The Naked Gunner

When I explore for blog post topics, it’s rare that the various themes that interest me converge all at once. So imagine my surprise when I came across an image that brought together 1) nudity and the human form, 2) photography, and 3) history; all of which are topics I gladly feature here on Museworthy from time to time when I veer away from art and art-related stuff. Today I’d like to share with my readers a photo I encountered on Rare Historical Photos. Now I should mention that I initially stopped to gaze upon this image for the simple reason that I’m a heterosexual woman and, well, I liked what I saw .. 😉 But I became even more enthralled with the image when I read the incredible backstory behind it – because a photo of a naked guy manning a machine gun in an amphibious aircraft has to have a great backstory.

The photo was taken by Horace Bristol, one of the founding photojournalists for LIFE magazine. His work documented historic chapters of the 20th century, such as migrant workers during the Great Depression and World War II combat in North Africa and the Pacific. The young U.S Navy crewman in the photo was part of a search and rescue mission in Rabaul Bay, Papua New Guinea in 1944. When a Marine airman was shot down by the Japanese and temporarily blinded, this young man stripped off his clothes for easier swimming, dove into the water and pulled the Marine to safety aboard the “Dumbo” PBY. Horace Bristol, who was aboard the aircraft during the rescue, recalled the conditions at that moment:

As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.

Bristol then snapped a photo of the brave, still wet crewman as he readied for takeoff, carrying on with his duties in the nude, because urgency and safety come before all else. And because clothes are not essential <– as an art model I can say that.


The crewman is unidentified, though perhaps Horace Bristol knew his name at the time and did not make it public. One can’t help but wonder about this man. Did he live through the war and make it home alive? Did he know that Bristol took a photo of him naked? What part of the United States was he from? Was he a awarded a medal for his heroism? Unanswered questions. But at least he is immortalized in this remarkable photo which reminds us of wartime bravery and the formidable courage of a generation of men.

Now if there are any World War II enthusiasts or military history enthusiasts among my readers, maybe one of you can help me out regarding this aircraft. The PBY is a “flying boat”, so I’m assuming it was something like the picture on this page? Really want to know what this intrepid crewman was operating on that harrowing day.

15 thoughts on “The Naked Gunner

  1. scultore says:

    One of my favorites from my flying crazed high school years! They represented a possibility to go anywhere in the world. It was a star in the movie Steelyard Blues with Donald Sutherland back in ’73 ,

    • artmodel says:


      I haven’t seen that movie, but it sounds fun. Next time we see each other you must tell me more about your flying crazed high school years!

      Thanks for commenting.


  2. Ken Crocker says:

    Now I should mention that I initially stopped to gaze upon this image for the simple reason that I’m a heterosexual woman and, well, I liked what I saw

    Thanks for this remark. On the “other” (male) side of this, it’s not always so easy to express this in such an offhand way, but it’s very helpful if you like to draw human bodies.

    • artmodel says:


      It is indeed “helpful” in figure drawing, even though artists tend to respectfully keep the sentiment to themselves. I felt like I could express it in that offhand way here, given the context. But I did think twice about mentioning it!

      Thanks for your comments.


  3. artmodelandrew says:

    Great story!

  4. Bill says:

    If they did pin a medal on him, I hope he had time to put a shirt on first. Painful otherwise. My main question is whether Bristol developed his own film. Otherwise, it probably would have raised a few eyebrows among the darkroom guys back at LIFE magazine who didn’t know the accompanying story.

    All kidding aside, though, it is a great reminder of the deed of a brave airman.

    • artmodel says:


      That’s actually an interesting point about about the darkroom guys. They could’ve thought, “What the hell?”. But I’m guessing Bristol did his own developing.

      Thanks for commenting!


  5. Dave says:

    It’s a terrific photo taken under extreme conditions. Like the Pulitzer-winning “Napalm Girl” photo from the Vietnam War, the nudity is anything but gratuitous; it’s essential to the story the photo is telling.

    Thanks for posting this, Claudia. Fascinating stuff, as always.

    • artmodel says:


      Yes, so true about the nudity. A friend of mine sent me an email in which he wrote that the photo was like a modern treatment of Greek and Roman warriors in battle pose.

      Thanks for your comments!


  6. Mark says:

    Hey Museworthy, this is a GREAT post! Thanks. I can’t read or hear enough about the people who did extraordinary things in order to preserve the idea of individual freedom. Makes me want to honor this guy with a painting. btw – as an amateur student of aviation, I can say that you are correct – that is indeed the aircraft (PBY) that was involved in the above incident.

    • artmodel says:


      If you do decide to create a painting inspired by this brave man I’d love to see it! The photo has many inspiring elements, from the story itself to the nude figure and the aviation.

      I’ve been learning more about the PBY and have received wonderfully informative emails from my readers. Great stuff.

      So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comments! Good to hear from you.


  7. From the records pertaining to a Civil War skirmish fought here in Kentucky involving the troops of John H. Morgan . . . “The Union pickets didn’t know what to think of soldiers fighting as naked as jaybirds . . . Those who had clothing on rushed ashore into line. Those who swam with horses, unwilling to be laggard, not halting to dress, seized their cartridge boxes and guns and dashed upon the enemy. The strange sight of naked men engaging in combat amazed the enemy.”

    • artmodel says:


      What a vivid description! Great historical anecdote, and a bit crazy. So I looked up Morgan because of your comment. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan was involved in more than a few wild incidents it seems.

      Thank you for sharing!


      • You don’t know the half of it . . . that man, and the men who served under him, did things that a fiction writer couldn’t come up with (readers wouldn’t believe it anyway). One of our family vacations (my poor wife) was following the route of Morgan’s Great Raid through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. It kicked or butts and we had a car! By the way, interesting tidbit, Moran’s nephew Thomas Hunt Morgan was the first person to win the Nobel Prize for genetics (1933 in Physiology or Medicine).

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