China Underground > China Book Library: Uncover Rich Chinese Literature and Art > Melville Jacoby: An American Lens on Asia’s War, Interview with Bill Lascher, authot of “A Danger Shared”

Melville Jacoby: An American Lens on Asia’s War, Interview with Bill Lascher, authot of “A Danger Shared”

Melville Jacoby’s unseen WWII photographs capturing the essence of Asia’s conflict and resilience

“A Danger Shared: A Journalist’s Glimpses of a Continent at War”, published by Blacksmith Books uncovers the poignant story of Melville Jacoby, an American journalist whose untimely death at 25 belied a career of remarkable depth and influence. The project, initiated by Jacoby’s relative, Bill Lascher, brings to the forefront a trove of unseen World War II-era photographs capturing the human and historical complexities of Asia under siege. What began with the gift of Jacoby’s typewriter evolved into a deep, personal quest for Lascher, unearthing the intertwined narratives of family legacy and global turmoil. Spanning over 300 photographs, this collection reveals the breadth of Jacoby’s work, from intimate everyday scenes to the broader landscape of war-torn Asia. For more information on Lascher’s work, please visit his official site.

Featured image: Mel and Annalee Jacoby in uniform

What inspired you to focus on Melville Jacoby’s photographs and stories for this project?

In a way, this project was more than two decades in the making. In the early 2000s — after I’d graduated college and attempted to begin a journalism career of my own — my grandmother gave me a beautiful black-and-gold Corona 4 portable typewriter. With it was an even better gift, the story behind the typewriter:

“This belonged to my cousin, Melville Jacoby, the war correspondent,” she told me. That response floored me. I either hadn’t remembered learning of said cousin or had forgotten anything about him that I’d been told.

I soon learned about Mel’s adventurous life, his encounters with history and historic people, the too-good-for-fiction nature of his and Annalee’s escape from the Philippines, and the tragic, all too early end to his life. I was just starting my career at 25. He died at that age after already establishing himself. 

Melville Jacoby

Despite the high esteem my grandmother and the rest of her family had for Mel, and despite their sorrow at the news of his death, the years eventually obscured their memory of him. Then, in the early 80s, Mel’s mother, Elza, died, leaving my grandmother and her sister to manage her affairs (Mel had been her only offspring). In clearing out Elza’s home they found a huge cache of Mel’s papers, photographs, belongings, article drafts, audio recordings, etc. My grandmother tried to organize it, sort through it, contact people who’d known Mel, etc., but life’s various responsibilities prevented her from getting too far.

Meanwhile, I was born around the time Elza died. By high school I’d become interested in becoming a journalist and specifically a foreign correspondent but totally unaware that there’d been one in my family with such a tremendous story. Then my grandmother gave me that typewriter, and over the years, discussing Mel with her became a way she and I connected. Every time I visited we’d look at some of his pictures, read some of his letters, talk about what might be done with them, etc. She knew there was a great story, indeed that there were many great stories, to be found among Mel’s possessions, and not just in his personal adventures, but in the work that drove him. For example, she felt particularly strongly that the story of China and its relationship to the U.S. and the rest of the world was as important in our time as it had been for Mel in his.

At first the various realities of growing up and beginning my own career meant putting any idea of doing much with Mel’s story on the back-burner, if even on the stove at all.  But by the time I went to graduate school in 2009 I’d started thinking more about Mel and similarities I felt with him and the trajectory of his life. My application essay for grad school compared how Mel had worked as a journalist amid a cataclysmic global crisis (the war) and my interest in covering our era’s ground-shifting global crisis (climate change).  A few years after grad school, as I tried to build a freelance career covering the environment, transportation infrastructure and disaster resilience, I participated in a multimedia journalism fellowship at UC Berkeley where I befriended another journalist who’d worked as a foreign correspondent and war reporter in the Middle East. Talking about Mel with her helped me realize how much I had to say about Mel, and seeing how engaged she was with what I was saying about him helped me realize how much his story still resonated. More such conversations convinced me that it was finally time to start taking seriously the prospect of telling Mel’s story. Moreover, my grandmother was then quite healthy and lucid, but in her 80s, and I knew my time was limited if I wanted her to see any work I might do about Mel. So I poured myself into this idea and started to work on a book proposal, eventually sold the idea of a book about Mel and his life, and that became my first book, 2016’s Eve of a Hundred Midnights.

