Navy Photographer Shoots Portraits of WWII Vets Before It’s Too Late

Navy photographer Mickey Strand, who served for 24 years before retiring in 2009, has captured portraits of more than 115 World War II veterans since 2017. Of those, only 10 to 15 are still with us today, which shows the urgency of moving forward before it’s too late.

Strand also records interviews that he converts into biographies on his project’s website, Veterans Portrait.

Strand had previously captured portraits in the Navy, but his style was the standard flat lighting of a military headshot for almost everything until a mentor gave him some advice.

“This mentor tasked me with coming up with one portrait a week,” Strand tells PetaPixel. “He asked me to try new stuff and experiment with lighting and posing anything but the standards I had set for so many years.

“He also said I should find a subject that I was interested in, to talk with them and get to know them a bit. This way, I would be looking for a genuine portrait of the subject and not trying to make a photo but be taken by a moment.”

Chuck and Annie Muler were married for over 68 years and met back in school before the war. They were married before Chuck shipped out and Annie went to Corpsman school. They both served in their own version of an Army-Navy game.

Strand started a general portrait project in 2016 but narrowed its focus to World War II veterans in 2017 after a visit, shoot, and exhibition at the Mount Miguel Covenant Village (an assisted living community) for Veterans Day in November of 2017.

Traveling for Portrait Shoots

The portraits have all so far been shot in California—a full day in Ventura, CA, four days at the California Veteran home in Los Angeles, and three days in the California Veteran home in Chula Vista.

Dr. John West Enlisted in the US Army in Jan of 1944 as an 18-year-old Private. He attended Parachute School, now the Basic Airborn Course, at Ft. Benning GA, and then served as a Medical Technician (combat medic) in the 505th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne. Dr. West jumped with the 82nd Airborne into Germany just after the Battle of the Bulge, Ardennes Counteroffensive. Dr. West was awarded a Bronze Star and left the Army as a Sargent in 1946. Dr. John West used his GI bill to attend medical school, continuing his life of service. He became a doctor and then a surgeon. He retired in 1999 and built a clinic in China to help Cambodian and Vietnam refugees. He served at his clinic with the staff for several years
Dr. John West (left) holds the print with photographer Mickey Strand

One portrait of veteran Sgt. Wallace Chavkin, US Army, a pharmacy tech in Europe was shot in Palm Beach, Florida. Strand was speaking at a conference at the Palm Beach Photographic Center and a friend of a friend introduced him to the veteran’s daughter. The Center then let Strand use their studio.

“I hope to start traveling and shooting all over, but it comes down to funding,” explains the veteran Navy photographer. “I can find veterans and organizations to help locate vets, but it comes down to financing on the traveling side, so I work closer to home for now. But I’ll hop on a plane if the opportunity arises.”

Stories of Struggles, Sacrifice, and Camraderie

Stand says that his subjects are all heroes no matter where or how much they served. But he has met some very renowned military people. He has met a few POWs, many Flying Cross recipients, Purple Hearts, and then there is Cmdr. James Forester, a survivor of the USS Wasp (CV-7) sinking.

The photographer says he is blessed to learn about those who served and what they had to endure to get us to where we are today.

Garland Cheeks – Navy – SM1. born on June 27th, 1920, Steward’s Mate 1st Class, Garland Cheeks served in the US Navy aboard the transport ship the USS Menard (APA-201) an attack transport that embarked troops and cargo. Aboard the USS Menard, they transported Marines to Okinawa and returned wounded to their home base in the US. He married his high school classmate, Lenora Cheeks and they had 3 kids. They played in a band together, trombone and clarinet respectively. After he was discharged he open a Barbershop in Chicago, Illinois.

“We have not arrived, but we have come a long way,” reflects Strand. “I photographed Garland Cheeks, Steward’s Mate 1st Class, who served on the USS Menard (APA-201), an attack transport.

“Stewards like Garland prepared and served meals to the officers and maintained their quarters and uniforms. He recounted that he and the other stewards, “all Black”, had to stand while eating due to no table being provided for people of color.”

