Through his sights

Lawrence vet transforms smuggled WWII photos into book

Sunday, November 9, 2003

After my mother died, in the house where we grew up, my sisters and I found boxes and suitcases jammed with memorabilia from World War II. There were letters, postcards and photos sent from our father to Mom, and, after Dad was discharged because of injuries, notes and cards from his brothers to keep him in the know.

Sifting through all that -- I especially remember a little Nazi flag on a stick sent by one of my uncles after he defaced it with a note saying he hoped to make it to Berlin to "poke Hitler right in the nose" -- I realized something about that war. Certainly, it was a great crusade to rid the world of the evil wrought by fascism. But for a bunch of Kansas kids who grew up in the stranglehold of the Great Depression, it was the adventure of a lifetime. And not all of it was seen through the sights of a gun.

That's the sort of war depicted in "Through My Sights: A Gunner's View of World War II," by Glenn L. Kappelman, of Lawrence (2003, Sunflower Publishing, $29.95).

The "sight" he was peering through was the viewfinder of the Kodak 616 folding camera Kappelman secretly carried on his campaigns across Europe. In the pictures he brought back, the viewer can snatch glimpses of the destruction and horror of war. More than that, though, the reader gets a look at grinning kids-turned-soldiers having the experience of a lifetime, joyful liberations of prisoners and villages, and the equipment used to fight the war.

"I had a sense, that for me personally, this would be the greatest adventure I would ever have," Kappelman writes. "I wanted to record it for family history, as well as for military history. And that's why I went to some extremes to do it."


Kappelman's photos are smuggled treasures, really, because combat soldiers weren't allowed to carry cameras and film. But he smuggled his camera in his gas mask, worked out a system for having photos developed as he went and sent home -- or simply stowed the exposed film in empty ammunition boxes until war's end. He carried as much raw film as he could, sometimes skipping shots he wanted out of fear he'd run out, and had his supply replenished in food packages from home -- with film tucked inside.

Even after being carried across Europe in an armored car -- and once abandoned in a German house while under attack -- his precious rolls of film survived.

Kappelman estimates he snapped about 750 photographs during his time as a gunner in an armored car in the 106th Cavalry Group, traveling through France, Germany and Austria. But unlike professional photographers who were shooting mainly scenes of battle, Kappelman gives us snapshots of average soldiers in their daily routines, posing with chocolate-hungry children or liberated villagers, and, from later in his tour, sightseeing in Austria and France, sipping beer and wine with new friends.


Special to the Journal-World

From left, Harry Goldsmith, Lawrence Czarnota, Cecil New and Glenn Kappelman bring two captured Germans, sitting on the front hood, into a Main River village. The photo was taken March 28, 1945, east of Offenbach, Germany.

The book is rich with excerpts from Kappelman's diaries, letters home and reminiscences. Readers looking for war stories can find a few here but will mainly discover rich glimpses of a soldier's thoughts, fears and joys.

A reproduced portion of a letter written on VE Day gives a glimpse of the can't-say-it-fast-enough joy of a soldier's realization the fighting has ended -- and the melancholy upon recalling comrades lost and horrors seen.

"Of course we're all very, very happy, but one just doesn't feel like throwing a big celebration for something like the ending of a war at the front," Kappelman wrote. "We are happy, but we can't help mourning the passing away of many of our friends who made this great Victory possible."

Such personal stories and images make "Through My Sights" a pleasure to sift through, allowing the reader to find treasures in the amateur photographs, diaries and letters of a Kansas kid -- and reminiscences of the man he became.