Found Film: Korea, 1946

A few months ago I came across a post on eBay where someone was selling four rolls of already-developed film.  The seller professed being unsure about wanting to get rid of the film, so I offered to buy them and scan them, and restore them as much as I could, so they would be available for both of us – and everyone else.

It turned out to be an amazing find.

The first roll had several photos with Japanese writing on them, and one or two shots with (US) military context – a jeep, a few signs…a picture showing the sea…a couple of soldiers here and there. So I assumed, as the seller had, that these had been taken by US military personnel in Japan at some point.

I decided to ask a Japanese friend on Facebook if she could identify any of the locations, either from the writing on the photos or the surroundings. After a bit of silence, she said, “I think these are photos of Korea.” Huh???

Well, this is the photo that gave it away:

Near the top, you may see “仁川” – which apparently means “Incheon” in Korean (but written in Japanese script).

Over the next few days, I learned a lot about Korean history. I learned that Korea was a Japanese protectorate from 1910 to 1945, under Japanese occupation. And that some of the policies in the latter parts of this period had led to an increased phasing-out of Korean script. Here is a produce shop covering all its bases:

This first roll provides an interesting insight into life just after the end of the second World War – in fact, in mid-1946. Key clues to the time period will come in future rolls, but for now I provide the date for context.

Additionally, there are several military unit signs. Based on photos I scanned later, I am pretty sure the photographer snapped this photo because it identified his own unit, the 592nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment.

The 592nd EBSR, a part of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, had seen action all over the Pacific by the time these photos were taken. The 592nd EBSR had been the 592nd Engineer Boat Regiment until it was redesignated the 592nd Engineer Amphibian Regiment on 1 October 1942. On 18 February 1943, the Regiment left San Francisco by ship headed for Australia, where they trained from June to October 1943. On 4 July 1943, it was redesignated as the 592nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment. They headed to New Guinea in October 1943 and participated in military action in the Admiralty Islands, the assault on Leyte in the Philippines, as well as many other landings in the Philippines including Corregidor, for which they were awarded a Presidential Citation in May 1945. Along with units of the 1st Cavalry Division, the 592nd EBSR was one of the first units to land in Japan upon its surrender.

Apparently after the war, most of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade was sent back to the United States and deactivated. However, I am pretty confident that elements of the 592nd EBSR came to Incheon close to the time when General Hodge landed there on September 8, 1945, and stayed at least until May 1946.

Politically, the role of the U.S. in this period of Korean history is somewhat disputed – the Cold War was well under way by this time, and a “People’s Republic” had been announced two days prior to the arrival of the Americans.  This had been viewed with distrust, and the Americans came, got rid of all the Japanese bureaucrats, and replaced them with the Koreans who had worked directly for them – effectively leaving in place the police structures the Japanese had used for 4 decades to maintain order.  One Army Civil Affairs specialist at the time described it (in 1990) as follows:

We didn’t know much about Korea in those days. However, in the first few days, we all recognized that Korea was a friendly country and not an enemy. We realized this because 90% of the Koreans were friendly. There were a few who were committed Communists, who viewed the occupation askance. We had some problems with them, but generally speaking the atmosphere was very friendly. It is ironic, of course, that the Japanese, who were the defeated enemy, governed themselves under the general direction of MacArthur and his headquarters, whereas the Koreans who were our friends were governed directly by an American Military Government, with Americans directly in charge down to the county level in the beginning.

As I look back on it, I am not sure the issue of whether to have a military government — as contrasted to the Japanese pre-war model — was given much thought. I was strictly at the working level and had no policy responsibility, but we must have recognized that someone had to run the country.  Once the Americans had decided not to accept the People’s Republic which  had been proclaimed two days before we arrived, then who else except the Americans? The process then established was that the military government would be imposed as a transitional phase. The Japanese who had governed the country were sent home. They were to be replaced at the lower levels by Korean bureaucrats who had worked for the Japanese. That was a poor decision, but at the American working level it seemed sensible at the time.

Some historians argue that Korea would have plunged into civil war without intervention, and the Korean War in 1950 was in some ways inevitable. But through these photos, I prefer to focus on what life must have been like for the people who took these pictures, and how they might have experienced the world around them, which must have seemed so foreign to them back in 1946.

It’s a fascinating series of photos – I’ve spent hours trying to reach back and research who they might have been. The next few rolls hold a few more suprises, and I haven’t even scanned the fourth roll yet as of this writing. As an aside – the pictures were all taken on a “half-frame” camera – i.e. one which took photos half the size of a standard 35mm frame. Those cameras were not widely available until they were popularized by Japanese camera companies in the 1950s, so I have no idea what kind of camera this might have been. But it does mean that this particular roll of 36 “normal” exposures has resulted in 60 quality, scannable exposures in “half-frame” size. You can check out the rest of this roll here.

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