The Things He Carried
Lewis Tesser’s book of his father’s World War II photos is now in the National Archives
Published in 2018 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 13, 2018
Updated on October 3, 2018
The first time Lewis Tesser saw the box of photos, he was 15.
He and his father, Charles Tesser, were in the basement, where they could often be found hunched over an old workbench working on projects, when his father showed him the box.
“I’m embarrassed to say I was disappointed,” Tesser says. “It wasn’t full of blood and gore and guts and people shooting each other.”
Instead, he saw black-and-white images of the minutiae that made up the day of an American soldier in World War II: men digging trenches, mucking through mud, huddling in the cold and standing guard. His father documented the Army’s campaign through Northern Germany from 1944 to 1945 as a 24-year-old U.S. Army photographer in the Signal Corps.
It would be 50 years before Tesser saw the photos again—this time, with new eyes that viewed them not only as a treasure, but as one last project he could, in a way, do with his dad.
“After my father died in 2004, I was helping my mother move, and I found the box,” Tesser says. “I looked at the photos and realized, ‘My god, these are excellent.’ Not just for their artistic quality, but in terms of what they captured.”
So he began thinking about a book. His father—who ended up in the Signal Corps because of his pre-war career at a camera shop—left his son clues about the content of the photos.
“Throughout the book, you’ll see bolded captions—those are my father’s original words,” Tesser says. “Those helped me put things in order, but I found gaps, so I went to the National Archives, and found some of his work there, too.”
Then Tesser, a former JAG during the Vietnam era, started brushing up on WWII history.
“After reading Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe and Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story, I was astonished to find that key battles on key dates in key cities in these books—lo and behold, here’s a picture from that battle on that date in that city,” Tesser says. “It happened dozens of times.”
More serendipity followed. He stumbled upon Lt. Theodore Draper’s The 84th Infantry Division in The Battle of Germany. “This man was a poet, and eventually an award-winning historian,” Tesser says. “But at the time, Draper was a lieutenant traveling along with the 84th Infantry Division—a majority of Dad’s pictures are of the 84th Infantry. I was overwhelmed with the coincidence. They had to have traveled together.”
He’d also found his creative structure: his father’s photos and captions with supporting context borrowed from Draper.
A photo that’s poignant for Tesser is of a dead German soldier in a foxhole, and his father’s frank caption: Here’s a good-looking Kraut. The dirty bastard almost got me, but the doughboys took care of him.
“That could have easily been my father,” Tesser says. “And as a soldier myself, it resonated. If you’ve served, and talk to anyone who has ever served, there’s a different language. There’s a different camaraderie. There may be intramural stuff going on, but there’s an overriding sense of a shared something.”
Tesser cites another photo, of his father coming out of the woods, arms laden with camera equipment. “He shot with a Graflex. It was so huge,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how much equipment he had to carry.”
That equipment once helped him out of a tight spot. Tesser was on assignment in Belgium and came upon a farmhouse, where he encountered a woman who he thought was behaving strangely.
“He asked her where the Germans were,” Tesser recounts. “She signaled to the basement. He’s got a camera with him similar to the Graflex. It had a metal viewfinder just above the lens. He had a service revolver, too.”
Eight SS officers came rushing out of the house, rifles drawn.
“So, in Yiddish—so he knows they’ll understand because he didn’t speak German—using the camera and pretending it was a radio, my dad called in an airstrike. The Germans throw down their rifles. They put their hands in the air. And the Army photographer marches eight SS officers back through enemy lines.” Tesser laughs. “I couldn’t find any other such stories out of the Signal Corps.”
The book, In the Thick of Things, took two years to finish, and became even more of a family affair when Tesser’s children, Randy, Ben and Shauna, pitched in with editing and research.
Tesser, a professional liability defense attorney with Tesser, Ryan & Rochman, says it was tough juggling a full-time practice with the book, but enlightening, too. “I felt tied to my dad,” he says. “I’ve delivered over 150 continuing legal education classes in which I talk about professional responsibility. You’ll see in the book that my father didn’t just take pictures. Every picture has a GI’s name, his hometown. He related to them and wanted to tell their story. I feel like that as a lawyer.”
With In the Thick published, he feels closure, but also sadness.
“I have these photos. I have this narrative. But what I have most are questions that I’d love to sit with my dad and ask, but he’s gone,” Tesser says, his voice catching. “That’s lost.”
Available for digital purchase on Amazon, In the Thick was accepted into the West Point and Signal Corps museums and the National Archives, which makes Tesser proud.
“What you realize in spending the hundreds of hours looking at these images and reading the names of each GI and his hometown is that it’s all of America,” he says. “It’s big cities and small—Albany, Kentucky; Visalia, California; Topeka, Kansas. You realize that during a world war, a nation came together with shared purpose. We are so not there today.”