Rosset: The "Publisher-hero" As Combat Photographer in China.
Poet Allen Ginsberg called Barney (Barnet Lee) Rosset (b. 1922) a
"publisher-hero." As owner of Grove Press, Rosset put into
print authors no one else would; he also published such notable Beat Generation writers as Ginsberg,
Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Burroughs. He
introduced American readers to Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Kenzaburo
Oe, and many others.
Rosset is perhaps best known for defending freedom of expression and
pushing the limits of censorship in America. He fought and won
landmark legal battles to publish uncensored versions of D.H.
Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
Less well known is that Rosset was an Army photographer in the
China-Burma-India theater during World War II. In December 1944, he
documented the Chinese Army during a major Japanese offensive and
was later sent to film the expected Japanese surrender in Shanghai. A special
exhibition of his photographs from this period was held in New York
Rosset discussed his time in the U.S. Army and his work as a
photographer in China with Bob Bergin in New York City in June 2010.
Bergin, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, writes on the history
of aviation in Southeast Asia and China, the OSS (Office of
Strategic Services), and military operations in the
China-Burma-India WWII theater.
Barney Rosset, 1945
When you got into the military, were you drafted or did you
I volunteered. It was well into 1942. I wanted to get into the
Marine Corps. I don't think I appreciated it then, but the
Commandant of one of the biggest Marine bases--Quantico, I
think--took me around, gave me a tour of the base.
How did that come about?
Rosset: Somehow through my father. He was urging me to join
the Marines, and he knew all kinds of people. As soon as I left the
Marine base that day, I went back to Chicago and at the Railroad
Station I enlisted in the Marines. But after they tested my eyes,
they didn't take me. I was not able to get into the Marines, and I
couldn't get into the Air Force. Only the Army would take me. They
would take anybody then--if you could walk to get there.
Bergin: Where were you assigned?
Rosset: I was sent to Oregon with the 96th
Infantry Division, and after a while my situation started to seem
ridiculous. The infantry involved a lot of walking, and I had
terrible feet. Day-to-day, my life was not very stimulating. There
were good people there. The officers in my Division were college
people, but 15 percent of the enlisted men in my outfit couldn't read or write.
We started a group--it was voluntary and outside of the regular
hours--where I taught reading and writing. The men could not even
sign their name to get paid. And these were intelligent people. I
taught them and, in turn, they helped me. They were good at doing
physical things--like taking a gun apart and putting it back
together. That was very hard for me. And they had never played
football. I formed a football team in my company, and we played the
officers. The officers really appreciated that; they had nobody to
How long were you with the infantry?
About a year. The Army finally thought it was better if I did
something else too. I made my way into officer training. I went into
the Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Virginia, the Quartermaster
school, one of the last officers' schools still open. They were
already shutting them all down.
But our training was basically infantry. I never learned anything
about the Quartermasters, except driving trucks. I was licensed to
drive any kind of truck, which was handy. By then I had heard about
photography. That was in the Signal Corps. I figured that would be
perfect for me--out in the open, not too military, pretty much your
Did you already have an interest in photography?
Before the war I had an interest in filmmaking. My best friend in
high school, Haskell Wexler, and I talked about making a film
together. He went on to become a great filmmaker. I went to the
University of California [UCLA] to study filmmaking. They had advertised a
film course, but they hadn't started it yet. But I did meet people
there who would later become very involved with the film industry.
You wanted to get into photography, but the Army doesn't usually
give you what you want.
I got a letter from the head of the Signal Corps that named me to
the photography school in New York.
How did you manage that?
I told my father. He had become a very good friend of Jimmy
Roosevelt, who was himself a Marine and ended up in the South
Pacific. It was not easy to get into the film school. It was here in
New York, and it had these great directors--like John Ford--but he
was not there. It was run by some very Hollywood types. I lived in a
hotel on Lexington Avenue. The training lasted two months.
Were they teaching you advanced stuff?
It was all very basic. Coney Island, with all its different rides,
was the best training ground. We would go there and to places like
the Coca-Cola bottling plant and shoot little films. Then they
would screen them.
I was the amateur; the other students were all professionals, with
some link to photography, either still or motion pictures. I liked
the school, but I couldn't get along too well. Most of the
instructors had already been in the war, and as a reward were given
their jobs. I had never seen people so lackadaisical, and I just
could not get along with them. Maybe because of that I was the first
one to get a job and get shipped out.
You went to China, but it was via India, wasn't it?
India was where they sent officers to wait until they needed to
replace someone. I started in New Delhi and went from the Imperial
Hotel there to a camp outside Calcutta that barely had tents. Hyenas
would invade at night and steal our food. It was not a happy place,
but we could go into Calcutta--and that was very exciting, much
better than Delhi. There were bad parts of the city, and people kept
getting arrested for going there. It was sort of dangerous.
There were big buildings, the homes of Indian Rajas that were
deserted and turned into brothels. One of them was especially fancy,
and I got to know a girl there. She had her own suite--and a British
lady who dressed her. It was fascinating. I went there in the
daytime--nobody else had thought of that. Why wait till night when
everyone is busy. I would go in the daytime, take her to a
movie--which nobody else did--and all the British women were
agog--some American officer taking out a prostitute in the middle of
the day! But I did.
Were you pleased to get your orders to China?
I really wanted to go to China. I was enamored of [Gen. Joseph
Warren] Stilwell, who was thrown out two weeks before I got there.
And I had been very impressed when I read Edgar Snow's Red Star
over China , but I knew that Mao and Chou En Lai
were way up in Manchuria.
Did you have a sense of what you would find there?
A lot of our perceptions about China at the time were shaped by
American press coverage of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. She was very
popular in the U.S. I admired her. It seemed that she and her family
members were helping General Chiang to run the country while it was
at war. We had no sense of the problems there, or of the corruption.
I got into China by flying over the Hump. It was toward the end of
December 1944, and, as we landed at Kunming, we were attacked. The
Japanese attacked the airfield by following American planes into the
landing pattern. On Christmas Day I found myself going to Kweiyang,
about 300 miles from Kunming. I was given a small truck and a
driver. I named the truck "Foto-Moto." It carried equipment I
needed to set up a field photo lab.
You came to Kweiyang from Kunming in the west, but Kweiyang was
surrounded by the Japanese on the other three sides.
The outskirts of Kweiyang is where the Japanese offensive stopped.
It was as far as they would go, although nobody knew that at the
time. I got there and was given a place to stay in an old Inn. I
settled in and tried to figure out how to put together a photo lab.
I understand there were a number of American officers in Kweiyang.
What were they doing there?
I don't know. You got the feeling that they must have done something
wrong to be sent there. They were high ranking: one general and a
half dozen colonels. I never understood what they were they doing
What was life in the city like?
There were a lot of refugees. We had a social club that had
Chinese--very important Chinese from Hong Kong--who had walked about
six hundred miles to get there. They were urbane, educated, and had
no other place to go. I had no ideas where they went at night. There
were also young Chinese women, upper middle-class ladies from Hong
Kong. And Chinese-American soldiers--from Chicago --who were getting
in line to marry. Where else could these guys meet upper-class
I became friendly with the Chinese-Americans. They needed
photographs for their marriage licenses, and wedding photographs.
And I did it. We also had Japanese-American soldiers who were
intelligence operatives. They worked with radios and so on, and they
were very important. But they couldn't let the Chinese know they
were Japanese; they were afraid that the Chinese would kill them.
Rhule far left, Rosset far rightBergin:
You met an American who was an OSS officer.
That was Meredith "Muddy" Rhule. He was from Springfield, Illinois,
where he had been a cop. His ambition in life was to be the sheriff
of Springfield, which was quite a big job. He had also been a
professional wrestler, was strong as an ox, and was an unbelievable
deadly shot with a gun. He had a very strong streak of morality--you
couldn't go out with girls you weren't married to--and he led a unit
of OSS people.
His job was to take a squad of Chinese and go out along the Japanese
line and steal back or destroy all the stuff that the Chinese army
had sold to the Japanese. I went with him. He had trouble getting
vehicles. I had my truck--which I never let go of--and so I drove
He introduced me to another guy, also a naval officer, and the three
of us became friends. This guy was with naval intelligence. He had
his own building and about ten people. He was a free-wheeling
spirit, liked to go out and have a good time, while Rhule was very
tight. Rhule would set up exercises. I have photos of Rhule running
track, and going for runs in the mountains. We went with him, and
the Chinese peasant women thought we were the finest thing they had
ever seen--and they would run along with us.
Was Rhule doing this to train his Chinese teams?
Rhule was in very good physical condition, and he wanted all his
guys to be like that. And they were, including some young Americans
with him. They were all very disciplined, very tough, but very good.
Rosset with Chinese soldierBergin:
What it was like when you went out with him and his Chinese teams?
We went well-armed. I drove my truck most of the time, although I
never knew how we would get to where we were going. We always had a
Chinese guide. We stayed in secluded areas in the woods. There
wasn't much in the way of towns where we went, no hotels. What we
would do was to circle around, go way out, way beyond where we knew
the Japanese were, and then come back around from their rear. They
were not expecting us there. They had no enemies there that they
knew of. And we didn't want to run into them. We were always very
afraid of getting into a fire fight.
How big were the Chinese teams?
Maybe half a dozen. They always had their own leader. Sometimes we
would leave them somewhere, and meet them later. Most of the time we
I hardly ever understood what I was doing. There were Chinese
officers who appeared from nowhere while we were in enemy territory.
I have photographs of them--I never knew who they were, or what they
did. Some spoke English, but I couldn't talk with them. It was all
very strange then.
Did it seem that Rhule knew what was going on?
Rhule always understood what was going on. He kept everything
together by the sheer force of his personal magnetism. Things always
seemed very disorganized. China was like that. I remember one day,
our army suddenly decided to get people to learn how to parachute
out of a plane. It was the strangest thing. And they would pay you
extra money to do it. Our naval intelligence friend got to be the
star pupil because they paid. I figured the hell with the pay, I
didn't want to do it.
What were you doing when you weren't running around with Rhule?
Once an American officer came from Washington, D.C. I don't think he
was a doctor, although he should have been. He was to
examine--physically--the Chinese soldier, and I was recruited to go
with him as his photographer. I had one other guy, and we took a
jeep. The guy from Washington had a jeep, and three or four other
people. We set off on a road and I was supposed to follow him. There
was only one trail going somewhere. How can you get lost? I told
the guy that all I ask is one thing: If you ever get off of that
trail, leave a sign so we'll know. But then he didn't do it. He did
exactly what I told him not to do.
I had to stop at a fuel dump to get gasoline to put into my jeep.
The U.S. Army brought in thousands and thousands of gallons of
gasoline, all by plane from India. What an expensive operation that
must have been. And then the Chinese stole it. I drove into the fuel
dump and got a hose, and ran it from the big tank--and it was water.
I thought maybe, if you put the hose down to the bottom, there would
be real gasoline and there was. It took me hours to get it out. I
had the feeling the Chinese were probably fooling the Americans by
taking half and leaving half. I found it was endemic.
By the time I got the gasoline out that guy was long gone. But I had
told him--if you go off the road leave a sign. He went off it and
didn't leave anything. I just kept going and going and going. Then
we come around a turn in the wilderness, and a Chinese guy stops us.
He's in an American uniform; he was an OSS guy. He went berserk when
he saw us. "Do you know what you're doing?" he yelled. "The Japanese
are a quarter mile up the road." If it had not been for him being
there, we would have driven right into the Japanese and gotten
captured or killed. And that happened more than once, and that guy
And then, as I turned around to go back, I fell through a bridge. I
photographed it, the truck wedged, and we couldn't get it out. A
Chinese unit came along. The guys took a tow rope, and jumped in the
water and pulled the truck out. And then they wanted to feed us.
They were gentlemen. They had boiling water--with hot peppers in
it--that's all they had. It was like they wanted to have a party.
And I thought I had to drink that, at least try, or it would be an
insult. It tasted …. There's no word for it. Their officer in charge
was a good guy, a good soldier. I ran into him afterwards. The
Chinese troops were all right, but their organization was
disappointing. It was a big problem. The Americans had a lot of
contempt for the Chinese leadership, and rightfully.
You often photographed Chinese troops, sometimes in combat or right
afterwards. How did you find them then?
The Chinese troops acquitted themselves very well. They were brave,
although they were unfed and poorly equipped. All the American
equipment we sent them was being saved to fight the communists. I
remember what looked like a German tank from World War I, and they
were still using it. And they had these little artillery pieces,
again from WWI. That annoyed me very much, but what was I going to
do? I took a lot of photographs.
I never heard a wounded Chinese cry out, or complain. Once I found a
truckload of Chinese civilians with open wounds. I knew of an
American aid station and took them there, but the Americans wouldn't
let them in. I felt terrible. I had to go on and leave them sitting
there and bleeding. Chinese civilians were always very stoic.
Sometime I thought it was because they knew their situation was
The Japanese had halted their advance and started pulling back to
the east, with the Chinese in pursuit. You were covering the
Japanese retreat when you met with the famous Time
correspondent Teddy [Theodore H.] White. How did that come about?
We had heard about a team of two American officers and three Chinese
officers who had come to observe the war and disappeared. Teddy
White heard about it and came to do a story.
I was standing on the side of the road when a jeep with a couple of
Americans pulled up. It was Teddy White, but I didn't recognize him.
I said, "Did you hear--Teddy White is coming here?" And he said: "I
am Teddy White."
He had a photographer with him, and we went together to try to find
the missing Americans. They stayed with us about a week, then Teddy
said he had better go back and type up his stories. I was quite
impressed with him. I had read his books; I was the only person
there who knew how important he was. But he was not very friendly,
and finally I just hung around with his photographer.
After Teddy left, we reached the most forward of the Chinese troops,
the last friendly people before the Japanese. They told us that the
team with the Americans had passed through there. They had been told
to stop, but they went on. They must have been killed or captured.
The Chinese wisely had not chased after them--but we did.
We drove on down the road, and came to a place that looked
suspicious, where something had happened. We left the jeeps on the
road and went on foot. I still did not like to walk too much, so I
stayed near the jeeps, and looked around there. And that's where I
found two corpses lying in water in a ditch--and then another in a
little pond nearby. They were bloated beyond recognition. We knew
there were about five people involved, and decided that two of the
bodies were Americans, and one was Chinese. I took photos and sent
the film to Kunming. We never heard another word.
Later we did hear more about it, and it turned out we were wrong.
The American colonel in charge escaped. The other American, a
captain, was later found dead. It was a story I did not believe.
They had been captured together, and at night were kept tied up in a
tent. The ranking guy managed to free himself, but--as the story
went--he could not spare the time to free his companion. That was
something we couldn't understand.
The Japanese were falling back to the city of Liuchow. On the way
there you had a particularly close encounter with the Japanese.
I think that at the end we got within about three hundred feet of
the Japanese. When we started I could already see them clearly. We
were with the Chinese on the side of one hill, and the Japanese were
on the side of another, with a valley between us. The Chinese didn't
seem inclined to move ahead, so I thought that if we--my driver and
I--started walking toward them, maybe the Chinese would follow. They
We walked down our hill into the valley. There was vegetation at the
bottom, like bamboo, and a railroad track ran through it. The
railway was on an embankment that we could use as cover. But we went
over the embankment, and there the Japanese could have picked us
off. Bullets were fired over our heads. We got into the grass, and
then realized we didn't have any guns. We didn't even have our
shirts on. It was a hot day and we didn't want to carry anything we
didn't need. The Japanese could have strolled over and shot us with
a pistol. We knew if we went back the way we came, the Japanese
would see us. So we crawled all the way up the
valley--terrified--until we thought we had gone far enough.
And this was near the city of Liuchow?
Liuchow was very close. The Fourteenth Air Force had a big airbase
there, the biggest in the world at one point. When the Japanese
retreated from the city they burned it down. I was up on a mountain,
and from there I could see the city burning. At the same time I
could hear San Francisco radio saying that Liuchow had been
recaptured by the Chinese. But here I was--with the Chinese--still
well outside the city. It was eerie.
We met up with an air force team, two guys with a jeep. If a pilot
screwed up, they put him in a jeep and sent him out to be a spotter.
It was a really tough job. You had to go right where the Japanese
were, then bring our planes down on them. So now we had two jeeps,
and the Chinese army behind us. We headed for Liuchow, but the
Chinese didn't follow.
We got to the airfield, which seemed deserted. It was surrounded by
barbed wire, which we cut through, and then we drove out on the
runways. There were miles and miles of runways, and there were all
these holes dug in them. We didn't know it, but we did exactly what
the Japanese expected us to do: We went and looked in the holes--and
there was nothing there. It was like the Japanese didn't finish what
they set out to do.
We radioed back that everything was okay, and the engineer corps
sent in a little plane. An engineer colonel got off and took one
look at these holes and went berserk. The holes were empty, but they
were all rimmed with explosives. It was a miracle that we had
set nothing off.
The engineers brought in more people and gave a class on how to
deactivate these Japanese traps. One went off while they were
teaching, and killed thirty or forty people. That happened right
next to us. It blew up my jeep. The army later sent me a bill for
it--one jeep, 640 dollars.
What was the city of Liuchow like when you got there?
The Japanese had destroyed the city as they left. They shot people
in the street--and they shot children. They destroyed all the
bridges leading into the city. To get to it we had to cross over the
river by boat, maybe six or eight of us. As we got close, we could
see people on the river bank cheering. We felt as if we had done
something. The town had been deserted and then suddenly there were
people. They came out of nowhere, mobs of them. They came out of the
bushes; some by boat. I got photos of all that.
It all sounds unlike the war in Europe or anywhere else.
Teddy White wrote some of the best description of the war in China
that I've ever read. In one place he describes a small unit just
like the one I had. Everything was totally disorganized. There was
no war--but underneath it all there was a war--a different kind of
Teddy didn't use those terms, but he really got the essence of it.
It was not a war, but it was. There were many strange people
involved; one guy doing this, one guy that. They're all in the war,
and they can't leave. When I hear "war," I think of the Marines on
Iwo Jima. That's war--and that wasn't what was happening in China.
In China you had to go looking for the war. Sometimes people never
found it, and when they did, it was almost accidental.
One day we heard about a battle. I got my weapons carrier and took
one guy, and we went looking for it. It was winter. It was cold, and
there was snow. It was a mountainous place. We came to the top of a
hill, and I remember it was all ice. And then suddenly, I fell
asleep, just like that. The guy with me couldn't believe it. He
thought I got so scared, that I blacked out.
The truck slid down the hill. At the bottom it ran into a telephone
pole and snapped it in half, but that stopped it. I got out and
walked about three or four hundred feet from the truck and took
photographs of it stuck in the snow. That's a funny way to find a
war, but we found it right down that road.
The Japanese were retreating through the area. You saw my photograph
of the Chinese soldier with the machine gun. I sat all day by that
machine gun. I thought that guy knew more about what he was doing
than anybody else. He was using the gun, and the Japanese were
sending in fighter planes with a couple of little bombs. They would
come in and dive, but they could drop only their few little bombs
that didn't have that much effect.
The Chinese troops were quite incredible. They didn't have any
gasoline, so they used charcoal to run their vehicles. A guy would
stand on the running board and stoke the fire. Their trucks turned
over a lot. They called them sunfish. They crashed and flipped over.
What did you do once the Chinese secured Liuchow?
I took my exposed film back to Kunming. I made a quick visit to
Kweiyang, and as the war was ending, I was sent to
Shanghai--although I was not sure why.
We landed in Shanghai at what was a Japanese airfield. The Japanese
were still running the place. There were four or five of us
Americans. We got in the back of a pickup truck with a Japanese
driver. It was raining, and as we drove into the city, we started
seeing more people on the streets. It dawned on us gradually that
they were looking at us. By the time we got to the hotel, there were
a lot of people on the sidewalks, cheering us, like we had conquered
We went to the Cathay Hotel on the Bund, a beautiful place. The
manager was Japanese and we were given suites. I had two enlisted
men with me, and they got one suite together. I got one all by
myself. I took it over from a Japanese officer, who met me in full
dress uniform--with a sword. It was like a dream.
The Shanghai Bund
When I first got there, the Japanese were all over the town. I had a
bicycle and got to know parts of the city pretty well. There was a
nightclub area that I would go to, and to get there I had to go
through a Japanese area--which I didn't understand very well. It was
raining one night as I rode through there, and my bicycle went out
from under me. I was flat on my back looking up at all these faces
with white uniforms. A bunch of Japanese officers stood in a circle
around me. I thought it was the end. They weren't friendly, but they
weren't unfriendly either. It was very eerie.
