During World War II, Milwaukee’s Lyle Oberwise served in the United States Army as a military photographer with the 3374th Signal Photo Corps, and travelled between China, Burma, and India.
The CBI material is probably the least known of the extensive Oberwise Collection, and the overseas experience allowed him to hone the skills that he would use to record Milwaukee moments for the rest of his life.
Photos from his deployment during World War II include an undesignated location in Burma (now the country of Myanmar), Calcutta (capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, now called now Kolkata), an undesignated location in British Ceylon (now the nation of Sri Lanka), and the cities of Kunming and Shanghai in the Republic of China (now the People’s Republic of China).
Of particular interest are his images from Shanghai which were taken in November of 1945, just over two months after the end of the war. He captured an amazing look at city life, in the limbo between the ruins of Japanese occupation and the 1949 Chinese Civil War, and did it in the extremely rare method of color photography.
Through the decades of upheaval in Shanghai that followed, when its famous international port was closed for a generation through the Cultural Revolution, many architectural treasures were lost. Very few images, particularly in vibrant color, exist or are accessible to the public, that document daily life in Pre-Communist China. His work stands as a valuable record, and window to a unique and unparalleled time in history.
Images from Shanghai include the Bund Custom House, Bund branch of the Bank of Hong Kong, Dah Tung Book Co. Ltd., Shanghai Episcopal Church, Shanghai Great Eastern Hotel, and intersection where the first Japanese bombs fell in 1938, the Shanghai Mission Church, the Foreign “Y” Red Cross Club, the naval hospital USS Repose, a view of East Nanking Road, and the famous Waibaidu Bridge over the Soochow Creek (now called Suzhou Creek or Wusong River).
Of special note is the Shanghai Jewish refugee camp, which was part of the Jewish Ghetto along the Zhoushan Road and Huoshan Road. The Japanese consolidated 18,000 Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, Austria, and Poland were consolidated in that area between 1941 and 1945. Portions of that area have, along with the Bund’s waterfront district in central Shanghai, survived the internal conflicts of war torn China only to face the more modern day threat of economic development.
Japan announced its surrender to Allied Forces on August 15. It came six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war. On September 2, the Japanese government signed the instrument of surrender, effectively ending World War II. Oberwise was in Kunming, China a month later.
Kunming was important during World War II as a Chinese military center, American air base, and transport terminus for the Burma Road, located in the middle of the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau. After 1949, most foreign firms moved their offices from Shanghai to Hong Kong, as part of a foreign divestment due to the Communist victory.
Oberwise only took a mere handful of images in Burma, in the CDI collection of 600 slides. But he snapped a very rare photograph of Admiral Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the Supreme Allied Commander of South-East Asia forces.
In 1948, the creation of the World War II China-Burma-India Veterans Association was established in Milwaukee. It was the only national organization representing veterans from the entire CBI theater of operations, and one of those veterans was Oberwise.
With Milwaukee’s growing population from regions of India, the Wisconsin manufacturing deal with Taiwan’s Foxconn, more students from China arriving to attend local universities, and the public reverence for Oberwise’s photography, the Milwaukee County Historical Society hopes that local, national, and international interest will help the CBI collection develop into to a formal exhibit for the museum, and destination opportunity for Milwaukee.