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Lyle Oberwise: WWII experiences in Southeast Asia influenced decades of famous Milwaukee photos

The First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee hosted a special lecture on February 24 by Steve Schaffer, Assistant Archivist for the Milwaukee County Historical Society (MCHS), featuring a slide collection from the legendary urban photographer Lyle Oberwise focused on his World War II experience in the China Burma India (CBI) Theater.

Based on the research done originally for a news article with Milwaukee Independent about 1945 Shanghai images, Schaffer created the presentation to encompass Oberwise’s wartime adventures. In 2003, Milwaukee County Historical Society acquired 43,000 color slides and B&W photos from collectors John Angelos And Marylin Johnson.

The collection documents decades of Milwaukee history during the 20th century, however a small portion of it captures images of WWII era China, Burma, and India.

The CBI was overseen by General Joseph Stilwell, the Deputy Allied Commander in China. The term “CBI” was significant in logistical, material, and personnel matters. Well-known Allied units in the CBI included the Chinese Expeditionary Force, the Flying Tigers, and the 5307th Composite Unit popularly known as “Merrill’s Marauders.”

In 1946, Oberwise returned to his factory job in Milwaukee and until he passed away in 1993, he carried a camera with him everywhere he went. During the war, Oberwise served as a photographer with the 3374th Signal Photographic Service Company of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater.

Oberwise walked the streets cataloging every kind of topic possible, from parades and movie openings, to construction sites and architectural demolitions, to trains and streetcars, to taverns and ballgames, and mundane events of everyday life. What remained less known was his life before Milwaukee, and how those experiences influenced his eye for taking pictures.

Schaffer received his Master of Library and Information Science degree from UW-Milwaukee in 2008, and has been with the MCHS since 2014. His presentation was recorded live at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee with the help of Juliet Hills.

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