Joe Ray Gonzalez, Private First Class, recalled to Strand his first night in a foxhole on Okinawa and the companionship of his fellow Mexican service members “who all banded together” and helped him through this tough first night.

Juan Estrada joined the Army, still a Mexican citizen, in Dec of ’43, as an Infantryman. “I always carried a rifle, always.” It was not until 1946 that Juan became a citizen of the United States. Juan served with the 3rd Armor, 36th Infantry Division through the North of France into the Rhénanie to secure its liberation from German occupation. He remembers his unit was just full of kids. “We were all just kids.” Juan spent 3 months in France on cemetery duties painting crosses for the fallen. Juan Estrada received his second Bronze Star in September 1945 for ground combat operations in Europe as well as his Combat Infantry Badge. He spent many days in a forward recon unit in Germany having many small skirmishes with the young German soldiers. He retired after 39 years of service.
Noboru Seki (Don) – Army – CPL served in the US Army with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, L company, a segregated unit comprised of Japanese American service members. They advanced from Marseille France to the Vosges Mountains. His unit was assigned to take the town of Bruyères, France. The Germans had the high ground and surrounded the 36th division from Texas. They took heavy casualties fighting uphill but got the 36th out. Four days later in Bifffontain France, Don lost his arm during a heavy machine-gun attack. He was taken to a field hospital where they saved his life but his arm was too far gone. He recuperated stateside at Brigham Young hospital, in Salt Lake City, for 9 months learning to use his new prosthesis.

“I photographed Corporal Noboru Seki (Don), who served in the US Army with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, L company, a segregated unit comprised of Japanese American service members,” recollects Strand.

“During a heavy machine-gun attack, Don lost his arm in the Vosges Mountains [France] while saving the surrounded 36th division from Texas. Veterans have been kinder and more selfless than their country has been to them.”

Some members who can still wear their uniforms often do to a session. Many bring in a photo from their service years, and it’s an opportunity for Strand to create then and now images. Other subjects pose with things that are meaningful to them, such as military photographer Joe Renteria posing with an assortment of cameras.

Joe Renteria served as Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr.’s photographer throughout World War II and documented the atomic bomb tests. Strand maintained a friendship with him for years until he recently passed at 104.

Navy Chief Photographers Mate Joe Renteria was born in July 1917. Joe is a retired Navy PHC and retired after 20 years. Joe began his service in 1936 in the US Army, first serving for three years with a heavy machine gun unit. He was not happy with the Army, so at the end of service, he walked down the hall and joined the Navy. Joe served in Aviation at Pearl Harbor, flying with a PBY unit watching for the Japanese ships before transferring to Pensacola for Photographers A school to become a Photographers Mate. Joe served as Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr.’s photographer throughout WWII. They hopped from island to island where Joe, because of his flight skills, flew aerial photo missions with his favorite KS 20 Navy aerial camera documenting the atomic bomb tests. After the Navy, Joe was the Head of the Photo department at San Diego State University for another 33 years.

Renteria was probably the most active 104-year-old Strand had ever met. He used to have lunch or coffee with him at least once a month when Renteria invited him to a veteran lunch group.

Arthur Pierce – USMC – SSgt was born Jan 11th, 1925, and served during WWII in the US Marine Corps (USMC) from March 22nd, 1943 – June 3rd, 1943. Art served as an aviation radar technician at Naval Air Station Imperial Beach, CA. Art worked in the radio and radar shack (repair facility) where they tested and repaired aircraft radars for night flight training for the F-6 Hellcat Fighter and later the F-7 Tigercat. Art came back into the service during the Korean War and served from Feb 1950 – Sep 1951. Art stayed in the Radar field serving with a beacon crew deploying to Korea for 12 months.

Strand loves it when vets show up and tell him stories. Of course, some of the neatest images have been in uniform, but he has photographed veterans in everything from dress uniforms to Hawaiian shirts.

The oldest subject who has sat in front of Strand’s camera thus far was one hundred and three years old. A few folks were 95 when they first posed in 2017, but they would be 100 today.

Strand has only been able to sit and collect ten portraits of World War II women veterans. He has four more from later service but says he would love to capture many more.

