No living person can be depicted on a US postage stamp. But my father was.
My father was proud, supremely self-confident, and certain of his abilities, of which there were many. He was tall, personable and athletic, his physical prowess damaged only slightly by the severe injuries he’d suffered when the Naval Destroyer on which he’d served during World War II was torpedoed in the Mindanao Sea.
Hard-working and canny, he had by early middle age acquired the impressive resume of a man who’d made it by all the classic terms of post-war America. He’d launched a career in banking and, beginning as a teller, had climbed the ladder. A year after returning from the war, he married and soon was a father. I am the oldest of his four children.
On September 22, 1964, he wrote a letter to the Postmaster General of the United States about a matter that had been nagging at him. The letter was typed on the stationary of his employer, American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago. His Assistant Vice President title was nothing to sneeze at, nor was it so impressive as to demand immediate attention.
“Dear Sir,” my father wrote, “In 1945 you printed and circulated a Navy commemorative stamp showing various sailors in Navy white, presumably looking up at a camera.”
“In looking at the stamp, I recognized myself and several individuals with whom I had entered the Navy in 1943. It occurs to me that I was present for the photograph from which the stamp plate had been made. I would appreciate any information which you could give me in order to clarify it in my mind. Sincerely, Jack P Katz.”
Much is left out here. Dad knew more than he was letting on.
The three-cent commemorative stamp, designed in a blue and white dot pattern, had been casually brought to his attention while he lay bedridden at a Naval field hospital in New Guinea, the initial stage in his long and arduous recuperation. Seeing the stamp triggered a memory that remained fresh.
Two years earlier, while at the Naval Training Program at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, he’d participated in an impromptu photo shoot. My father vividly recalled the day. There can be episodes in a person’s life when seemingly every detail — the light, the mood, the smell, the characters onstage, the stage itself — is seared into indelibility by the sheer heat of circumstance. These tend to be out-of-the-ordinary interludes of high-intensity. War can be that, or training for it. My father was twenty years old. His only sustained stint away from home before then had been two weeks at Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. New England was new to him. The bucolic Dartmouth campus, with its stately red brick buildings set among splendid green mountains, was utterly new. Every sailor and instructor he met was new. Every day bristled with the edgy newness that lay ahead.
While on parade exercise across the campus green with fellow sailors, they’d been commanded to halt. A photographer situated nearby was poised to take a picture. My father was unaware of any reason why these particular sailors were the ones the photographer focused on. Almost every seaman in the program had a certain look — young, healthy, eager — that a photographer would find representative. It just happened to be my father and several others with whom in those unsettled first months he was fast becoming friends. Was he happy to be there? At that time in his life and that hour of the Nazi threat, he would have been unhappy anywhere else.
The only explanation given for the photo shoot was that the Navy wanted it. If these first weeks of training had taught the men anything, it was that the Navy had rules and conventions you were expected to follow unquestioningly because in the not-too-distant future there could come a time when your life and the lives of your shipmates would depend on strict adherence to an order.
On the Dartmouth green, the sun was high and bright. That’s evident from the angle of light splashing their faces and the gleam off their cheeks. The men were instructed to bunch together and look upward towards the camera.
My father was positioned to the right side in what was loosely a second row. His head blocked a portion of the man behind him. No matter. The photographer seemed pleased with what he had.
On September 28, 1964, six days after he’d written to the Postmaster General, a return letter was mailed to him. Virginia Brizendine, Special Assistant to the Postmaster General, politely thanked dad for writing. The photo for the stamp in question, she bluntly stated, “was furnished by the Navy Department without details as to where or when it was taken,” adding that, “the model for this stamp was an enlarged group picture and we have no knowledge as to the individuals represented.”
So far, no surprise. My father did not have high hopes for a swift resolution. The photo shoot on the Dartmouth green had taken place more than twenty years earlier as the nation was plunging into war. Dad did not expect the answer to his question to be at anyone’s fingertips. This was a vast government bureaucracy. It was heartening to receive such a prompt reply, although the very promptness hinted at pro forma courtesy.
