Witnessing History: The Eisenhower Photographs
In the fall of 2000, I met with Al Meserlin at his home in Sea Girt, NJ, to discuss featuring him in the television series, Triumphant Spirit: America’s World War II Generation Speaks, a series of interviews with veterans of World War II. I knew that Al had been General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal wartime photographer from 1944-45, and I was excited to hear him talk about his pivotal role in American history. Thus began a rewarding association with a man who played a very important role in recording world events and preserving history, on film, for future generations. It became evident during the course of the meeting that I was talking with a very humble and sincere person. Al always questioned how he became Eisenhower’s photographer. He was always grateful for the good fortune which allowed him to be present and to photograph those historic moments and events that continue to appear in books on World War II to this day.
Al Meserlin was drafted into the US Army in July, 1942, at the age of 22, and reported to Fort Dix, NJ for training. Initially, he was assigned as a company clerk at Camp Edwards, MA, but requested a transfer to become a photographer for the Camp newspaper since photography was his hobby. He was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he was assigned to the 165th Signal Photo Company to train as a combat photographer. When in Louisiana on maneuvers, his unit was notified of its deployment overseas. Al married his longtime sweetheart, Irene, on October 2, 1943, just two weeks before he was sent to Europe.
Al Meserlin was assigned to the Army Pictorial Service, based in London, where he photographed bomb damage from air raids and German V1 “buzz bomb” strikes. After one bombing run, he photographed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting the damage, a photo which was distributed world-wide. Al was transferred in the summer of 1944 to the 3908th Signal Photo Battalion based in Normandy, France. In Paris after its liberation from the Nazi Army, as Al jokingly recalled in his Triumphant Spirit interview, “I was celebrating with my fellow photographers drinking champagne on August 25, 1944, when a Major notified the group that a photographer was needed”. He said that, “since I was the most sober of the group, I got the assignment.” Al became General Eisenhower’s personal photographer.
Al Meserlin was introduced to Ike in early September, 1944, at Versailles, France, where Eisenhower had his headquarters. He photographed Eisenhower when he met with US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in liberated France in October. He then photographed Ike in November doing what he liked to do best – visiting troops during a battlefront tour. In the same month, Al captured Eisenhower on film meeting with Churchill and Britain’s chief military leaders, and then meeting with France’s wartime leadership. When Eisenhower was promoted to the newly-established rank of General of the Army at the end of 1944, Al was summoned to the General’s office on February 1, 1945 to take Ike’s official photograph with him wearing his new 5-star rank. What he captured was, as Al described it, “a photogenic General Eisenhower who had a great smile.”
Al Meserlin’s most famous photographs were those taken May 6 and 7, 1945, in Rheims, France. Rheims was the location of General Eisenhower’s forward headquarters at the time. It was there that a collapsing Nazi Germany sent a delegation, headed by German Colonel General Alfred Jodl, to surrender the Third Reich to the victorious Allies. Al Meserlin and his motion picture partner Jack Howell were the only two photographers to have complete freedom to film from anywhere in the room. In a sequence of photos, Al captured for posterity the actual surrender signing and General Eisenhower’s victory speech from the War Room in the Rheims schoolhouse-turned-headquarters on May 7, 1945. His picture of Ike’s beaming “victory smile” after the speech captured the mood of all that early morning. “Victory in Europe” was declared May 8, 1945.
Al Meserlin was, and will remain, a distinguished representative of the “Greatest Generation.” He, like many others of the World War II era, contributed so much to freeing the world from monstrous tyrannies and to making America the nation it is today. Al Meserlin was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in the summer of 1945 and a campaign medal with three bronze stars for his service in the European, African and Middle Eastern Campaigns. After his discharge from the service, he returned home in the summer of 1945. He graduated from Seton Hall University and entered the banking world, retiring in 1984 as a vice president in charge of a trust tax department for a large banking institution. Reflecting on his experiences as Ike’s personal photographer and on being at the surrender ceremonies on May 7, 1945, he said, “I’ll never forget it. It’s something that’s with you forever.”
Al Meserlin donated his personal copies of the photos he took during the course of the war to Brookdale Community College’s Center for World War II Studies and Conflict Resolution in April, 2008. He did so with the expressed desire that the Center display them to enable all to better understand World War II and its impact. Brookdale thereafter established the Al Meserlin World War II Photo Gallery, located in a spacious lobby outside the College’s Bankier Library. Dedicated on May 7, 2009, the Gallery features all the famous photos of former U.S. Army veteran Tech Sergeant 5th Grade Al Meserlin.
Al Meserlin died on March 22, 2009, the last survivor present at the Nazi surrender proceedings in Rheims, France. His photos, however, remain on permanent exhibit on the Brookdale campus enabling all who visit to be “witnesses to history.”
Assistant Professor Emeritus of History
Former Director, Center for World War II Studies and Conflict Resolution