Peleliu Project & vintage 1944 photographs by his father, Russell Fee
The tiny Micronesian island of Peleliu was the site of one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of World War II. US invasion of the Japanese occupied island began in September 1944 and was expected to last only days. However, rather than defend the beaches, the 10,000 Japanese soldiers holed up in caves within the islands rocky interior. The casualties on this 5 square mile island reached 20,000 by the end of the battle two months later. Ultimately US soldiers were forced to pour aviation fuel into caves and ignite them in order to extinguish those who refused to surrender. One determined group of 34 Japanese soldiers remained in hiding until they were discovered in April 1947.
James Fee’s father, Russell was a veteran of Peleliu and it scarred him for life. As a young boy, James was sometimes violently awakened by his father brandishing a weapon and shouting “up and at ‘em soldier”. Today we have names, explanations, and psychological counseling for disorders of this kind, but his father, who went untreated, eventually committed suicide in 1972.
James Fee has made three recent trips to Peleliu for “unstructured experiences of discovery”. He photographed the many remnants of war – sunken ships, abandoned vehicles, buildings, gunneries; and the place itself. In his current work, Fee juxtaposes his own images of Peleliu with images made by his father during the war. The images reflect Fee’s ongoing interest in the interpretation of American civilization through an examination of cultural and environmental remains. More importantly however, they are a coming to terms with the central experience in his father’s life and his vision of America, which ultimately became the defining core of James’s own life. In an oddly personal and prophetic coincidence, Fee discovered while on the island that the original name for Peleliu was “Odesangel”, which means “ the beginning of everything.”
James Fee, a Los Angeles resident, teaches at the Art Center College of Design. His work has been exhibited worldwide at venues including Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, LACPS in Los Angeles, Yancey Richardson Gallery in NYC, the George Eastman House in Rochester, Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and San Francisco Camerawork. Picture Magazine, Photo District News, Art in America, Artweek, and Black and White Magazine have published articles on Fee’s work. St. Ann’s Press, Los Angeles, published his latest monograph, James Fee. He has lectured at MOPA, San Francisco Art Institute, the International Center of Photography, and here at the Center for Photography at Woodstock.