G.I. Joe

Photographer Joe Bemis recreates the drama of World War II

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Joe Bemis

To celebrate Veterans Day, photographic artist Joe Bemis (featured in O.Henry two years ago) returns with another panoramic gallery recreating famous engagements in American military history. Under the banner of Victory Productions, he’s been known to depict soldiers in the field in Napoleonic times, even aerial dogfights during WWI, but his main concentration is on the Revolutionary War and World War II.

For the most part, Joe organizes photo shoots with historical re-enactors, like these images representing the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One and the 82nd Airborne at Operation Market Garden, using actual Jeeps from WWII, even a ’39 BMW motorcycle. You have to admire his dedication: Joe dug the 8-foot-deep gun emplacement for his Kuban Bridgehead ’42 photo series himself. “I don’t want to glorify war with my photos,” he says. “But Nazis were the world’s greatest bad guys.” Other photographs in this collection depict Russians and Germans at the Eastern Front.

“A lot of guys I’ve met own their own Jeeps, tanks and halftrack vehicles,” Joe tells me. “You can’t really find a Panzer or a Tiger tank because they don’t exist outside museums anymore, but you’ll see some guys with German motorcycles.” Nazi staff cars are more plentiful thanks to the Volkswagen Thing phenomenon. After all, the VW Thing was an automobile very similar to the Kubelwagen manufactured for the West German Army in WWII for use as staff cars, retooled slightly for sales in the United States in the mid-1970s.

On occasion Joe will take advantage of battle re-enactments produced for the public. He’ll arrive before the gates open and stay after-hours to stage photos with the participants. “I’ll grab a couple of guys and set the shots up because I have very specific images in my head that I want to recreate,” Joe explains. The last WWII re-enactment he attended was at Latta Planation in Huntersville, North Carolina. “That was one where I actually ran around in the battle while the action was happening, so I was able to get some shots that nobody else could get because I was at different vantage points,” he recalls.

For re-enactors it’s a very expensive hobby when it comes to weapons and outfits, especially so for Revolutionary War troops. “A buddy of mine is a tailor,” Joe notes. “He makes his living creating those uniforms.” Re-enactors are often ex-military, cops, history professors and curators. “Even when no one can see them they’re still in character, staying very accurate to what would have been happening around them at that time,” Joe continues.

He is currently immersed in depicting the Japanese side of the second World War, in particular Zero and Kamikaze pilots. Airplane interiors were shot at last year’s Warbirds Over Monroe event, where aircraft seen in the motion picture Tora! Tora! Tora! were on display courtesy of the Commemorative Air Force out of Texas. “I was able to get in contact with the lead pilot Michael Burke and he gave me access to the planes for the interior shots,” Joe told me. “Even though they are not actual Zeros, they’re Navy trainers that were painted to look like Zeros because, from a distance, you couldn’t tell the difference. It felt so cool to be in those planes that actually flew in that movie.”

Although it was released well before he was born, Tora! Tora! Tora! from 1970 is one of the photographer’s favorite movies. “I watched that with my grandfather,” Joe remembers. “I never thought in a million years I’d be able to sit in one of those planes.” Max Lee is the main model in those photos, he adds. “He has the complete Japanese fighter pilot uniform. He even had the ceremonial sword on his dress uniform.” Photographed at a studio in New York, for in-flight scenes 1/18th scale model Zeros were used. “They’re accurate right down to the rivets,” Joe notes.

Meanwhile, Joe Bemis is applying his considerable talents to photographs he shot inside a restored German U-boat captured by the U.S. Navy in June 1944, currently on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. That U-505 was captured by the U.S. Navy in June 1944. As for future Victory projects, “We’re going to Normandy next year for the 75th anniversary of D-Day,” Joe says. “That’s always been a dream. They’ve pretty much gotten every surviving C-47 to perform a fly-over over Normandy, paratroopers are going to drop over the historical drop zones. That hasn’t been done since D-Day. I can’t wait.”  OH

For more recreations from America’s military past, visit The next Warbirds Over Monroe air show will be on the 10th and 11th of this month, featuring the Memphis Belle B-17F Flying Fortress from the 1990 movie, Memphis Belle, the P-51 Mustang Swamp Fox, a German ME262, the very first jet-powered fighter, along with more than a dozen other historical aircraft. Held yearly at the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport in Monroe, N.C., ticket price for veterans and current military personnel is only $5, while kids under 12 get in free.

Billy Ingram is writing a book about his career as a movie poster designer working for the major Hollywood studios in the 1980s and ’90s.

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