Barbara Komlenic – USMC – SSgt served in the US Marine Corps, USMC, for six years as a MOS-055 Clerk, General (Administrative and Clerical). Barbara was stationed at Headquarters Marine Corps, Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, North Carolina. There she was the secretary for General Rey. Barbara was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant before the end of her service. Before she left the Corps, she met her husband Daniel, who served in the USMC as a Captan. Mrs. Barbara shared a photo from her boot camp graduation for this photo.
Lillian Sanders – Navy was born on December 19th, 1924, and served in the US Navy as a WAVE – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She worked primarily with other women who were serving. She acted as a group leader for the ladies in her unit. Her duties included taking care of the ladies at the ranch. This is where Lillian was given the nickname TigerLil.
Mary ‘Tippy’ Paine – USMC – SGT born on May 11th, 1920 served in the US Marine Corps and was given the nickname, Tippy by her friends. After Bootcamp Mary was meritoriously promoted to Sargent and served in Washington D.C, for her first year in the Corps. Mary served as a recruiter concentrating on encouraging more women to join the Marine Corps. After her first year, she transferred to the west coast to be closer to her family. Her orders brought her to the Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station, at Mojave, California. Mary met her husband Jack Haney USMC, at the air station before he shipped out for Guadalcanal.

“I take really crappy notes,” confesses Strand. “I was having trouble with the caption write-ups early on, so I needed help. I got some guidance from some bloggers I know, and they suggested an interview reporters’ recorder. So, I got the Zoom H1n and did the next event. It was a simple, easy-to-use tool that was a game-changer.”

Wellington Kwan – Army – 2LT born Dec 13th, 1922 served with the U.S Army from Jan 1943 – Oct 1947 as an enlisted man rising to the rank of SSGT with the Signal Corps before accepting a commission to 2nd Lt with the 65th Combat Engineer Division. He fondly remembers flying over the Himalayas in a B25 to get to his first duty station with the Signal Corps. He served in Chongqing, China the headquarters of the Allied Forces in China during World War II as a switchboard operator and telecommunications specialist. Wellington met Hellen Hwa and married his GI Bride in Dec 45 before moving to Shanghai. He reported back to Japan and served in Osaka, Japan at the Kanoka Barracks with the occupational forces for over a year.

The audio recordings helped, and someone asked if Strand was shooting a video of the interviews. He had a spare camera and tripod, so he did the video recordings. But they are just to help him with taking notes. He listens to the interview while editing the member’s portrait as it puts him back to the chat he had that day. It helps him pull a better photograph from the data that his camera recorded as the member recalls a moment in their service. Sometimes he listens to them over and over again.

Capturing the Portraits

“I schedule a 2-hour block in the studio so that we are not rushed,” Strand says. “If I’m at the member’s home, the appointment is usually an hour. Most folks who can come to the studio share a story or two and their service info in about 20 min, and the portrait taking is usually 20-30 min.

Ret. Maj. Walt Little USAF was a Navigation Officer who was originally drafted in 1942. During WWII he primarily performed duties as a Truck Driver in the US Army. He served for one tour in the Army and after his first tour of duty, Major Little joined the US-AAC as a Cadet at the Aviation Cadet Training Program in Santa Ana California. He reported to Navigation school and later taught the operation and management of the Norden Bombsight system in California. His training duties included flying students up and down the coast in the B-25 Mitchell bombers.
Maj. Walt Little speaks to Mickey Strand during his portrait shoot

“Still, some veterans love to chat, and I have shot some veterans with lots of memory, photos, or memorabilia for over an hour. But it’s a chat session with most veterans, and time flies by.”

Strand says he captures 100 to 200 images in a session. Initially, it started with 20 to 30, but “images are free these days” due to the transition from film photography to digital. He always captures the seated official image but tries not to restrict his shooting. He tries to let the veteran create an image specific to them. The photographer is prepared to be amazed by each person who blesses him by sitting down in front of his camera.

“I try to stay out of the way and let the subject chat,” says Strand. “Tell stores and gaff. There is a moment about half a second after someone laughs that their face is so happy, and their eyes open back up and relaxed; it’s magical.

