Color Photos Of The War Effort Bring History To Life

Photo Credit: National Archives

Photography in WWII is often thought of as a black and white art, which is an easy association to make as the huge majority of photos taken during the conflict are black and white. But surprisingly, the first color images were produced long before the war began in the mid to late 1800s.

By WWII, color photography was far from new, but not yet widely used. The number of color photographs was dwarfed by black and white ones, but thanks to the scale of the conflict, finding color images from the period is not impossible.

Cadets check the roster for their primary training flights in the Boeing-Stearman N2S.
Cadets check the flight roster at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

As with any art, it is up to interpretation, but black and white photography has the potential to detach the viewer from the situation in focus. The vivid and bright colors of real life are missing in black and white photography, which can cause the photo to lack emotional weight. A color image makes relating to what’s happening in a photo much easier, making the victories, losses, sacrifices, and short-lived peaceful times of war all that much more impactful.

With the passing of many of those who lived through and actively participated in WWII, it is incredibly important to preserve and share these color photos, which can immortalize moments and communicate so much more than black and white photos can.

A P-51 flies over the English countryside, 1944.
A P-51 flies over the English countryside, 1944. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

The National Air and Space Museum’s project

Thankfully, the National Air and Space Museum is doing just that. The museum’s staff and volunteers are currently scanning color photos from the Second World War in preparation for an upcoming display. The scanned photos are related to America’s war in the air, which is also the focus of the display.

Two workers at a Consolidated-Vultee plant in Downey, California wire components for PB2Y flying boats.
Two workers at a Consolidated-Vultee plant in Downey, California wire components for PB2Y flying boats. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

The project is part of an enormous $650 million 7-year-long renovation of the National Air and Space Museum, which will see every single artifact restored and the museum itself rebuilt.

The process of scanning these images is a long and arduous one. The museum staff is limited to short periods of time with the archived photos as they are extremely delicate, and handling them improperly can easily destroy them.

On top of this, the Kodachrome film used for color photography required a skilled photographer, a long exposure time, and preferable lighting conditions, a combination that seldom existed on the fast-paced frontlines of WWII.

U.S. Navy aircrew amuse themselves with cribbage at a base in the Aleutian Islands.
U.S. Navy aircrew amuse themselves with cribbage at a base in the Aleutian Islands. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Also, Kodachrome film was complex to process, increasing the chances of making mistakes during processing. However, unprocessed Kodachrome is very stable when stored in darkness. Correctly stored film used during WWII still looks great to this day when processed.

These color photos look almost surreal, showing us the 1940s in a certain light and quality rarely seen before. The museum’s aviation focus means most of the photos are aviation-related, showing aircraft, ground crews, and aircrews. It shows the humans involved in history’s deadliest conflict in a much more relatable way.

Some of the photos are of the huge U.S. production lines, which churned out more than 300,000 aircraft over the course of the war. Pilots’ uniforms no longer consist of muted grays, but have rich brown flying jackets, pink skin, and bright yellow life jackets.

Douglas Dauntless scout bombers on the USS Santee, 1942.
Douglas Dauntless scout bombers on the USS Santee, 1942. (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Rare British Kodachrome film

The British Imperial War Museum also released British color photos of WWII taken on Kodachrome film. Also like the National Air and Space Museum, the photos are totally original color photos, and haven’t been later recolored.

Ian Carter, the author of the book containing the published British photos, said: “You are seeing exactly what was taken. I know it’s common these days to see retouched photographs and colorized black & white photos, but this is the real deal.”

British paratroopers sitting in the fuselage of an aircraft while awaiting their order to jump.
22 April, 1944: British paratroopers sitting in the fuselage of an aircraft while awaiting their order to jump. (Photo Credit: © IWM)
A spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post.
December 1942: An ATS spotter with binoculars at the anti-aircraft command post. (Photo Credit: © IWM)
Avro Lancaster bombers nearing completion at the factory.
Avro Lancaster bombers nearing completion at the A V Roe & Co Ltd. factory, Woodford, Cheshire. (Photo Credit: © IWM)

The photos originated from a very small amount of Kodachrome film secured by the British Ministry of Information during the war. It was then handed out to their photographers to use sparingly alongside normal black and white photography.

“They had a very limited amount of film and had to be very careful, therefore they must have had the film in a separate camera and used it for a couple of photos while taking black and white shots,” Carter adds.

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The photographers only took around 3,000 photos, half of which would eventually go missing. The surviving half found their way into the Imperial War Museum’s archives, where they remain today.

The photos are similarly breathtaking as those taken in the U.S., and both reveal the war in ways we have never seen before. The National Air and Space Museum’s renovation is continuing on, but when complete, its full display of color photos from WWII will likely be incredible.