Looking back at a front-row seat to history

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This photo of Leo Stoecker kneeling to photograph a Greek soldier was taken in 1946.

Leo Stoecker sits at the dining room table in the spacious North End bungalow he shares with his son. His life’s work is spread out before him — stacks of faded newspaper clippings with stories and photographs that document the great dramas of the last century. As a photojournalist with Acme Photo and United Press International, Stoecker covered the first atomic bomb explosion, the Nuremburg trials, the beginning of the Cold War and the birth of Israel.

At 93, Stoecker may be the last living reporter to have interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1940s, to have seen the architects of World War II on trial at Nuremburg, and to have photographed Robert Oppenheimer at Trinity Site in New Mexico.

He’s lived here in Colorado Springs since 2002, when he came to live with his son and caregiver, Tim Stoecker.

What was it like to witness history?

“I didn’t really know any of these people,” said Stoecker with a quiet smile. “I was on the other side of the camera.”

Soon after graduating from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in 1942, Stoecker took a job as a photographer/reporter with the LaCrosse, Wis., Journal. In 1943 he went to work for Acme Photo, which became a part of United Press International in 1945.

He stayed with UPI for more than 50 years, becoming Rome bureau manager in 1948, eventually moving to New York to become director of international photography.

Stoecker’s 1945 photo essay published in the Minneapolis Tribune shows Frank Lloyd Wright at work at Taliesin, his Wisconsin home and architectural studio. Wright’s acolytes are shown working on a strange, curvilinear structure. It was, Stoecker reported, a preliminary model for a proposed art museum in New York City which would house the Guggenheim collection of non-figurative art.

Robert Oppenheimer (left) and Gen. Leslie Groves at the Trinity Site in New Mexico after the first atomic bomb test in 1945.

What may be Stoecker’s most famous shot shows Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves in 1945. The two men, who together created the first atomic bomb, pose jauntily next to a piece of twisted steel. They might be Broadway song and dance men enjoying a country vacation — except for the location. It’s the public’s first look at Trinity Site, where the bomb had been tested weeks before. The twisted steel is all that remained of the 100-foot-tall concrete and steel tower where the bomb was detonated.

Journalists and photographers, including the Chicago-based Stoecker, had been bundled aboard an Army Air Corps C-47 for a six-hour flight to New Mexico, where they rode buses to ground zero.

Recalling the visit, Stoecker wrote later that there was “nothing there — just a saucer-shaped depression, then fused green particles of sand for several hundred feet, then scorched sagebrush as far as the horizon.”

After the journalists and photographers had been at the site for more than an hour, an army officer hustled them back on the buses, warning them jokingly that they’d better hurry up, since radioactivity from the site might affect the film and even make them all sterile.

Stoecker took both color and black-and-white shots, but there were problems. Radioactivity had caused the black-and-white negatives to fog, while the Kodachromes had a strange bluish cast.

“We fixed the shots in the darkroom,” he said, “but I don’t think that we ever got a good color shot of those perfect green glass spheres.” Those spheres, called trinitite, were formed by sand that was drawn up inside the fireball and then fell on the desert as liquid rain.

Early in 1946, UPI sent Stoecker to Europe to cover the aftermath of World War II. He was based in Rome, but it was no Roman holiday.

“You stayed overseas for three years,” Stoecker recalled, “and then they let you go home for a month.”

Postwar photojournalists were the bloggers of their day. Lugging cumbersome equipment through difficult terrain, they got the shots, wrote the stories, developed the pictures and transmitted the story back home.

In early 1946, Stoecker got word that Yugoslavia’s communist boss, Marshal Tito, was about to put the former Yugoslav premier and Nazi collaborator Draja Mikhailovich on trial in Belgrade. There was no available transportation, so Stoecker and a couple of colleagues rustled up a Jeep. They had three days to drive 1,000 miles, much of it over unmaintained mountain roads. After two days they were stranded near a railroad station, where they persuaded the stationmaster to load them and the Jeep on a flatcar, and hitch it to the next train bound to Belgrade.

The train turned out to be the near-mythical, if somewhat run-down, Orient Express. The young men, covered with dirt and coal dust, leaped over the gap and climbed into the dining car.

“Early Sunday morning,” Stoecker wrote, “four filthy people in U.S. Army Correspondent uniforms, riding on a flat car, caused quite a stir at the main Belgrade station. Nobody knew what to charge for the trip. A bargain was struck, $160 in $20 bills. I often wondered if the yard masters pocketed the cash. No receipt was given and none was expected.”

A photograph taken by a colleague as they covered the Greek elections in 1946 shows Stoecker crouching on the pavement as he manipulates an unwieldy Speed Graphic to get the perfect shot.

In 1947, Stoecker was the first journalist to penetrate the nearly inaccessible border country between Turkey and the Soviet Union, where Stalin’s armies were poised to seize a large portion of the Turkish state.

“At the end of what remains of one of the greatest empires in history,” Stoecker wrote, “deepwater freighters drop anchor in the Bosporous … there are no docks. Cargoes are shifted to small lighters, and unloaded to donkey carts.” Stoecker hitched a ride on an antiquated narrow-gauge railroad, and then rented a battered jeep for the rest of the trip. The roads weren’t just bad. They were nonexistent.

“The road was so bad that using a path next to the main thoroughfare and fording streams was safer and better,” he wrote. Eventually, they joined a military convoy — dozens of wagons pulled by oxen, which would take four days to cover the remaining 100 miles to the disputed area.

Stoecker shakes his head slowly as he looks at the sheaves of clippings spread across the dining room table. His son occasionally prompts him, bringing back memories.

“We lived in Rome for how long, Dad?” he asks. “Was it 13 years?”

His father nods.

“I was baptized in the Basilica of St. Peter,” said Tim. “That’s my claim to fame.”

The son and father look at each other fondly.

Leaving, I asked Leo Stoecker if he had any advice for young journalists. He smiled, and offered a suggestion.

“Have you read Timberline?” he asked, referring to Denver journalist Gene Fowler’s rollicking 1933 account of the early days of the Denver Post. “I’m just reading it now. It’s a good book.”