The Taedong Bridge, 1950

Max Desfor volunteered to cover the Korean War when the North invaded the South in June 1950. His boss at the Associated Press told him that the war would not last more than two weeks, but Desfor insisted. In October 1950, he received the permission to join up with the 187th Regimental Combat Team and he parachuted into North Korea with them. Also with them he retreated after the North Korean troops, joined by the Chinese Red Army, pushed south.

As Desfor and the army retreated from Pyongyang, so were many Koreans who feared the reprisals. On December 4, 1950, Desfor was able to commandeer a Jeep with two other reporters and an army signal corpsman headed south. They crossed the Taedong River at a United Nations pontoon bridge. While driving along the river’s southern shore they observed Korean refugees crossing the river on foot where it was iced over, using small boats where the river was open. Later they came across a destroyed bridge where they saw thousands of Koreans trying to cross the shattered girders of the bridge.

The bridge had been destroyed but the girders were still intact and connecting, so the people used these metallic supports to get to their destination. Some were half-frozen. Others plunged into the icy river. Thousands of refugees still lined up on the north bank waiting their turn to cross the river.

He recalled: “We came across this incredible sight. 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. My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera. I couldn’t even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold.”

Desfor climbed a 50-foot-high section of the bridge and took the photo he later called Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea. He transmitted it from Tokyo AP Bureau and the following year, won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography for his work in Korea.

 

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