You have probably all seen this photograph by Horace Bristol form 1944. It has been widely reproduced and viewed as a symbol of bravery, loyalty, and erotic masculinity. In October 2020, the photo was included in a Sotheby’s auction of Classic Photographs. Lot 13, “HORACE BRISTOL | PBY BLISTER GUNNER, RESCUE AT RABAUL” sold for $ 27,720, well over the estimate of $ 8,000-$12,000.
“PBY Blister Gunner, Rescue at Rabaul, 1944” is one of the most iconic photos of the Pacific War. But the identity of the “Naked Gunner,” as it is popularly known, remains a mystery to this day. The photo was taken by Horace Bristol (1908-1997), a founding photojournalist for the illustrious Life magazine. In 1941, Bristol was recruited to the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, as one of six photographers under the command of Captain Edward J. Steichen, documenting World War II in places such as South Africa and Japan. It is not known if the Bristol ever asked the soldier for his name as he captured his image. Sadly, we will never know. Bristol died in 1997, having kept a discreet silence on the bomber’s identity if, indeed, he ever knew it.
Bristol ended up being on the plane the gunner was serving on, which was used to rescue people from Japanese-held Rabaul Harbor (New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea) when this photograph was taken. In an article from a December 2002 issue of B&W Magazine he remembers:
“…we got a call to pick up an airman who was down in the Bay.
“The Japanese were shooting at him from the island, and when they saw us, they started shooting at us. The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes.
“As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.”
The fearless airman was deployed as part of a rescue campaign known as Operation Dumbo. Dumbo was the code name used by the United States Navy during the 1940s and 1950s to signify search and rescue missions, conducted in conjunction with military operations, by long-range aircraft flying over the ocean. The purpose of Dumbo missions was to rescue downed American aviators as well as seamen in distress. Dumbo aircraft were originally land-based heavy bomber aircraft converted to carry an airborne lifeboat to be dropped in the water near survivors. The name “Dumbo” came from Walt Disney’s flying elephant, the main character of the animated film Dumbo, appearing in October 1941. The campaign saved many Americans and their allies from a watery grave.
The PBY Catalina (a waterbomber) for which the naked man was a gunner, was an amphibious aircraft, recognized and celebrated by American aviators and flight crews for its vast range and endurance. According to the PBY Naval Air Museum, Washington website, the ‘versatile’ aircraft was capable of dropping “torpedoes, depth charges and bombs” while providing defense for their crews from “multiple high-caliber machine guns.” The airborne fleet, designed by Isaac Machlin Laddon and manufactured by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, was used all over the world, but particularly in coastal areas, to “patrol for enemy fleets and perform rescues.”
You can see more of Bristol’s photographs if you go to http://www.horacebristol.com.