Port Washington resident Roy Zehren photographed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Korean President Syngman Rhee, generals, war heroes and USO entertainers, including Patricia Neal and Debbie Reynolds.
He also documented the horrors of war as a photographer for the Army’s public information department during the Korean War.
Zehren spent 15 months in Korea, from March 1952 to June 1953, and much of the time he was on the front line to appease his commander.
Zehren was told to document the war, but not to release photographs of dead or wounded soldiers. With his personal 35mm camera, he took pictures that showed all aspects of the war, but he could not publish photos from the slides for 20 years.
Zehren donated his slides to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. The museum staff transferred 780 of his original slides, which are kept in a climate-controlled vault, onto a DVD that anyone can view.
Zehren was given a DVD. His son added music and made copies. Zehren’s wife Geri, a member of the Port Washington Historical Society, wrote a narrative from her husband’s recollections.
Zehren, 83, occasionally gives presentations with his slides.
Recounting some of the stories behind the images — “I saw things nobody should have to see” — often brings tears, especially when he sees pictures of buddies who died in what he considers a senseless war.
A photo of a group of joyful soldiers in a tank, pointing to a newspaper they were reading, makes him solemn. The next image shows the tank blown up, a cloud of debris still rising. Everyone in the tank was killed.
He didn’t know the men, but their smiling faces haunt him.
“We lost 35,000 men in the Korean War. Out of my company of 200, we lost 40 to 50, and many more were wounded,” Zehren said. “It was nothing to see 1,000 deaths in a day. It was scary.
“I’ve never joined the American Legion or VFW. When I came home, I just wanted to forget it.”
A Milwaukee native, Zehren graduated in 1950 from Milwaukee Area Technical College’s photography school, which was ranked one of the top in the nation. He was a freelance photographer doing everything from weddings to news photography for the Milwaukee Journal when he was drafted in 1951 at age 21. After completing basic training, he was asked if he wanted special training.
Zehren requested photography. While he waited for his assignment, the majority of his unit went to Berlin. Three weeks later, Zehren was told the photography school was full and he was going to Korea with the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division.
He sailed from Seattle with 4,500 soldiers and made an amphibious landing at Incheon harbor near Seoul.
His infantry unit was sent to the demilitarized zone in Kaesong for five days.The five days turned into six weeks. The post was on a high hill between the American and Chinese armies. If there was any movement from the Chinese troops, they reported it and were the first to encounter fire.
“That’s where I met my first heavy shelling, and that’s when a lot of guys died,” Zehren said.
During a rest and recovery period, which meant being behind the lines and wearing street clothes for a week, Zehren said, an officer asked for a volunteer.
“I volunteered and then said, ‘What did I volunteer for?’” Zehren said.
It was for the public information office. The next day he was sitting at a desk and wrote his first story for the Army.
The then infamous Sgt. Britt and his pet monkey Charlie had arrived in camp. Zehren took a picture of them and wrote a story about the soldier who earned a Purple Heart, was sent home, but thumbed his way back to Korea. The photo was picked up by many newspapers.
“I was a photojournalist,” he said.
When the department’s head photographer left, Zehren was promoted and sent to command headquarters.
His commander gave his personal camera to Zehren and told him to take pictures for him also. He could then tell his superiors he was on the front lines.
“He stayed in his trailer and never went near the front line,” Zehren said.
In return for his silence, Zehren was given a Jeep, his own tent and darkroom equipment. He also had an assistant and a Korean houseboy, who became a good friend, and an airplane was at his disposal.
Zehren said he set up eight to 10 darkrooms near the front lines, improvising the equipment he needed. His mother also sent darkroom supplies. To get water to develop his pictures, he climbed to a mountain stream and ran a steel fence line to his tent, with water trickling along the line.
Zehren developed the pictures for the Army and his commander, but he couldn’t develop his Kodachrome film slides.
The slides not only showed dead and wounded soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict, but also tungsten mines in Taegu, which his unit was assigned to guard that summer.
The mines were surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and 20 guard towers. The ore was shipped by gondola cars over the mountains to Pusah harbor, where it was loaded and shipped to the U.S., Zehren said.
“Tungsten ore is a component for tungsten steel needed for jet engines,” he said. “At this time, these mines produced 97% of the world supply of tungsten ore. It does pose the question, ‘Why were we in Korea?’”
He was also on the front line as Allied troops took and lost the denuded hill they called Old Baldy at least five times in battles that spanned 10 months.
“We lost 700 to 800 men on that hill alone,” he said.
Zehren said he had six commanders, and each of them was killed during the two months he was there.
“The last one was a sheepherder from Oklahoma who went through ROTC. His first day, he said, ‘OK, men, we’re going to take this hill and kill a few Chinese.’ He did a John Wayne thing, his rifle held above his head, and ran down the hill. The snipers were set and killed him,” Zehren said.
Another commander was decapitated next to him. Zehren had thrown him to the ground in a ditch when he heard a shell coming, but the officer stuck his head up to see what was happening.
Zehren helped carry many wounded and dead soldiers off battlefields. He was also wounded by shrapnel.
A disagreement with his commander led to Zehren being demoted from sergeant to private and stripped of all his medals, he said.
The one bright spot, Zehren said, was the orphanage the soldiers built and supplied. The soldiers often played with the children, and he photographed them.
Zehren met photographers from Time, Life and other magazines and newspapers.
“They took my pictures and tried to get them published,” Zehren said. “I never got one in Life, but I had one in Collier’s.”
Knowing the Army would confiscate his images if he tried to take them home or mail them to his parents, Zehren sent the rolls of film to a Kodak lab in Hawaii with instructions to bill him. He would then send an address where the slides should be mailed.
But on his way home, his troop ship stopped in Hawaii for five days, and he picked up the slides.
Zehren said he was offered a job with Time Life that would have paid $500 to $600 per month plus all expenses.
“But I turned it down,” he said.
Zehren returned to the Milwaukee landscape business his father owned, designing and installing landscaping for many Milwaukee libraries and municipal buildings. He started a second business, NAT (Natural Athletic Turf), and installed and renovated hundreds of baseball, soccer and football fields and golf-course greens. He retired in 2007.
Image Information: Roy Zehren, with some of the thousands of images he took during the Korean War, held a 1952 photo of himself. The snapshot above shows him with a rifle, not a camera, in a Korean War combat zone. Photo by Sam Arendt