I’m more than proud of that book and the story it told, but it only scratched the surface of these materials of Mel’s that my grandmother had saved. Eve was a narrative biography that included only a few of the literally thousands of photographs (let alone other material) of Mel’s that we had. I kept seeing these photographs, but I had no place to put them. Meanwhile, in the years after the book’s release, various geopolitical realities seemed to be making the period Mel had lived and worked in feel more present and more relevant. I kept thinking about the incredibly important role journalists play in cultivating a free, open, and just society, and how that role was increasingly endangered. I was also thinking about how truth itself seemed weaponized ever more frequently, especially truth about the past. I wanted to do more with this material of Mel’s I was so lucky to see and have access to. I wanted to share it and the world it depicted (both the good and the bad) rather than allow it to remain stuck in a closet for another three quarters of a century, or more.

The connection I had with Mel made his story interesting to me of course, but as I got to know that story, I found myself amazed that this adventurous, romantic, important story wasn’t better known and that most of the photographs Mel took went unseen for decades.

I wish I’d recognized sooner what I had there, though I suppose I may not have been prepared to do either of these books earlier in my career. 

A column of Chinese soldiers parade through a city street in China, likely Chongqing, 1940-41

Related articles: Historical Photos Of Chongqing When It Was The Capital Of China

How did you approach the selection process for the images included in “A Danger Shared”?

After the years I’d worked on what became Eve of a Hundred Midnights I had a decent sense of what photos of Mel’s existed, what subjects they depicted, what condition they were in, etc., but I hadn’t seen all of them. I also hadn’t compared the many prints that existed (and the multiple copies that existed for many of these prints) with the even more photographic negatives (mostly 35mm) that we turned up only as I was finishing Eve. These had all been slipped into wax paper sleeves which, in turn, had been gathered,  into broad, mostly geographic categories and held together in makeshift envelopes made from scraps of paper labeled, “Shanghai” or “Indochina” or whatever other (sometimes inaccurate) subject they’d been grouped under, all of which was then placed in a large, thin box from a department store. I looked at a few here and there when they first turned up, but it seemed a daunting task when I had a book to write and the knowledge that it wouldn’t include much imagery (I also still had hundreds of prints to which I could turn for the images that were included). Moreover the images that were included heavily emphasized pictures of Mel and/or Annalee since that book was primarily about him, romance with her, and their escape from the Philippines. 

Before, during, and after the launch of Eve I’d started putting some images on my web site and in social media to build buzz for it and promote it, but those also were largely focused on Mel. A year or so after the book’s release I visited my grandmother again and brought many more of Mel’s materials back to Portland with me, including all of his negatives, etc. I started to examine these on a light table and, eventually, to scan them, and realized there were even more wonderful images that either had never been printed or published (or whose prints were not among those my grandmother had) as well as many source images for badly damaged or small prints. Around that time I’d purchased a decent flatbed scanner, so I started scanning the images systematically. 

Not only did I scan all the negatives, I also scanned all the prints and documents, both so I could look at them as much as I wanted without worrying about damaging anything and so I could make sure I didn’t overlook any images. Using information I knew from Mel’s letters and other documents I roughly identified where and when most of the photos were taken, who was featured in them, etc. I did a few first passes for quality and relevance, started to separate them, then drilled down to the best images for each significant portion of the five or so years that passed between Mel’s first visit to China and his death in Northern Australia. I also grouped some into thematic or subject specific collections, such as images of the reporters who worked and lived at the Chungking Press Hostel and its environs. I also made sure to prioritize images that I hadn’t shared on social media, especially ones that had never been published, or at least hadn’t entered the public consciousness the way so many images of World War II have.

Sampans, Canton, 1936-37

Can you share a particularly powerful story or image from the book that deeply affected you, and discuss the emotional challenges you faced while deepening your understanding of such a profound and tumultuous period through Jacoby’s eyes?

