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Behind the picture: 'Three Dead Americans,' Buna Beach, 1943

dead americans WWII.jpg

Caption from LIFE magazine in 1943: "Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna." (George StrockTime & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Saipan. These names, and others from the Pacific Theater during World War II, serve as a kind of brutal shorthand for scenes of unspeakable carnage and, at times, unfathomable courage.

But for reasons lost to the decades, countless other pivotal battles in the Pacific have been largely forgotten by most of the world — even as they’re remembered and commemorated by the dwindling number of those still alive who fought in them, and by those who lost husbands, brothers, fathers and friends to the war. The long, long, three-and-half-year New Guinea Campaign, for example, saw scores of battles as bloody and as strategically vital as any others fought during WWII, but the names and places of many of those battles and the places strike no chord with the general public.

It was the first time that any photograph depicting dead American troops had appeared in any American publication during World War II.

Here, LIFE.com recalls one of those pivotal battles, the Battle of Buna-Gona, through pictures made by the master photojournalist George Strock — including one of the most famous and influential photographs ever taken in any war, anywhere: the disquieting image of three dead Americans half-buried in the sand at a place called Buna Beach.

What is ultimately so notable about Strock’s picture — beyond its sheer technical excellence, and its quiet power — is that when it was published in LIFE magazine in September 1943, it was the first time that any photograph depicting dead American troops had appeared in any American publication during World War II. The story behind how the photograph came to be published, meanwhile, speaks volumes about LIFE magazine’s national stature during the war, and the strained relationship that always exists (and, in an elemental way, should always exist) between journalists and government officials.

For months after Strock made his now-iconic picture, LIFE’s editors pushed the American government’s military censors to allow the magazine to publish that one photograph. The concern, among some at LIFE and certainly many in the government, was that Americans were growing complacent about a war that was far from over and in which an Allied victory was far from certain. 

A 25-year-old LIFE correspondent in Washington named Cal Whipple refused to take no for an answer from the censors and — as he put it in a memoir written for his family years later — he “went from Army captain to major to colonel to general, until I wound up in the office of an assistant secretary of the Air Corps, who decided, ‘This has to go to the White House.’”

To read how Whipple and LIFE brought the censors and FDR himself around to their way of thinking, and for more of Strock's photos from Buna, see the full story at LIFE.com.

Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com.

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