A Man Coincidentally Unearths Never-Before-Seen Images from World War II

By: Past Chronicles Staff | Published: Nov 05, 2023

Just a few months ago, a hobbyist chanced upon the most unlikely discovery — historical images, later determined to be from World War II. It was definitely by a stroke of luck the images fell into the hands of the professional film restorer. 

These special images would have never come to life if the films had been handed to someone inexperienced with classic photographic films. This is the story of Johan Bettweiser. 

A Window of Opportunity During Thanksgiving

Just a month earlier, Johan Bettweiser’s friend in Ohio, Charlie, invited him to visit whenever the opportunity arose. 

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Bettweiser stayed alone in New York since the passing of his wife. His two daughters were married, one living with her spouse in Canada and the other a single mother in New Jersey. So, Bettweiser decided to visit Charlie before the new year came around with the ever-choked-up schedule. 

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Bettweiser's Casual Afternoon Walk on the Streets of Akron

On the third day of arriving in Ohio, Bettweiser’s friend and host — who happened to be a veterinarian, got a call from a ranch not far away. So, Bettweiser walked around the neighborhood while his friend was away. 

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Source: www.britannic.com

He had no particular destination in mind and soon chanced upon a yard sale. The display enjoyed a poor audience from passersby as the items displayed were mostly old, archaic, and antiquated. 

A Collector Finds His Perfect Match of Artifacts

Being an avid collector, Betweisser naturally gravitated toward the displayed wares. He also worked with a team of photography enthusiasts dubbed the Rescued Film Project. 

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His background explains why his eyes became immediately fixated on a clear bag, which he could tell, from the wrappings, contained old photographic films. A young man was busy auctioning some relatively newer items to the few prospects standing around. 

An Effortless Purchase of a Priceless Artefact

Betweisser quietly snuck up to the auctioneer. “Where are those films from, and do you know their content? They look quite old,” he said. The young man looked at him and then at the clear bag and almost immediately shrugged his shoulders. 

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Source: Pinterest.com

Betweisser made the chap an offer and picked up the films, then started off in the direction of Charlie’s house. 

The Fount of a Lifelong Passion for Photography

Since he did not come to Ohio with his photography gear, Betweisser could not develop the images. However, he could tell at first sight that those films were over 60 years old. 

Source: Phototeacher.com

Arthur Fremlin, Betweisser’s stepdad, was a cinematographer, and he allowed young Johan to look in on and even assist with his work. On countless occasions, Fremlin allowed his young stepson free access to the darkroom in the basement of their home. So, over the years, Johan had become a professional. 

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Curiosity About the Films' Contents Overcomes Betweisser

Upon returning to New York, the photography connoisseur got to work on the films. Before development, he noticed some of the rolls had been compromised and damaged. However, with great expertise and experience, he was able to salvage and develop quite a number of films. 

Source: Public Domain Pictures

It was during the development of these films he discovered that some of the images were from wartime. 

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Historic Consultation at a Community College in New York City

The images were obviously set in wartime, but Betweisser didn’t want to be too speculative about the specifics. So, he decided to consult with an acquaintance, Morgan Ramsey. 

Source: www.cuny.edu

Ramsey was a faculty member at the history department of a community college in New York City. Drawing clues from about twenty images, Ramsey declared the images to be from World War II. 

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Unveiling of Further Clues

Betweisser also went to the community college with the labeling on the film rolls and some of the papers used in wrapping the films. They all contained scribblings, which, when examined, had similar handwriting. 

Source: cdn.history101.com/ Pinterest

Ramsey and Betweisser then concluded that the films must have belonged to a soldier who was actively involved in World War II. 

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Determining the Importance of the Recovered Images

It was now certain that the images were all taken by an anonymous soldier. However, the location of the different images shot was still unknown. 

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Ramsey pointed out to Betweisser that they could identify the various locations of the photos. So, they made copies of the developed images and sent them to some historians around the country. Sure enough, location tags started trickling into Betweisser’s email address. 