Ms. Brizendine, with deadpan officiousness, concluded by pointing out, “Under the law, which prohibits the placing of the likeness of any living person on postage stamps, the features of each one of these men were altered sufficiently during the engraving to prevent identification.”
Say what? Altered sufficiently? Prevent identification? My father’s face on the stamp, sandwiched amongst ten other Naval Officer trainees, appears just as it did in September 1943: bright-eyed, jug-eared, rosy-cheeked, with an easy grin I would love to be able to see on his face again. Plus, he definitely recognized all but one of the men as fellow trainees, and recalled some of their names. Morrissey. Warren. Pearson. Whitney. Greenberg.
In my father’s mind, the truth was evident: either the Navy or the Post Office failed to alter the photographic plate.
To be clear, my father had no qualms with any regulation or statute or law that prohibits the placement on public buildings, monuments, roads, bridges, landmarks, parks, placards, or stamps, the likeness (face) or name of a living person. The opportunity for abuse is huge. Look to the statues Stalin erected of himself throughout Russia, or the narcissistic artifacts constructed by Idi Amin, Sadam Hussein, or Kim Il Sung for a glimpse of how authoritarians, if unchecked, scheme to glorify themselves.
For a brief period, beginning in 2011, the US Postal Service began allowing depictions of living Americans on stamps, then reversed this policy in 2018. The guideline today states, “Living people will not be considered at the present time . . . proposals for a deceased individual will be considered three years following his/her death.”
My father detested abusers of privilege and detested unbridled vanity in all its forms. He had no difficulty understanding why a pompous political leader should be barred from, say, adding his own stony visage to the existing four atop Mount Rushmore. And he had no problem accepting that a trickle-down effect of such worthy regulations would and should apply even to a three-cent stamp honoring ordinary men who’d enlisted to serve in the Second World War.
What gnawed at him was more elemental. All well and good for the Post Office to ban his likeness or that of any living American from appearing on a postage stamp. It was, however, another matter entirely to deny, point-blank, the cold facts. Denying facts and obfuscating the truth was another thing governments, and the powerful people who come to wield influence within them, should be precluded from doing.
What my father wanted was simply an acknowledgement. He was present when the group photo was taken. He was there on the Dartmouth green in 1943 training for war. He’d dutifully turned to face the camera because he was told to do so. The photograph taken that day was reproduced in the engraving from which the stamp was printed. Nobody’s face, not his or any of his fellow sailors’, had been altered beyond recognition.
The war ended. The good guys won. He was one of the good guys. The democracy he nearly died to preserve ought to be resilient enough to withstand a simple acknowledgement. That’s all he was asking for.
Dad continued to thrive in his career. With mounting prosperity, he moved his family from an apartment on the north side of Chicago, to a subdivision ranch house, and finally to a home near Lake Michigan. I went off to college and kept going. My brother and sisters soon did the same. Nest emptied, dad and mom enjoyed a good life.
But it never dissipated or disappeared, his annoyance at being summarily rebuffed over a manifestly reasonable request to have a small truth officially verified.
In 1985, dad took another run at it. The country had undergone a shift. Vietnam became a horror story that wouldn’t quit. LBJ had surrendered the White House. Nixon took the throne, then defaced it. Reagan, the velvet-voiced pitchman, had the nation smiling again. Dad wasn’t buying it. Maybe that’s what brought him back to the quest, the apprehension that his frustration with official intransigence was not his alone.
I’d been little more than a bemused listener on the few occasions when my father mentioned his quest regarding the stamp. For a proud man of striking accomplishments, he was never boastful and didn’t particularly like talking about himself. What did I make of his thing with the stamp? I thought what many a son has thought of his father’s obsessions: they constitute a yellow blinking light indicating caution about proceeding down a similar path.