This is a wonderful question. The biggest emotional challenge I’ve had, one I still struggle sometimes with, relates to the question of why am I doing this? Why am I freezing these sometimes tragic, often dire circumstances depicted by these images in time, publishing them in a book, and trying to get people to look at it? I frequently get uncomfortable with the idea that as an author I want this book to succeed commercially and critically, but that if it does it will be, in part, because of images of a horrible moment in history resonating with the public. 

There are three images that always stop me no matter how many times I look at them, though honestly I could name more that grab me.

The first is an image of a young Chinese boy and an even younger appearing European girl holding hands outside the courtyard of a dentist’s office in Shanghai. The picture was taken in Hongkew (Hongkou), the district where tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and preventing entry into ports around the world settled. There they lived alongside Chinese residents relegated to Hongkew even before the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. This shows a certain sense of connection and hope, of life and resilience, amid tragic circumstances.

The second is a picture of a woman cooking at a food stall somewhere in Chungking (Chongqing). She looks so focused, but serenely so, on the dish she’s preparing. To me, it’s just a beautiful photo, but it also underscores how daily life persisted despite the barrage of bombings Chungking received any time it wasn’t raining.

The foreground of the third features a boy in tattered clothing staring just beyond the camera from a road. Behind him a gathering crowd examines a wooden coffin in the street, with two more just off the side of the road. The boy looks to be in shock, and he just appears to be floating along the street. It’s eerie and human, and it conveys everything about war without actually showing a battle, or a soldier, or even much more violent or gruesome than the suggestion of death conveyed by the coffins.

Related articles: The Photographic Work Of Arthur Rothstein In China: Signal Corps, The Great Famine, The Jewish Refugees In Shanghai

A restaurant and other businesses in Shanghai

How do you think Melville Jacoby’s perspective as an American journalist influenced his coverage of the war in Asia?

I speak to this, and the entire idea of the significance of perspective, extensively in the book. Mel wrote largely for an American audience and I think he was always considering how the war in Asia mattered to the United States. But isn’t that true of any foreign correspondent? Aren’t they by nature always looking at stories through the lens of their origins?

In curating this collection, what was the most surprising discovery you made about the war’s impact in Asia?

First, that it began so long before we tend to think of the beginning of World War II and that it involved so much more of Asia than most of us in the United States or other non-Asian countries seem to realize. Secondly, I don’t think I’d previously known (at least not before Eve of a Hundred Midnights) about Japan’s push into the former French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), nor had I thought much about how that push may have influenced Vietnam’s postwar trajectory.

Crowds during a raid, Chongqing

How did your personal connection to Melville Jacoby through your grandmother influence your work on this book?

Aside from simply introducing me to Mel, it made his story and his work feel more present. It helped me take the story a little more seriously. My grandmother was the last surviving grandparent of mine, and she’d outlived the others by decades. Talking about Mel was one of the ways we best connected, so I felt a significant stake in telling Mel’s story well and thoroughly. But that thoroughness also helped me recognize that Mel was part of a much larger story, and that telling his story well required more thorough understanding and conveying that larger story. It did justice to what I had been given. Also, I’d eventually see how Mel had been so important to my grandmother and other family, and my work in this book allowed me to see more nuanced emotion from my grandmother than what I’d previously experienced.

Could you discuss the technical process of preserving, scanning, and cataloging Jacoby’s photographs?

That was quite an endeavor and an evolution. I’d already started doing some of this preservation and scanning prior to working on this book or my first book. There was so much material, and in many instances there were duplicates of what was there (negatives, various sizes of photographic prints, duplicate copies of letters, carbons, multiple drafts of articles, etc.) so I quickly became overwhlemed. I’ve had to invent and reinvent that experience. 

Around the time I was getting ready to launch my first book I’d become interested in analog photography. Doing some last minute research for the book I came across discussions of his film camera and sought out the same model (a Contax II). When I started shooting my own film I started to get more systematic about keeping track of my images. With this book, I scanned everything, developed a sort of internal categorization scheme, looked at images for dust and other artifacts that I might have introduced at scanning, and painstakingly named, organized, tagged, and separated everything as I slimmed it down to a proper size. This might have been a silver lining of the pandemic, as I spent much of the summer of 2020 scanning and organizing these images. 

