Issue #242  6/17/2018
War Photojournalist David Douglas Duncan Dies in France at 102 Years Old

By Alex Novak

U.S. Marines, Naktong River, Korea, by David Douglas Duncan.
U.S. Marines, Naktong River, Korea, by David Douglas Duncan.

David Douglas Duncan, perhaps the most famous war photojournalist of the 20th-century, died June 7th in France at the age of 102. He had survived—although wounded several times—many wars and violent actions, including WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. A former marine himself, he told Terry Gross on the PBS radio program Fresh Air in 1990, "I'm very subjective as a war photographer. I want to break your heart."

Duncan was born in Kansas City, MO, on Jan. 23, 1916. He became a Marine officer and combat photographer in World War II, covering the Pacific theater. He was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945 during the Japanese surrender to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo Bay.

After WWII, he went to Palestine for LIFE magazine to cover fighting between the Arabs and Jews before the founding of Israel in 1948.

He'd been back in Japan for LIFE magazine in 1950 doing a story on Japanese culture when the Korean War began. As he told Gross in her interview with him: "Since I was the nearest LIFE photographer, it was logical I should go there. But the lucky thing was my experience. So that when I started to shoot, I started from a running start. I didn't have to be indoctrinated. I knew what I was looking at, and I knew what I had felt during World War II. So I tried to translate that feeling into photographs that would reveal some of the feelings of the men in front of me."

His work was well published in LIFE Magazine. Besides his war coverage, he photographed subjects in the art and political worlds, including Picasso (he published eight books on the artist) and Richard Nixon. In 1968, he covered the political conventions of both U.S. parties, and captured the private moment of Richard Nixon writing his acceptance speech.

"This Is War!"--a collection of his Korean War images--is considered one of the best books about war photography. Duncan also covered the war in Vietnam, which he opposed. His collection of photos about the defense of the Marine base at Khe Sanh was called "I Protest!"

Duncan donated his archive to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in 1996.

Duncan is survived by his wife, Sheila Macauley.