history in images

Photos: The American photographer who came to Calcutta during WWII and fell in love with the city

Clyde Waddell spent around two years in South Asia, but it was Calcutta that fascinated him.

In December 1940, Clyde Waddell, then a 24-year-old photographer with the Houston Chronicle, a Texan newspaper, travelled with several newspapermen to Brownsville, further south in the state. It was an almost 12-hour bus ride from Houston, Waddell’s hometown, along the Gulf of Mexico that borders Texas. At the time, the airport in Brownsville was the first to offer flights to Mexico. The inaugural flight had the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, who flew in from Mexico City.

It was a year before the US formally entered World War II but the airport was already important militarily for servicing war planes and training pilots. As was then compulsory, Waddell had already enlisted himself in the army two years ago.

Apart from this one trip to Brownsville, Waddell had never travelled beyond his hometown. He was born on June 1916, part of a big family that included six other siblings. Little is known about his early life, but by his early 20s, Waddell was already a press photographer, living away from his family. As a local pressman, he covered events of note in and around Houston.

Towards the end of 1943 – two years after the US formally entered WWII – Waddell began a totally unexpected journey to the other side of the world. Between November 1943 and February 1945, he was a photographer attached to the public relations unit of the Southeast Asia Command, serving as “personal press photographer” to Lord Mountbatten, commander of the allied forces.

"Aerial view of Calcutta downtown. In upper left background is Hindusthan building, U.S. Army HQ. The oldest part of the city starts at the esplanade and extends upwards. The city was founded in the early 1700s." Photo credit: Clyde Waddell/University of Pennsylvania/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Waddell accompanied Mountbatten on important missions, such as visiting frontlines and hospital stations. In February 1945, a magazine, Phoenix, was launched as a joint Allied initiative and Waddell joined its staff, basing himself in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He became part of important Allied missions, photographing the war front in Burma (now Myanmar) and travelled to Singapore soon after the Allied victory.

The China-Burma-India war theatre was a vital part of the war. The US, Britain (including British India) and China rallied together – despite ostensible differences in very many areas, ranging from personal to the strategic – to fight the rapidly advancing Japanese. By February 1942, Japan, which had conquered Singapore, began advancing toward British India. The Japanese cut off the Burma Road, which served as an important British supply route from northeast India, and began work on the infamous Burma Railway. In response, Allied forces started building the Ledo Road (also called the Stilwell Road) at the end of December 1942.

"Highlight of the out-of-bounds visit is of course, a look-in on the lassies. These dusky ladies of the night ask from $3.00 to $6.00 for the dubious pleasure they offer..." Photo credit: Clyde Waddell/University of Pennsylvania/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The road supplemented, in large part, the gigantic military apparatus the Allied powers put into operation to hold the Japanese advance. Vast swathes of forestland were struck down to construct nearly 35 airfields, stretching from Agra to eastern India and present-day Bangladesh. Pipelines were extended to supply planes that flew daily sorties over the Himalayas to supply Chinese forces at Yunnan. These airplanes also helped the special demands of aerial photography.

Aerial photography

War photography began with the Crimean War of 1853, but by the Second World War, it had become more complex, specialised and, indeed, a necessity. Aerial photography allowed mapping of enemy territory, especially in this part of the world, which was covered by dense mosquito-infested jungles, where different ethnic groups dominated, rendering conventional reconnaissance methods impossible.

Waddell, it appears, flew into Colombo in Sri Lanka, which served as Mountbatten’s headquarters in the war’s initial phase. Photographers who saw war action were part of several squadrons operational in this war sphere, some of which disbanded soon after such as the 9th and 40th reconnaissance squadrons.

Waddell spent around two years in the region, but it was Calcutta that fascinated him. His photographs of the city, some of which were printed in Phoenix – often as the cover – became immensely popular among his colleagues. (He was credited as Joe Waddell.) It was at their request that, on his return home to Texas, Wadell self-published several of his photographs in a book titled A Yank’s Memories of Calcutta.

Besides an introduction provided by an old friend, Charles Preston, and an illustration of the photographer himself, the book contained 60 elegant black and white photos (8 x 10 in) in silver gelatin print. The introduction described Calcutta as a “romantic city”, “full of enigmas” and that only Waddell could have successfully captured its mysteries.

Detailed in these 60 photos are moments that capture Calcutta in the time between two momentous events – the famine of 1943 and the riots that would precede Partition. It was a city teeming with people – residents, refugees and soldiers – and interesting characters from a juggler and snake charmer to society ladies.

Waddell’s book and body of work are now rare collector’s items and some of his pictures were auctioned by Christies in 2011. Kolkata’s Akriti Gallery had an exhibition of Waddell’s work in 2015 and Robert James Kadel’s book Where I Came In... – In China Burma India, published in 1997 contained parts of Waddell’s book.

"A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually, the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. Average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta." Photo credit: Clyde Waddell/University of Pennsylvania/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Memorialising war

There were other photographers whose documentation of the war in its many facets remain vital today. Frank Bond, for instance, whose work is digitized in the South Asian library of the University of Chicago, was an aerial photographer who set up the first photo lab at Akyab Island off Burma’s coast to process his photos. There was also George Rodger who covered the retreat of the British forces and wrote a story on the Burma Road as he travelled with the retreating forces toward China.

The filmmaker David Quaid also saw war action when he flew with Merrill’s Marauders as they were airdropped into Japanese-held Burma. Artist photographers like the California-based James Milford Zornes memorialised life along the Salween river in southwest China.

"The indifference of the passerby on this downtown Calcutta street to the plight of the dying woman in the foreground is considered commonplace. During the famine of 1943, cases like this were to be seen in most every block, and though less frequent now, the hardened public reaction seems to have endured." Photo credit: Clyde Waddell/University of Pennsylvania/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The US Air Transport Command had been set up in 1941 with just three people but by 1944, it had over a hundred thousand personnel. Its planes travelled the globe in secret operations to service US and allied forces. Photographer Tom McAvoy, one of Life magazine’s founders in 1936, flew to India in just ten days and back on the Fireball Express, which travelled from Florida, down the coast of South America, to Natal in South Africa before heading eastward across the Indian Ocean to eastern India, spending only a few hours at each base before moving on.

After Waddell returned to Houston by the end of the war, he never left his hometown to undertake a similar journey again. He spent his time taking pictures and worked, later, in the insurance business. He died in 1997, aged 81. Records show he never married and was happy to remain in his large family of cousins and siblings, all of whom lived close to one other in Texas.

"The Hooghly river is lined with bathing ghats like the one shown here. The troop transports in the background seem out of place in the old-world atmosphere created by the temple at left and the sampans at anchor." Photo credit: Clyde Waddell/University of Pennsylvania/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
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