US photographer Max Desfor relives Korean War
- 25 June 2010
- From the section Asia-Pacific
"Sometimes I get a little annoyed," says Max Desfor.
He is a former Associated Press photographer who covered the Korean War and has been invited by the South Korean government to take part in commemorations marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the war.
"I ask anyone who'll listen - why do they celebrate the start of the war? They celebrate the start, of course, because it's never ending - it's still going on."
The US, which backed the South, and North Korea signed a temporary truce in July 1953, but there was never a peace treaty. Technically they are still at war.
"The North Koreans invaded Korea, South Korea, and I immediately volunteered my services to the AP and said, 'I will cover that war' and my boss said, 'the war isn't going to last more than two weeks!'"
I met Max at the Korean War Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC.
The 96-year-old has long since retired, but still carries a camera and stops to snap pictures as we talk.
"By this time, the troops - the North Koreans chasing the South Koreans - they were in a position about 15 or 20 miles south of Seoul and I caught up with the troops... that was my first coverage of the Korean War."
That coverage, and in particular an image he captured of Korean refugees crossing a wrecked bridge, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1951.
"This incredible sight I saw, with Koreans fleeing from the north bank of the Taedong River, crawling through and into and above and onto the broken-down bridge, it was like ants crawling through the girders," he said.
"They carried what little possessions they had on their heads or strapped to their shoulders, and on the north side I saw thousands more lined up waiting to do the same thing, waiting to crawl and join the rest of them."
While in Korea, Max says he always wanted to go where the action was - whether it was with US soldiers or the South Koreans - and he was free to do so.
"Embedding was not a term we used in Korea. We were not directed as to whom to go with. We were completely on our own.
"I chose to stay with troops that were on the frontline," Max said.
That freedom of movement meant he was in the right place at the right time, time and time again.
"After the Inchon landing, we started chasing the North Koreans and the Chinese military northwards.
"It was just about mid-way from Seoul to Pyonyang when I heard of a parachute jump that was going to take place... it was incredible - what an experience it is to make a parachute jump.
"As soon as I landed, I had my camera ready to shoot and I got a picture of the second wave. They were all leaving their planes and you see this flight of parachutes coming down - that's the picture I wanted."
Being so deeply entrenched with the troops sometimes meant becoming involved in the story he was covering.
Max described a picture he shot when he was travelling in convoy.
"We made a pit stop and I walked a short distance through the snow. Suddenly I saw a pair of hands sticking up through the snow, and right along side of it was a black hole.
"I pointed this out to the commanding officer of the outfit I was with and they started immediately digging it out. The man's hands were bound and that black hole, they determined, was where he breathed his last through the snow."
Max says he later learned the whole story of the man in the field.
The American soldiers dug up the area around him and discovered about 100 other bodies under the snow - men, women and children.
They had been shot and killed by fleeing North Koreans, who had panicked as UN troops closed in on them.
Max has nothing but admiration for the American soldiers he spent time with in Korea, not least because they didn't get the heroes' welcome he believes they deserved.
"The Korean War is labelled as 'the Forgotten War', and the main reason is they never got a parade when they got back, they never got relief, they never were cited for their effort for the work that was done. They were just completely forgotten."