Frank Winslow of Bellingham was an Army photographer during the Korean War. That’s not so unusual. What was unusual was that he was a photographer with South Korean units.
“I was their photographic arm,” he said. “I was filling the void of photography in the Korean army.”
That Winslow was capturing images for an allied army somehow fit the tug and pull of his experiences during the war. He was scheduled to leave South Korea on the last of 13 planes carrying U.S. forces to safety after the North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. But that 13th plane never lifted off the ground because the United States made a quick decision to jump into the war.
That left Winslow and others scurrying to reach safety as North Koreans advanced on the South Korean capital of Seoul. Winslow barely managed to escape an exploding bridge and had to walk a long distance in his dress shoes, tossing away his motion picture camera because it was so heavy.
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“I was sort of a walking zombie,” he said.
Loved photography, flying
Winslow, 88, grew up in Bangor, Maine, where as a young man he did darkroom work for a portrait photographer and watched U.S. aircraft depart for combat during World War II. From the beginning he was interested in photography and aviation, a combination that merged later during his 31 years in the military.
After attending Army photography training in Denver, he was assigned to South Korea in 1948. That was three years after Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into communist North Korea and anti-communist South Korea after the end of WWII.
The U.S. wasn’t engaged militarily in Korea at the time, so Winslow served as part of a State Department-run advisory group working with the South Korean military. He shot still and motion pictures for South Korean units that lacked military photographers of their own.
At one point he was scheduled to return to Fort Meade in Maryland, but his transport plane, that 13th plane, stayed put after the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel, triggering war.
Winslow’s future wife, Josselyn, was in Korea, too, because her father had been hired by the State Department to help get South Korea’s train system running smoothly. They met while in Korea; she left the country the day after the invasion aboard a freighter to safety in Japan.
With the North Koreans on the move, Winslow was in a convoy to cross a river near Seoul. Before they reached the bridge early in the morning a middle span was intentionally blown up — with people and vehicles still on it — to slow the North Koreans’ advance.
“A big yellow column of flame went up,” Winslow said.
He and his colleagues headed for another bridge, on the advice of a local duck hunter, but that route was blocked by the enemy, so they found small boats to cross the river and proceeded south on foot.
Early in the war, Winslow witnessed the execution of 39 communist guerrillas by South Korean soldiers. He photographed the executions to show the new government had followed proper military procedure.
Winslow and other Americans were soon cornered at Pusan, in the southeast corner of South Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur then launched an amphibious attack on the west coast and caught the North Koreans in a squeeze. As the North Koreans fell back, Winslow followed their retreat up Korea’s east coast, cameras in hand.
At one point well north of the 38th parallel, he photographed an atrocity in the North Korean village of Hamhung. Communist troops had killed some 250 to 300 people at the village jail by throwing some down wells and suffocating others inside caves they sealed shut. Winslow’s photographs of the victims and their grieving relatives appeared in newspapers across the U.S.
Winslow left Korea after three years, departing in September 1951.
Military career continued
Winslow remained in the Army after leaving Korea. He returned to aviation school and flew helicopters in Vietnam. He also did aerial mapping for the military, combining his early loves of photography and flying. He retired a lieutenant colonel in 1976.
He and his wife moved to Bellingham in 1979, where their experience caring for Josselyn’s mother prompted them to start a support group that evolved into the Alzhemier Society of Washington.
These days, East Asian prints adorn their Fairhaven residence and books about the Korean War abound on shelves and tabletops. The Winslows have revisited South Korea, where they saw on display in a museum his wartime photograph of a naked, hungry child sitting by the side of a road. It’s one of the more memorable images he shot while in the rare position of being on assignment with South Korean soldiers.
“I was all by myself,” Winslow said. “I didn’t have any competition.”