“Some members need me to capture a somber, reflective moment. Sometimes when they remember a fallen friend. I am grateful when I find out I am the first person they have shared the story with. So, I try to be present and be ready.”

“I start on the tripod with a few standard poses,” explains the retired Navy shooter. “I set a good look with my Nikon Z7II and use a wireless remote, so I can still get shots from in front of the camera. But I invariable grab the camera and change over to another lens, currently loving the new 105mm [Nikon NIKKOR Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S], and start to let the portrait session take me into the subject.

Gustav “Gus” Swiersz PFC served in the US Army from July 1943 – Nov 1945. Gus was drafted into the Army at 20 & served with the 28th Infantry Division, 112th Regiment in Europe. Private First Class Swiersw served with the 28th during the German Ardennes counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. He recounts being separated from his unit and behind enemy lines during the fight. He and his unit fought continuously for 9 days. He was field promoted multiple times and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant in-country before he returned to the US. During the war. Gus spoke multiple languages and was assigned to assist with the liberation of slave labor and POW camps in Germany. His Regiment was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for actions during the Battle of the Bulge, Dec 44.
Constance Cucura – Navy – S2c born Feb 27th, 1923, served in the U.S. Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) Corps, from 1st Oct 1944 – 5th Apr 1946. Constance attended Navy WAVES boot camp in San Diego at one of the colleges that were sharing space to train WAVES in basic military procedures before moving on to advanced training. Constance was a Seaman 2nd Class (S2c) as an office clerk in transportation at Naval Air Station, North Island in San Diego CA. She worked at the air tower and assisted with transportation efforts for the Navy moving people around the United States.
The Eisenhower Foundation @ikessoldiers sent me [Mickey Strand] some great behind-the-scenes images from my Veteran Portrait Series shoot in Ventura. This is showing W2 Navy WAVE vet Constance Cucura her portrait

Besides the Nikon 105mm, he also shoots with the Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S. He started the project with his Nikon D750 and then took hundreds of portraits with his Nikon D850. Strand found “that thing” to be a workhorse, but he loves the new mirrorless system.

Strand will shoot with any light as he has been through the gamut of lighting in the last six years. He started the project with a Calumet Travel (Bowens Gemini) light system with two 750W heads and a 500W. Then he tried LED with a second-hand Westcott Skylux 1000W three head system, which he still uses occasionally. He currently uses a Paul C. Buff DigiBee DB800 3 head system. He likes that the LED [400W equivalent] is daylight balanced for video or still shooting, and he has flash for when he wants that too, and it’s pretty affordable.

Frances Emma Terrazas – Navy – HM was born on April 2nd, 1922, served in the US Navy and worked as a medical records administrator at the Naval hospital at Port Hueneme airbase in Oxnard Ca. She had worked in medical records before joining the Navy at the county hospital in Los Angeles where she spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish and English. Frances served for only 13 months and was released due to her father becoming ill. He and her 11-year-old brother needed her support to see to their needs so she was discharged. Frances had 3 brothers and they all served during WWII.

Strand was trained to fill the frame but does crop occasionally. He likes to print in 16×20,” and that is not the aspect ratio of the sensor/film. He is aware that all the images can be printed way bigger than he will be able to.

“The prints are all in B&W or chromatic greyscale because it speaks the loudest for this work,” says Strand. “But I was taught that to get the best B&W images, you have to start with the best color image. So, I edit the final print in color and then do my B&W conversion. Each client gets the B&W final image and sometimes the color image if it talks loud enough to me.”

A Career as a Navy Photographer

Strand’s father was an amateur photographer who had a basement darkroom in Racine, Wisconsin. He gave Strand his Minolta SR-T 101 when he got his new Minolta X-700. Strand helped his father shoot his aunt’s wedding when he was about 12. He worked with the high school yearbook staff, took photo classes, and was a newspaper staff member. These extracurricular events built a love for the craft.

Bernard ‘Ski’ Waskowski – USMC – Major born on September 25th, 1927, served in the United States Marines from 1945 to 1967. He served primarily in-country in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. He served with the 1st and 2nd Division for the USMC and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd USMC Air-wing. During his time in service, he served as a supply officer. Ski recounted that his favorite memory while being in-country was admiring beautiful samurai swords and riding his motorcycle through the cities.

