Sunday, April 13, 2003

One of the photos taken by former combat photographer Al Chang is of Sgt. 1st Class Robert Muramoto, left, Sgt. 1st Class Castro Corpuz and Sgt. 1st Class David Kauanui taking a few moments to relax during the Korean War with canned poi, dried squid and an ukulele. The city and the state honored Chang in ceremonies on Friday.

State, city honor
war photographer

Hawaii's Al Chang captured vivid
images from WWII to Vietnam

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Before "shock and awe," embedded reporters and 24-hour CNN coverage, there was Al Chang.

Chang brought home to island families in stark black-and-white newspaper images what the grunts on the battlefields in the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam were experiencing. With two Nikon cameras hanging from his neck and his ubiquitous cigar in his mouth, Chang made it a point to be in the middle of the battle.

"Talk about embedded," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Irwin Cockett, "Al was the first embedded combat photographer."

On Friday, Mayor Jeremy Harris proclaimed it "Al Chang Day." Earlier in the week, state Sen. Melodie Aduja honored Chang by presenting him a certificate of appreciation as his family looked on from the floor of the Senate.

Throughout his career, which spanned three wars, Chang worked at various times for the U.S. Army, Stars and Stripes, National Geographic magazine, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Associated Press.

"In pursuit of the perfect picture, Chang was always at the front line with the troops and received several combat decorations," said Aduja. "His pictures have graced the covers of Life, Newsweek and National Geographic magazines. Chang was also honored with several prestigious nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for photography."

Cockett, a decorated aviator from the Korean and Vietnam wars, said Chang "really made the 5th Regimental Combat Team, which was made up of lot of guys from Hawaii, famous with his pictures of the fighting in Korea."

"What I found that was most memorable of Al," added Cockett, who heads the state Office of Veteran Services, "was that whenever we made an attack, Al was there with his camera and no side arms or weapons. He put the 5th RCT on the map."

Ishmael Stagner, a retired Brigham Young University faculty member who spearheaded a series of recognition events for Chang this week, said, "Al is one of the few people living today who witnessed the start of World War II at Pearl Harbor and its end at Tokyo Bay in Japan."

Chang was only a 19-year-old dock worker at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked. He worked for two days straight helping the wounded and locating the dead. He enlisted as an infantryman but later became a combat photographer covering the Pacific campaign and eventually the surrender of the Japanese on the USS Missouri in 1945.

Chang was with the Army in the 25th Division in Japan when war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, and became one of the first combat photographers to cover that conflict.

After the Korean War, Chang retired from the Army and went to work for National Geographic magazine and was sent to Vietnam. When the war intensified, Chang joined the Associated Press and later re-enlisted in the Army and covered some of its bloodiest battles, retiring as a master sergeant.

Retired Army Gen. David Bramlett recalls when he reported to the 25th Infantry Division in 1964 as a green lieutenant, "many of us idolized him for what he had done in the Korean War for the soldiers."

Bramlett added: "When we went to Vietnam in 1965, Al went with us.

"He is ... one of the best living combat photographers."

A photo taken by Chang on Aug. 28, 1950, shows a grief-stricken American infantryman as he is comforted by a soldier after his buddy was killed in action. In the background of the Pulitzer-nominated photograph, a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags in the Haktong-ni area of South Korea.

His photo of a Viet Cong prisoner being treated for his wounds by U.S. medics while the soldier's wife watched also was nominated for the Pulitzer.

In 1994, Chang suffered his first of two strokes, and two years later had triple bypass heart surgery. Today, he spends his time at the Spark Matsunaga Center for the Aging at Tripler Army Medical Center.

His wife, Jacqueline, said Chang, 80, does not quickly recall very many people or events, although at Friday's ceremony in Harris' office, a smile broke over his face when Bramlett walked over to his wheelchair.

Chang sharply rendered Bramlett a salute and took his hand.

When Bramlett returned to Schofield Barracks and the 25th Division in 1987 to become an assistant division commander, he began his friendship with Chang.

"He is humble and a brilliant photographer," Bramlett added. "He would go back to Korea with us on numerous occasions during the 'Team Spirit' exercises. ... He is truly one of the treasures of this state."

"He went through the entire Korean War," Cockett added, "and was never wounded. But then in Vietnam he got hit three times. He always went where the action was. I think he even accompanied the Navy into North Korea at one point."

Stagner said Chang also tried "to put a face" on whatever war he was covering and "to humanize it, its combatants and participants, especially his beloved grunts."

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