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The Images That Got Everyone Talking

Betweisser has since released some images he restored from the recovered films. You will find some of them with texts by Betweisser describing some information sourced about the particular image. 

Source: Irishtimes.com

For example, this one probably involves the anonymous soldier taking a shot of soldiers awaiting a train to evacuate them from the frontlines.

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Enjoying the Sight of the Countryside

Many men conscripted into military service during the Second World War were not well-traveled. So, while it is true that they braved many hazards, the few optimists amongst them must have seen the events as an opportunity to see the world.

Source: Flickr.com

And yes, they did see the world, but many of them, unfortunately, did not live to tell the story. It is widely reported that there were over 50 million casualties during World War II.

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Counting Losses After Everything Stops

A careful examination of most of the images restored by Betweisser reveals that the war was already over when the images were taken. The soldier bearing the camera was calm enough to capture some of his compatriots examining a probably broken-down tank.

Source: Flickr.com

Also, the setting definitely looks like this one was shot within a camp or barrack, as many of the other photos were.

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Relaxing During Off-Service Hours

During active war engagements, entertainment and refreshment were rarely available within military formations. However, in this image, you can see military personnel standing around a Coca-Cola truck. They were probably having casual conversations and contemplating what they’ll do after returning to their families.

Source: Picryl

The structure in the background is not likely a living quarter for soldiers. So, it was probably an administrative makeshift for officers.

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Travelling Cross-Country Must Have Involved Several Stops

After the two World Wars ended, several soldiers were left stranded on foreign soil. Why? A lot of personnel were being transported back, simultaneously, to the United States.

Source: Imgur

The transportation amenities — trains, ships, trucks — were stretched to the limits. So, the evacuation of military personnel had to be done in batches. However, many of the men were already homesick and eager to return. 

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The Homecoming of a Patriotic Hero

It is easy to tell the rank or award of a fallen hero during their burial. Elaborate ceremonies, gunshot salutes, and similar activities indicate an officer’s burial. 

Source: Commons Wikimedia

However, it is possible to have an elaborate burial ceremony for a non-commissioned soldier if he is awarded a post-humous medal of honor. The shot in this image is that of a burial ceremony for military personnel.

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A Chest of Treasures and Moth-Eaten Gems

The undeveloped films were in storage for at least 70 years – about when World War II ended. So, this image is one of the many plates that got compromised and damaged.

Source: blogspot.com

We can merely see a silhouette of people, most likely locals, in an unclear portrait picture.

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Looking Over the Horizon, Longing to See Familiar Shores

Many convenient landing points for armed personnel were shallow and not dredged. Most of the deep sea ports had also been strategically rendered unusable by enemy air raids that sunk large vessels at the harbor. 

Source: wikimedia.org

Consequently, some seashore evacuations had to be done – first by a ferry which then conveyed personnel to a larger vessel anchored out at sea.

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A Speck of Hope in the Horizon

The anonymous photographer and their compatriots probably counted each second and heartbeat as the ferry approached. It symbolized a milestone of another phase of life as they faced the possibility of embracing their loved ones again.

Source: Pixabay.com

Many of these soldiers were enthusiastic during enlistment but had gone through so much.

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Panning for a Better View of the Ferry and Mother Ship

The sequence of these images can almost transport everyone to that very day. The anonymous photographer took the previous shot and thought it was not good enough. 

Source: Pixabay.com

So, they sought out a vantage point where a better view of the two vessels could come into focus. Voila! We have our shot.

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Welcome Home, Well Done!

A careful perusal of this last image says it all. The ferry is berthing and being prepared for boarding. A sign on the side is inscribed with a large print of “Welcome Home.” 

Source: farm3.staticflickr.com

To think our anonymous photographer was not in a haste to be the first foot on deck. They captured the moment till the very end.

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