He joined the Navy and was fortunate to work in the photo lab and have a photography career on his first ship.

“I joined the Navy for the chance for something new and exciting,” says Strand. “Travel and overseas adventure, to a kid who was not super and interested in going the traditional school route. I figured it gave me a chance to grow and learn, and being the oldest of eight kids, not a lot of college money was around. So, I made my way in life, just like my folks did.”

Strand says the Navy used everything from aerial reconnaissance cameras in pods on the belly of aircraft to medium format Bronicas & Mamiyas.

Estelle Strichartz – Army – T5 served as a Technician Fifth Grade in WWII in the US Army, Women’s Army Corps “WAC”. She served as a Topographical Draftsman in the Pacific theater of operations. Estelle served for 2 years & 2 months from 28 Sep 43 until 27 Dec 1945. Her service in the Pacific started in Australia mobilizing until her unit got involved in the Liberation of the Philippine Islands. She was working on deciphering enemy maps and the creation of topographical combat map updates for Allied forces. Estelle is sharing a photo of her in Australia with two koalas. Estelle was awarded the American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with 1 bronze service star, a Good Conduct Medal, and a Philippine Liberation Campaign medal with 2 overseas service bars.

“But the everyday shooting workhorse of my days was the Canon F1,” says Strand. “I put too many rolls of film to count through one of these.

“The Navy moved to Nikon in the early days of digital with the joint Nikon Kodak DCS systems. My first touch of digital was an early DCS100. When we went full digital, the Nikon D1 had just come out and was a great replacement for film cameras, and used all the Nikon glass we had for the DCS systems. So, I have been Nikon from then on.”

Mickey Strand at Veterans Portrait Series show WWII veterans of San Diego, Nov 2021 at Nelson Photo in San Diego

Strand retired in 2009 after 24 years of active service as a Photographer’s Mate Chief Petty Officer. He was deployed many times from the ’80s to 2009 on many platforms, from aircraft carriers to missile cruisers, with navy, marine, and army personnel units, but he tries to Remember Everyone Deployed (RED). He says everyone served, and they can tell their stories to one another when they meet up.

Richard “Dick” Wells – USN – LCDR born Sep 14th, 1931, joined the U.S. Navy in 1953 at 22 years old with an undergraduate degree to become a pilot. Richard, already married, attended Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Road Island for one year. After graduation, he and his wife moved to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, where Dick attended flight training. The school was about eight months, followed by advanced flight training in Kingsville, Texas. They then moved to California when Dick received orders to VF-53, the Iron Angels at Naval Air Station Miramar. There he flew the Grumman F-9 Cougar and Vought F-8 Crusader, both carrier-based fighter aircraft. VF-53, assigned to Career Air Group (CAG), deployed onboard the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) in 1960-61 on a Western Pacific operations deployment (Westpac). This deployment was during the pre-conflict operations in Vietnam. Dick ended his active duty service in 1961 but remained in the reserves until 1968.

The Future of the Project

Strand has no clue how many World War II veterans are still alive. If you served on active duty before September 2, 1945, and were 18 years old then, you would be 95 today. Strand has photographed a staggering number of veterans who served at 16 or 17, dropping out of high school to enlist, but that still makes them 93.

Many of the veterans he has worked with have lived into their 100s. It is incredible to think about these heroes who gave so much and lived extraordinary lives.

Strand does not know how long his project will extend into the future.

William Murray – Aircorp, was born on Aug 25th, 1926, and enlisted in the US Army Air Corps right after High School in 1944. William stayed in the Army Air Corps up to and including serving during the Korean war.

“I suppose sometimes I will run out of World War II veterans to photograph. I have worked on new sub-lines of the overall veteran’s portrait series with Korean war and Vietnam War Portraits, and I have done two small print shows for them. Maybe someday, the project will evolve into one of those veterans’ stories.”

You can see more of Mickey Strand’s work on his website, Instagram and a Google 360 Tour.

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: All photos supplied by Mickey Strand.