I should insert here that I inherited few of my father’s exemplary traits. I chose, as sons sometimes do, an alternative route. As a writer, it did strike me that there was an interesting story here. I gave it some thought, took a few notes, put it on hold.
I did, however, take the step of mentioning it to a friend, a newly minted lawyer, who had expertise in prying documents from government agencies. In what seemed to be exactly the kind of lucky break that desperate detectives hunting criminals pray for, my friend turned out to have a friend who knew someone who worked for the US Navy history department. An introduction was arranged.
Bryan Van Sweringen was the Command Historian of the U.S. Naval Security Group Command. He suggested that my father’s best bet was to contact Jack Williams, the Manager of Stamp Design at the Postal Service. On November 3, 1986, my father wrote Williams, “I have a strong interest in clarifying the identify of Naval personnel appearing on the U.S. Commemorative Stamp of 1945, a copy of which is enclosed. My first encounter with this stamp was in 1945 while I was hospitalized in the Pacific for injuries incurred during World War II . . . I am positive I am on that stamp and can identify the majority of seamen who were with me at Dartmouth College in the summer of 1943. I remember our picture being taken at the time.”
My father reassured Williams that “any assistance on your part would be to help my personal and seemingly life-long pursuit of this subject. . . I want to assure you that my inquiry is for personal and patriotic reasons only and stems from a gnawing interest spanning over forty years.”
On November 17, Jack Williams replied by letter. After stating that he’d reviewed the official files and other materials related to the stamp in question, Williams wrote, “The record is clear that the photograph was taken at the Corpus Christi, Texas Naval Air Station and not at Dartmouth College as you suggest. . . . Interestingly enough, my review of the official files turned up a letter which you wrote to the Post Office Department in 1964 on the same subject, and I am enclosing a photocopy of that correspondence for your information.”
To bolster his assertion, Williams included a copy of the relevant pages from a published book titled, “The United State Commemorative Stamps of the Twentieth Century, Volume II, 1935–1947.” Sure enough, on page 247, there is a picture of the three-cent stamp in question. My father’s beaming face is angled upward toward the photographer, surrounded by the faces of a dozen other sailors.
The 750 page book, written by Max G. Johl of the Collectors Club of New York, included the sort of erudition that its target readership of stamp buffs would appreciate: the ceremony attending the issuance of the stamp (at the Naval Academy in Annapolis); the quantity issued (125,000,000); the genesis of the concept (a June 12, 1945 conference between Third Assistant Postmaster General and representatives of the Army and Navy); and the involvement of the Director of Navy Combat Photography, Captain Edward Steichen (yes, the Edward Steichen, photographer and curator of the acclaimed Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art) in choosing an image that would be the model for the stamp.
According to author Johl, the stamp image was drawn from a photo submitted by Steichen “of a group of sailors in summer uniforms training at Corpus Christi Texas Naval Air Station.”
Who among us has not at times been mistaken in our recall of people, places, incidents and events? But my father, foggy and confounded? Concerning his memory of a group photo shoot that came rushing back with jarring clarity when he first glimpsed the stamp while bedridden in a hospital in New Guinea? Wrong about that? I don’t think so. And, believe me, neither did he.
Author Johl concluded his otherwise dry account of item #935, as it was identified in his book, with a curious paragraph. “After the stamp had been widely distributed, the philactic press contained stories of sailors ‘discovering’ themselves on the stamp. They claimed the picture was taken at Oran Africa, Naples Italy, Samson Naval Training Station New York, U.S.O. Club at Pearl Harbor, etc. This made good news for the stamp but it lost its news value when sailors selected the same individual as being a picture of themselves.”
What the . . . ???
With bold strokes of yellow magic marker, Williams highlighted this particular passage in the Johl account. In the manner of a litigator hinting at the weaponry in his arsenal should the contesting party decline to go quietly away, Williams also included a photocopied article from Postal Life, the May-June, 1975 issue. In case my father had missed it.
