MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History

CRAPSHOOT IN CASSINO

George Aarons was born to Yiddish-speaking parents in New York City in 1916, but in later years he called himself “a simple farm boy,” obscuring some of the unpleasant circumstances of his childhood. His father was a phantom figure in his life, and as a boy he was passed around among relatives after his mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital. His grandparents gave him his first camera when he came to live with them on their New Hampshire farm.

In 1935 Aarons enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 18. He talked his way into a job as a “hypo dipper”—processing photographic prints in a darkroom—and before long earned an assignment to work as a photographer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There, he met, and apparently charmed, Hollywood director Frank Capra, who was shooting scenes for Prelude to War, the first of his propaganda films for the Office of War Information. Capra recruited him for Yank magazine, the weekly spinoff of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, and soon Aarons, attached to the 8th Infantry Division, was headed overseas on a Pan Am Clipper.

They gave me a Tommy bowler and a leather jerkin and made me take off my combat suit.

When Aarons arrived in London, Yank issued him a Speed Graphic camera and sent him to cover the North African campaign. Almost immediately Aarons ditched the unwieldy press camera (“How can you even think of using it in a war?” he asked) in favor of a much smaller 35mm Leica. For three years, Leica in hand, he braved battlefields in North Africa and Europe. In Italy he recorded the brutal fighting at Monte Cassino, and he was wounded during the invasion of Anzio when the Germans blew up a dock along the beachhead. Aarons reached Rome in time to see it fall to the Allies, but by then he’d had his fill of war. “After you’ve seen a concentration camp,” he explained, “you really don’t want to see any more bad things.”

After the war Aarons headed for Hollywood—“the dream capital of the world,” he called it—and began photographing movie stars and other celebrities as a freelancer for Life magazine. But when Life asked Aarons—then going by his nickname, Slim—to cover the Korean War, he declined, saying, “I’ll only do a beach if it has a blonde on it.”

Throughout the 1950s and beyond, Aarons would make a lucrative career out of what he famously called “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” He captured the “Kings of Hollywood”—Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James 

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