General Douglas MacArthur and photographer Carl Mydans both experienced tumultuous few years the Pacific Theater before arriving at this moment. MacArthur was driven from the Philippines by the Japanese in March 1942, declaring emphatically, “I shall return.” Two months earlier, Mydans, covering the war for Life magazine, was taken prisoner in Manila. He was held for nearly two years before being repatriated in a POW exchange.
In October 1944, Douglas MacArthur made good on his pledge, storming ashore at Leyte, an island in the central Philippines.
Above photo, taken three months later during the landings at Luzon-Lingayen Gulf in the north of the Philippines, was invariably used to commemorate “the return.” Many insisted that the picture was staged — an allegation Mydans disputed through his life. He would point out that Douglas MacArthur was usually uncooperative with photographers and insist that the general only did the walk once.
However, it had a complicated history. Bombastic MacArthur certainly had an idea on what sort of image he would like to be disseminated. During Leyte landings in October, Major Gaetano Faillace, an army photographer assigned to MacArthur (Faillace went on to take pictures of MacArthur’s historic meeting with the Japanese Emperor the following year) took photos of the general coming ashore.
Douglas MacArthur was mad at the beachmaster who insisted that the landing craft be parked offshore, making the general wade through the water. Faillace’s photo reflected that anger and the general was pleased. He looked determined and heroic, in his open-necked uniform and signature dark glasses, flanked by staff officers and helmeted troops. When the next landings came, he knew precisely the sort of photos he wanted.
This time, he didn’t need to wade through the waters. The Navy had quickly built a small pontoon pier, but MacArthur ordered his boat to turn away from the pier. He knew Mydans and other photographers would be on the beach — Mydans was on a different landing craft and rushed ashore via the pontoon. When he saw MacArthur’s landing craft turn away parallel to the shore, Mydans realized something.
“Having spent a lot of time with MacArthur,” Mydans said, “it flashed on me what was happening. He was avoiding the pontoons.” The photographer ran along the sand until the craft headed inwards. “I was standing in my dry shoes waiting.”
That day, Mydans was working as a press pool photographer, which gave any news organization free license to use the image. On January 20, 1945, a tightly cropped version of the photo, above, focusing on MacArthur and doing away with the other photographer and the shirtless soldier who had annoyed the general so much, appeared in newspapers.
When Life magazine covered the landings a month later in an article penned by Mydans, editors used the uncropped version as well as other photos Mydans took moments before and after, including an unflattering shot of MacArthur being helped down the ramp of the landing craft.