Most Americans followed the news of the Second World War through three sources: radio broadcasts, newspapers (there were more than 11,000 in the country then), and newsreels that preceded the movies at their local theatres. The government’s control of the news was comprehensive: all war news had to pass through the Office of War Information. Just after the United States entered the war, a “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press” was issued on Jan 15, 1942 giving strict instructions on proper handling of news.
The code was not mandatory but still voluntarily adopted by all of the major news organizations; the government was also relying heavily that the reporters’ patriotism would ensure that their dispatches from the front lines would be broadly positive.
In such a context, the photo above was unusal. Three American soldiers lay dead in the sand on shoreline near half sunken landing craft on Buna Beach, Papua New Guinea. It was the first time an image of dead American troops appeared in media during World War II without their bodies being covered up or in coffins.
Taken by George Strock in February 1943, it was not published until months later in LIFE magazine’s September 20th 1943 issue. Cal Whipple, Life’s Washington correspondent, fought hard to achieve that. In his own words, he “went from army captain to major to colonel to general until [he] wound up in the office of an Assistant Secretary of the Air Corps.” to argue that these photos were what the home front needed. The Secretary decided to forward the photos to the White House, where President Roosevelt agreed that the American public had grown complacent about the war and its horrific toll.
In September 1943, Strock’s photo and other graphic pictures were cleared for publication by the Office of War Information’s censors. As the consequence, war bond sales boomed but the pictures shocked many readers. The Washington Post argued that the pictures “can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won.”
Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that, with efforts being made to crop the photos or obscure the victims’ faces, name tags and unit insignia. Although the censorship rule regarding the home front morale was abolished, the censorship itself would prove to be enduring. Censorship and self-censorship continued with the pictures from Dresden, Hiroshima, and even Auschwitz. The rule not to show faces of the American dead existed until the Korean War, which saw bans on photos showing the aftermaths by US bombings in North Korea, and of political prisoners.
LIFE asked in an adjacent full-page editorial: