Staff Sergeant L. Bennett Fenberg
Stills and Motion Picture Photographer
163rd Signal Photo Company, 5th & 7th Army
On October 9, 1919, L. Bennett “Elby” Fenberg was born to Jacob and Lillian Fenberg in Detroit, Michigan. Both parents being Polish immigrants, Elby’s father worked day by day as an owner and manager of the local ‘Colonial Department Store’ while his mother stayed home to take care of Elby and his brother Morton. After giving birth to her daughter, Shirley, in 1926, Bennett’s mother developed a severe case of peritonitis (an inflammation of the pelvis and abdomen) and was in and out of the hospital. Unfortunately just two years later, when Elby was only nine years old, she passed away. His older brother Morton worked for the next few years with his father and grandparents to try and help the family and take care of Bennett and Shirley.
Starting high school, Bennett began to help out around the family store with his father, who was still devastated by the death of his wife. In 1933, his father unfortunately took his own life, leaving Bennett and his siblings as orphans. Trying to deal with their grief, they were adopted by their aunt and uncle who also took over management of the department store. In his hard childhood, likely trying to take his mind off of things, Bennett picked up photography and began taking pictures as a hobby. After high school, he attended Wayne University to study science and photography, where he started the school camera club which he led until graduating in 1941.
Getting out of college right before Pearl Harbor, it was not long until Fenberg joined the war effort. A week after the attack, he went with his brother Morton to enlist and, although Morton was accepted, Bennett was initially turned down due to a recent ankle surgery. Regardless, he rode with his brother to see him off to basic training out West. Stopping in Los Angeles, Bennett saw an article in a photography magazine advertising the need for Army photographers. By himself, he went all the way to New York to interview for the job at Paramount Studios in NYC. Incredibly impressed with his determination and expertise with a camera, the studio accepted him. They gave him a letter, but he was again rejected after his physical. It wouldn’t be until 1942 when he was drafted, and ultimately accepted in the Army. Brandishing a letter the studio previously gave him, Fenberg officially became an Army photographer and began basic training in California.
Soon after, Bennett was sent back to the studio in New York for motion picture training. Showing his aptitude for the camera, he was selected to be a combat photographer in the newly-formed 163rd Signal Photo Company (SPC) and sent to make films on the battlefields of Europe. In 1943, PFC Fenberg and his fellow photographers traveled overseas to England, and later that year shipped to North Africa and Italy. It was here where he got his first experiences of true combat and filming in the middle of the action, at San Pietro. Following the 36th Infantry Division, Elby took his movie camera to document intense attacks and counterattacks against the bitterly defended city. He noticed the famous director John Huston also filming the battle, although recognizing that his footage was partially fake, as Houston’s team would perform stunts like shaking a cameraman to make it look like an explosion occurred nearby. When the city fell to the Allies, just in time for the holidays, Bennett was able to get a nice Christmas dinner with the 3rd Infantry Division and his photo team. Elby and some of the infantrymen had their soldiers’ feast on the hood of a jeep, which was immortalized in a photo that became fairly popular in the states and was printed in newspapers nationwide.
In December and January, Fenberg jumped around in Italy, carrying both a handheld stills camera around his neck and his motion picture camera with him. He followed the 36th and 45th ID’s push through cold mountains and rocky terrain into San Vittore, undoubtedly finding it difficult to film in the harsh conditions. Following the 5th Army, Fenberg also found himself at Monte Cassino, which proved to be the largest battle he had seen yet. Faced with fierce fighting that entailed little movement on any frontlines, he filmed tired yet determined Allied forces trying to establish a foothold on the German-held monastery.
Soon after, keeping up along the road to Rome at Anzio, Fenberg filmed the attempts to break free from the beachhead and struggled to keep the camera steady during German barrages. While waiting for the Allied breakthrough, Fenberg snapped a picture of General Mark Clark. He noted that the general, who also had his own personal photographer, would only allow pictures of one side of his face and would have a fit if anyone tried to photograph the other. When the Allies finally pushed through German lines, Fenberg followed the general into the liberation of Rome, where he filmed Pope Pius XII walking onto the balcony of the Basilica to address the troops and newly liberated citizens. In a much less serious speech, he also watched fellow 163rd SPC photographer John Vita address the crowd from Mussolini’s balcony, imitating the Italian dictator.
When it came time to finally step foot in France amidst Operation Dragoon in August 1944, the recently-promoted T/4 Fenberg joined a team that filmed various stories around Southern France. While not attached to a specific unit, the team essentially acted as a news crew and covered things they thought might be intriguing or do well in the States, a skill they learned by training alongside news reporters back home. It wasn’t until December that Bennett would be officially attached to the 45th ID, usually following the 157th Infantry Regiment, tagging along through small French towns near the German border, and eventually into Germany. While there, he volunteered to switch from his typical movie camera to become a stills photographer for the time, given that the team already had someone filming. In Bundenthal, Germany, around 75 men from the 45th ID were stuck in the town and surrounded by German pillboxes for seven days, with patrols sent to find them every night. When they were finally rescued on Christmas Eve, Fenberg photographed the first time they were reunited with the unit. Along the way, he and the rest of the rescue force repeatedly had to take cover when they were strafed from the skies, mentioning in a report that “the Jerries still have planes.” On Christmas day, his team checked in with the division, then returned to the 163rd SPC command to enjoy some holiday festivities and get their minds away from the war.
Into the new year in January 1945, Fenberg was promoted to T/3 and reassigned as a motion picture photographer to follow the 3rd ID. His team got straight into the action in the Colmar pocket, following an advance on the small town of Kientzheim. Here he and some of the other soldiers were pinned down by a German sniper, who shot two soldiers right next to the jeep driver of his team, PFC Edgar Smith. Smith then returned fire and was able to knock out the sniper with his carbine. A few weeks later on February 2, his team followed tanks from the French 5th Armored into Colmar and ran into some fire from defending Germans. The stills photographer on his team, Pvt. Norman Lowery, moved in an attempt to get a photo of one of the tanks firing when he was hit by the incoming enemy fire in the thigh and fell to the ground. Although Lowery held onto his pictures and was escorted out by a French medic, Elby noticed that he dropped his camera. A French soldier grabbed it and was attempting to run away to find cover when Fenberg caught him and grabbed it from him. Later that day he went back to the aid station to check up on his fellow photographer, grab the photos he took, and turn them into command.
This photo was taken by Private Lowery shortly before he was shot by a German sniper in Colmar, France.
With the capture of Colmar, Fenberg continued on with the 3rd ID as they pushed into Germany and crossed the Rhine. He filmed Allied attacks and many German counter-attacks, both in the heart of the action and right outside of it, as the Nazis sought to defend their home turf. A story Bennett enjoyed retelling came from the small town of Utweiler, where he and his team were covering an attack by German tanks from a hill just outside the town. While doing so, driver PFC Smith was looking through binoculars at a bunch of troops in raincoats advancing into the town and remarked “Look at our troops, running across that field.” Grabbing the binoculars and getting a closer look, Fenberg and the other photographer mockingly yelled “Our troops, hell–those are Jerries with overcoats!”
Despite his inability to correctly identify the enemy, Smith continued to drive the team through Germany in March of 1945, taking Fenberg into constant shelling and rough house-to-house combat. He found it hard to film anything while being pinned down by machine gun fire in Althornbach and the neighboring town of Zweibrücken. Elby was also just barely missed by incoming artillery fire while crossing the Rhine with the 3rd ID in an assault boat. However, like many others at the time, Fenberg couldn’t help but feel like he soon wouldn’t have much more to film. While on his way to film more troops getting over the Rhine, a German lieutenant tried to surrender to him and his team, whom they promptly blew off, saying they didn’t have the time. Angry at the lack of manners, the German began looking for other Americans to wave his white flag at.
Fenberg, left, with his team and their jeep. In the middle is Private Joseph Bowen, a stills photographer, and PFC Edgar Smith on right, their jeep driver.
Fenberg, left, with his team and their jeep. In the middle is Private Joseph Bowen, a stills photographer, and PFC Edgar Smith on right, their jeep driver.
Although the hope that the war would soon end was high, the enemy wouldn’t give up without a fight. The deeper they were into Germany, the harder the Germans fought. It seemed like in every town or city Fenberg went to film, he found himself directly targeted by rifles, machine guns, and artillery, making it hard to capture anything. As he reflected later in life, “The hotter the area was–I mean in activity–the less there was to see and photograph because people don’t stand up when they are being shot at…and we couldn’t stand up and take pictures because we’d attract enemy fire.” Many soldiers joked about how photographers were either braver than most or simply crazy, voluntarily armed with only a camera as bullets whizzed past them, and Fenberg was no exception to this experience.
The worst of this came in April 1945, when he repeatedly went directly into the middle of the Battle of Nuremberg. On the first day, he entered the outskirts along with the 3rd ID and immediately found himself running for cover and struggling to film. Laying on the ground, an air burst hit the building he was next to and caused debris and shrapnel to come raining down, on top of constant machine gun and rifle fire. By the end of the day, Bennett’s team was just barely able to retreat in their jeep, which had two flat tires from shrapnel. The whole day he was only able to finish one roll of usable film. The next day, he went right back into what he described as “the hottest spot I’ve ever been in with machine guns firing directly at us.” He repeatedly went back every single day until the town was liberated, following the process of grabbing what usable film he could while under fire, then diving into a jeep or running back and hoping to not get shot by snipers tracking his movements. For his actions at Nuremberg, T/3 Fenberg earned the Bronze Star Medal. His citation reads as follows:
Technician Third Grade Fenberg voluntarily accompanied an advance patrol of infantry as they attacked the bitterly defended city. ln the face of heavy enemy sniper, mortar, and artillery fire, he photographed the complete action of the patrol without regard for personal safety. Upon completion of his mission, Technician Third Grade Fenberg returned alone through areas not yet cleared of the enemy and delivered his film to higher headquarters thereby furnishing the War Department with timely and accurate information of events leading to the fall of the city.
Once the city finally fell, celebrations were in order. Fenberg learned that in the stadium, where the Nazi party previously held rallies, there was going to be a ceremony to award Audie Murphy and a few other 3rd ID members with the Medal of Honor. He volunteered to film the ceremony and, after overhearing an engineer mention a plan to blow up the massive swastika that stood atop the stadium, told him to wait until he was ready to film. The engineer agreed, and Elby set up his camera on a makeshift machine gun tripod, lay down, pressed the trigger, waved to the engineer, and closed his eyes as he exposed the film reel to one of the most iconic images from the war. The massive swastika was immediately demolished in a spectacular explosion that left roughly a dozen GIs injured from flying debris. Fenberg himself said that, as far away as he was, a 10-foot-long piece of metal that would’ve cut him in half landed directly in front of the camera. When turning in the film to headquarters, the officers were surprised and relieved that he was able to capture it, since they had no idea it was going to happen and didn’t assign anyone to it. Bennett wouldn’t see the film with his own eyes until the first 163rd SPC reunion six years later in 1951. In that time it had garnered international fame and was featured in various movies and news broadcasts.
The rest of the war Fenberg spent filming mostly German surrenders, aside from the occasional run-in with snipers and small pockets of resistance. He went with the 3rd ID into Germany, going through Augsburg and Munich. Days before the official surrender, he’d find himself one of the first Americans at Hitler’s house, going with a task force from the 7th IR into Berchtesgaden. He went through the Eagle’s Nest and filmed Hitler’s private residence, the Berghof, which was on fire by the time he got there. He captured the joyous US and French troops celebrating where one of history’s most powerful and evil men once stood.
By the time Germany officially surrendered on May 8, 1945, Fenberg had been away from family and taking photos for the Army for nearly three years. From the start of 1945 to the surrender alone, he exposed 9,300 feet of motion picture film and received the second-highest number of “excellent” film ratings of any other motion picture photographer in his outfit. It was only a couple of months until the now-Staff-Sergeant Fenberg got word that he’d finally be going home, although his ‘home’ had since moved from Michigan.
Upon reuniting with his brother Morton, who was also returning from his service as a Quartermaster, he found that the family had moved to Houston, TX and was settling in as new owners of a local jewelry store, Nolen Jewelry. The two brothers naturally joined them and worked at the store, where Bennett started a camera department. While on a trip to buy more equipment in New York and Chicago, he paid a visit to his long-time girlfriend, Marilyn, and was married in 1946. The two remained together until he passed in 2007, and in that time had three children while living happily in Houston. After the war Elby continued to enjoy photography and helped his brother turn the jewelry store into a local staple in the 1950s and 60s, working there until it was sold in 1992. He regularly attended bi-annual reunions of the 163rd SPC until they disbanded in the early 2000s, with the numbers of the remaining members waning. In an interview with his nephew shortly before he passed, he was asked what he thought about his service and the contributions he made while serving as a combat cameraman. To this, he simply responded, “I feel I made my mark in history.”