There were many strange things about Shanghai then. I was living in
this wonderful hotel, and next door was a huge gymnasium where
American officers were still being held as POWs. Nobody had told the
Japanese to let them out. They weren't being treated badly, and we
brought them whiskey until they were finally released.
I was curious about the Russians. The Soviets got into the Asia war
very late, but there was a whole breed of Russians who had been
involved with China for years. They had a huge fur business. Many
had had to flee the Soviet Union, and now they represented the
Soviets. The Japanese had brought many of them there--that was the
weirdest part of all.
I was invited to a big party at the Soviet Embassy. We were in a
big, beautiful room, about forty people, around a table, and everybody
had their own little bottle of vodka. Lovely people, beautiful
women, mostly Russian-Jews who spoke English as if they were
Americans. They started by praising Lenin as a great man, but as the
evening went on, they became more and more bitter about the
Russians. Here they were, Russians, representing the Soviet
Union--and they had no use for Russians. It pissed me off.
There was a large community of German Jews who had fled Germany, and
the Japanese had brought many of them to Shanghai. I had a friend
who came in a beautiful Japanese ship. She was a law student in
Berlin when she got in trouble with the Nazis. Her friends protected
her, but told her to get out. Her father had left earlier and gone
to Geneva. Her mother was convinced that the Nazis were good people
and it would end when they killed all the bad Jews. That was not an
uncommon thing, that belief. Her mother would not leave--and she
My friend did what was also common for a young woman trying to get
away--she married a young guy like herself, a Jewish Berliner. He
was a musician, and when they got to Shanghai, he played in a jazz
band, in a nightclub. It was a weird society.
The Japanese actually treated these German refugees very well. They
all lived in a ghetto, but I saw the apartments and it wasn't bad.
There was a curfew that nobody paid attention to. The Japanese had a
kind of farcical control over the neighborhood. There were about two
Japanese guys in charge of all these people, who played jokes on
them. Everybody thought it was pretty funny.
A lot of young women worked in nightclubs--now who in the hell were
the customers? It must have been the Japanese. My friend had a
boyfriend. Like her, he was a German Jew. He had his own nightclub,
and he was very important in the nightclub world--too important. He
got into a fight with Japanese officers and they asked him to come
down to headquarters. He was never seen again. She was really in
love with this guy. I could see it in her eyes, something missing.
There was a game then that was a big thing--jai alai. It was played
by Spaniards, from the Basque country. They had been there the whole
war. They must have been leftovers from the Spanish Civil War. My
friend loved it. We went to this big place where they played. A
couple of thousand people were there, but it was not a thing the
Japanese went for. And we gambled. It was like going to a horse
Shanghai was a strange place then. One day in October 1945, I was
instructed to go to the airport for transport back to Kunming. That
was the beginning of my return home.
Rosset with Rolleiflex camera
Rosset returned to America intending to become a filmmaker. He
produced a documentary called Strange Victory (1948; dir. Leo
Hurwitz), which showed that, despite America's defeat of the Nazis,
the battle against racism was being lost at home. In 1951, Rosset
bought Grove Press, a small, failed publishing house and built it
into "a force that challenged and changed literature and American
culture in deep and lasting ways." In
1957, he founded the Evergreen Review and gave a voice to a
new generation of writers, who "produced some of the best and most
provocative writing of the time."
The Review ceased print publication in 1973, but reappeared
in 1998 as an online magazine,
by Rosset and his wife, Astrid Myers Rosset. In 1985, Rosset sold Grove
Press, which merged with Atlantic Books to become Grove/Atlantic in
1993. The National
Book Foundation awarded Barney Rosset a lifetime achievement award in 2008
for his contributions to American
 The Japanese Ichi-go offensive from April to
December 1944 was intended to capture airbases in eastern China
to neutralize U.S. Fourteenth Air Force attacks against the
Japanese Army in China and eliminate the threat of B-29 raids
from China against Japan's home islands.
 Louisa Thomas, "The Most Dangerous Man in
Publishing," Newsweek (6 Dec 2008) <link>.
 Ken Jordan, "History of the Evergreen
Review"—excerpt from Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1996
(NY: Blue Moon Books & Arcade Publishing, 1994) <link>.