World War II in Color

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns
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World War II in Color

December 6th, 2022

4 minute read

I’m an avid researcher of historical military photos. I enjoy searching for rare and hidden gems that might not have been seen for decades. In my work, I’ve seen that there were a tremendous number of images captured during World War II, and among those many millions there is a reasonable percentage of color photos.

bar infantry
The M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle: nearly 20 pounds of firepower in color or black and white. Image: NARA

But while wartime color photos are relatively common, the images that show the nitty-gritty details of infantry equipment, particularly firearms, are frustratingly rare. This is where my, and likely your, main area of interest is.

Color Commentary

Even though color photography was not new when World War II began, color film was still a specialty item, and few photographers were experienced with the nuances of color picture-taking.

camo hbt in training
Army troops wearing the 1942 two-piece HBT (Herringbone Twill) camouflage uniform, carrying the M1 Garand rifle (at right) and the M1903 Springfield rifle (at left). Image: NARA

The critical sequence of film, camera and processing was still variable, and ultimately fragile. For a World War I color photo or cine film to work out well, every link in the production chain needed to be right, with background conditions close to perfect.

10th mountain snow
Man’s best friend in training with the 10th Mountain Division near Camp Hale in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Image: NARA

The U.S military took the largest amount of color photos during World War II, with Germany creating the second most. The quality of the American images is all over the map, ranging from murky, colorized mud to jaw-droppingly pristine. German color is much more consistent in quality, although, to my eye, it is also a bit washed out in most images.

Color photos from England are hard to find, and color images from Japan, the Soviet Union and Italy are particularly rare. Surprisingly, Finland used high-quality color film and their photographers documented the Continuation War with the USSR complete with a good number of excellent color images.

The Details

In the United States, Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome for cinematography and still photography during 1935. In Germany, Agfa created “Agfacolor Neu” in response. Agfacolor featured much simpler processing, while Kodachrome required special processing equipment and could only be handled at a Kodak lab.

30 cal m1917 in wwii
In full color is the water-cooled Browning M1917 .30 caliber machine gun during World War II. Image: NARA

On the other hand, vintage Kodachrome film has generally retained its image integrity, while its contemporary color film emulsions have faded, often turning magenta or orange.

m1903 sniper
Shown above is a U.S. sniper in the French Alps, armed with the M1903A4 rifle. December 1944. Image: NARA

When the U.S. military needed in-the-field processing capability for color films, Kodak responded with Kodacolor negative films in late 1942. This represents much of what we see in U.S. color photography taken in the combat zones by Signal Corps photographers.

At the Front

Color film was also used by the troops themselves, and occasionally I have found a wartime color snapshot taken by a G.I. in the field (but they rarely reproduce well). The best of the amateur color images usually come from the men serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces — the overall conditions were better, and the photo processing was close by and correct.

thompson nisei italy
The Tommy Gun: A Nisei (Japanese-American) soldier of the 100th Infantry Battalion (34th Infantry Division) takes time for a meal with his M1928 Thompson SMG. Image: NARA

Unfortunately, that does little to serve the many firearms enthusiasts, craving to see an M1 rifle, Thompson SMG, or BAR in full color combat. Modern “colorized images”, despite the best efforts of the artful digital manipulators, always end up looking like the reproductions that they are.

50 cal beach defense aa gun
Beachhead AA defense in the U.S. with the water-cooled Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun. Image: NARA

To give the readers of The Armory Life an authentic look at U.S. firearms in original World War II color, we scoured America’s image archives to find some of the best color photographs of the era.

50 cal m3 england before d-day
Friendly invasion: U.S. GIs aboard a M3 halftrack armed with a Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun during a training mission in England. Image: NARA

We present them here for your review and in remembrance of the fighting men who fought a full-color war for all of humanity, when the distinctions between good and evil were as simple as black and white. 

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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