Men examine coffins aligned by the side of a Chongqing road

How do you see Melville Jacoby’s work in relation to other war correspondents of his time, especially in the context of Asia’s representation in Western media?

Mel was quite young and learning a great deal about journalism right up to his death. He was just getting his first career job when the war broke out. It’s hard to know what Mel might have done had he had more time to do it, but it is clear that he put a premium on doing the work well even if it meant struggling a little bit (or a lot) financially. He’d seen some bad representations of Asia when he first returned to the U.S. after his year as an exchange student, during which he was present for the outbreak of war, and he put better interpreting what was happening in Asia (and who the people of Asia were) at the forefront of his ensuing career. Mel made sure the story was China, or French Indochina, or the Philippines, rather than Americans or Europeans in these places. 

Were there any photographs or stories that you regretted not being able to include in the final book?

There were quite a few, whether because I knew their rights belonged to other people or businesses (such as in the case of photos of Melby Carl Mydans, etc.) or because space didn’t allow, or because I just never could quite find a place for them, but at the moment I can’t think of specific ones I chose to leave out.

A column of French soldiers marching through a town in colonial French Indochina, 1940

Aside from the impactful work on “A Danger Shared,” what are your upcoming projects or areas of interest you’re exploring for future books or research? Can you share some insights into the themes or subjects you’re drawn to next?

This is often a bit tricky of a question. I’m always thinking about the intersection of history and current events, as well as how chronological, geographic, and social forces affect one another.  So it will probably be something history focused that I can tie with events in the present.

Meanwhile, after Eve of a Hundred Midnights was published I’d planned to write a narrative nonfiction book about the subculture and history of the game/hobby of pinball, but no-one ever bought that proposal. I still think there’s a lot to discuss in that story, especially because pinball has exploded in popularity since the pandemic. It’s not a super consequential subject, but it does speak to society’s need for “third places” and hobbies, a topic I wrote about in an article in March 2020. 

Speaking of games, one thing I’d like to do in the future is expand my writing from articles and books into narratives for video games with a history focus. I’d also like to return to scripting or doing research for history-focused podcasts or podcasts that feature history after writing a season focused on the Great Depression for the Wondery-produced podcast American History Tellers in 2019.

Why video games and history? In the summer of 2020, while I was finishing work on this book and my last book, The Golden Fortress, I’d renewed my interest in gaming as a primary mode for relaxing from writing and childrearing (my son was born earlier in the year, just before lockdowns began in the U.S.). I’d played video games a great deal as a child but grew into other interests and hobbies in my 20s and 30s.

Returning to them, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the depth and prevalence of contemporary games that either explicitly feature historical subjects or are influenced by history. My three books as well as a fourth book-length ghostwriting project I did from 2017-2020 together honed my unique history research and analysis skills and I have a number of ideas of how I might deploy these skills for interactive storytelling. I even have some brainstorms about how I might draw from Mel Jacoby’s materials for a game. 

Even if I don’t work with games, there’s still a great deal of material involving Mel Jacoby and the world around him that I might look to for stories. I have a massive list of potential stories on my computer that I continuously hone.  Also, there’s tremendous movie or TV potential in Mel’s story, so maybe I need to just nail down a script of my own there and see what I can do.

Finally, my grandmother — the one who was Mel’s cousin — passed away in 2022 and I’ve been helping process, archive, interpret, contextualize, and organize her own personal papers and the broader family archive of which she had been a steward for many years. Not only is this giving me deeper insight into my grandmother as an individual and helping me do research for an uncle who’d like to write his own project about her, it’s exposing me to a number of other stories contained in about 150 years worth of materials that ended up with my grandmother (and, now, me). I’ve had a number of ideas crop up, but nothing so specific and fully developed yet that it’s worth mentioning.

Photographs courtesy of Bill Lascher

Last Updated on 2024/04/05

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