The article, titled “Faces from the Past,” discussed two World War II sailors from Kansas City who became convinced their faces were depicted on — you guessed it — that same three-cent commemorative stamp. Both sailors, interestingly, went onto careers with the postal service, one as a letter carrier, the other as a parcel post delivery foreman. Both had trained at Corpus Christi. As reported in Postal Life, the men recalled congregating with fellow trainees to receive their ID cards when a man with a camera leaned from the window of a nearby building to snap their picture.
The writer of this Postal Life article, who was not given a byline, managed to track down a Bob Towers, who’d been a photographer’s mate at Corpus Christi Naval Station. Towers recalled that he snapped a picture of “of a bunch boots” and “sent it off to Washington and it was one of those anonymous pictures the brass took a fancy to.”
It didn’t look good. Unless my father was willing to ramp up his efforts and get combative, it appeared he’d dead-ended. Two other sailors were claiming to be the real faces on the commemorative stamp, and possibly there were others making the same assertion (“numerous,” according to Williams). What was up with that? It wasn’t as if bragging rights to being pictured on that stamp promised any form of payoff, not even for a drunken sailor cadging drinks in a portside bar.
My father replied to Jack Williams, on the letterhead of Exchange National Bank of Chicago, where he was then senior vice president. After expressing his appreciation for Williams’ reply and allowing as “this may be our last communication on the subject,” he asserted that, “notwithstanding the evidence you presented, I am as convinced as ever of my position in that group picture shown on Page 286” (of the Johl book) along with another face “quite identical to my roommate at Dartmouth.”
My father concluded with what for him, a firm believer in the value of proper systems and procedures, was a remarkable display of skepticism. “I feel somewhat like a bettor in a poker game who has called the bettor only to be told that he lost while the bettor throws in his cards, face down. The proof is not quite as positive for me since I have not seen the (printing) plate.”
What further steps might my father take to prove his case? It was clear that the Post Office wasn’t budging. Worse, in addition to the intractable obstinacy concerning the “likeness” of a living person, dad now confronted the disconcerting prospect that others were making claim to the very same turf.
One option could have been to play the credibility card. For while the Kansas City pair were doubtlessly fine fellows, my father was an esteemed bank executive, a much-admired pillar of several communities, a recipient of both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart who had been recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor by the commanding officer of his ship, the USS Renshaw. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, we ask you . . . but there would be no jury or board of examiners.
And what became of the actual group photo taken that sunny day at Dartmouth, or the contact sheet for it? Those could prove his contention. If they existed anywhere, they were in the possession of the Navy. Nothing short of a full-bore Freedom of Information Act request would have a chance of prying that information loose, and filing such an action would probably only stiffen the obstinacy.
And still there’d be no way to circumvent that maddeningly locked gate of circular reasoning: sailors depicted on the stamp cannot have been real people because, under law, faces of living people depicted on a stamp had to have been altered to “prevent identification.”
My father was a tenacious man. Yet spending capital wisely was the very cornerstone of how he negotiated the world, and he was wise enough, and soulful enough, to recognize that time — how much of it you have and how you choose to spend it — is the most cherished asset of all. I don’t think he ever surrendered the idea that he might someday renew his quest. He did what many of us do with compelling yet non-urgent concerns. He put it on the back burner until such time as . . . and then he ran out of time.
And so this pursuit which first began to take shape in 1945, culminates now, three years after my father’s death. Additional investigation could conceivably turn up meaningful details, but it’s unlikely. Instead, I can only write what I know to be true.
Had this account appeared while my father was alive, seeing it published would not, I’m afraid, have provided him much solace. Official acknowledgement, not a biased son’s vote of confidence, was what he was after. He was a Navy man and a banker until the end. Affirmation by means of publication is more a reality for writers than it is for a person of concrete deeds.
But a writer’s reality is sometimes all we are left with.
Smile, dad. Say cheese.