feet suggests the deep level of rage and betrayal felt by the Italian people toward their once beloved "Il Duce" (leader).

After taking pictures of the bloated dictator in his upside down pose, Montagne went to the morgue where Mussolini and his mistress had been transported.

Fifty-seven years later, Montagne said the ugly scene is still fresh in his mind.

"I asked the attendant to move Mussolini into the light so we could get better pictures and he said to me, ‘Lieutenant, if we move him, his head will fall apart.’ We pushed Petacci next to him and took the pictures which became rather famous."

Montagne’s contributions to the field of combat journalism have been stamped in the annals of war and they are memories that will remain with him always.

"He talks about it every chance he gets," said his daughter Kathy Montagne. "He’s very, very proud of it and he should be."

Coming Home

Not all of their work was guts and glory; both photographers were assigned their share of other chores. They shot parades, decoration ceremonies and special events.

Montagne witnessed the German Liguarian Army surrendering to U.S. Gen. Dale Crittenberger on April 29, 1945, near Verona. Montagne and the general had become friends during the Italian campaign.

Returning to the United States in 1946, Montagne went back to work for RKO and later for CBS television where he produced "The Phil Silvers Show." He also produced and directed the hit TV series, "McHale’s Navy."

Mainzer and Montagne met each other only recently as residents of the same local community, but the two almost crossed paths before the war. In 1943, the Army Air Corps sent Mainzer to Hal Roach Studios in Los Angles for his motion picture training. Montagne, 11 years older, had worked as an assistant director at the Culver City studio from 1940 to 1942.

The war offered many images to the combat photographers, most of them unpleasant, but toward the end of the war Mainzer came across one sight that was unbelievably beautiful.

It was his future wife.

"My buddy and I were walking down the boulevard in Paris and Germaine came out of the opera with her girlfriend and it was snowing. She had an umbrella, so we moved under the umbrella to introduce ourselves ... We went inside the cafe and a had a few glasses of wine and I started dating her."

Mainzer said in this instance communication was no problem, for her English was far better than his French.

In 1945, Art and Germaine Mainzer were married in Montreuil outside Paris, and, as you probably guessed, Art’s photographer buddies were eager to capture the ceremony on film. The couple remained married for 53 years until Germaine passed away in 1998.

Montagne taught motion picture production at Cal State University Northridge until retiring in the late 1980s. He underwent surgery for an aneurysm on Aug. 1, but appears to be recovering well. Mainzer tried unsuccessfully to run a photography studio after the war, but later found his niche in sales and marketing.

Recently, the Agoura Hills City Council recognized Mainzer for his unique achievements during America’s dark time.

Said Louise Rishoff, a member of the city council and one of Mainzer’s neighbors, "I am pleased that people like Art are in our community. They are a member of what Tom Brokaw calls, ‘The Greatest Generation.’"


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The Acorn is a newspaper of general circulation for the City of Agoura Hills, Malibu Judicial District, County of Los Angeles, State of California. (Decree No. BS061493). Adjudicated a newspaper of general circulation in accordance with the laws of California, Decree No.316672 of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, dated June 26, 1980, and qualified for publishing in a newspaper in Los Angeles County.