Los Angeles (Liesl Bradner) -- WWII veteran and photographer Staff Sergeant Phil Stern, one of the few remaining Darby’s Rangers, celebrated his 95th birthday to grand fanfare this past weekend at the California Veterans Home in West Los Angeles. To mark this milestone Stern donated 95 of his iconic photos from World War II, Hollywood, Jazz greats and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration gala to grace the bare walls of the home built in 2010. Approximately 50 of the photos on view were of the Invasion of Sicily. Nearly 500 guests attended the celebration including guest speaker producer/director Brett Ratner.
Reflecting Phil’s career of covering the war photos and Hollywood celebrities, the crowd was a mix of veterans and entertainment industry types. Despite all the fanfare, the most emotional moment and best kept surprise of the day was SSG Phil Stern’s induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame as its 348th member. He was bestowed this rare honor “for his service as an original member of the 1st Ranger Battalion and for his lasting contribution to the photographic history of the Rangers in the European Theater during WWII. As a combat photographer, he would take thousands of pictures during Ranger training at Corker Hill and in action from North Africa to Italy. Like Matthew Brady during the Civil War, Stern would preserve in black and white images so many colorful American warriors, from generals to privates. At the Battle of El Guettar Stern was severely wounded in action; his right arm incapacitated and neck hit by shell fragments. The Army field hospital in Morocco performed surgery and fixed this right arm. After being awarded the Purple Heart, Stern was determined to get back with his unit. In the summer of 1943 he joined “Stars and Stripes” and accompanied the Rangers during the first wave of the Invasion of Sicily. He was one of the very few photographers to capture the historical importance of Sicily being liberated by the allied European forces. Stern’s pictures, James Altieri later wrote, had not only made the public aware of the Rangers, but “they had given us a new surge of pride and spirit at a crucial time.”
Gen. (Retired) W.F. “Buck” Kernan, Chairman of the Ranger Hall of Fame Board, commented: “Ranger Stern is a true American icon and patriot whose commitment to the Rangers and the Nation have inspired and motivated generations of Rangers as well as the American public. We are all extremely proud of this well-earned and deserved award!”
Col. (Retired) Tom Evans, USA and USARA Southwest Region Director represented the Ranger Hall of Fame Board located at Fort Benning, Georgia to officially induct an astounded Stern. “It’s easier to get an Oscar than to become a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame,” noted Evans, playfully directing his statement to Mr. Ratner who had just spoke of his meeting Phil 16 years ago, his respect for Phil’s talent and apprehension when Stern showed up with a camera on the set of Ratner’s 1998 film, “Rush Hour.” “It was like Picasso coming to paint me,” said Ratner who is said to be the largest collector of Stern’s photographs.
Visiting from Virginia, Karla Merritt, President of the Descendants of WWII Rangers, read a poignant note from the family of Colonel William Darby signed by nephews Darby Watkins, Presson Watkins and niece Dr. Sylvia Watkins Ryan. An excerpt:
"Few people realize that one of your greatest accomplishments was giving the American people black and white images of hope during those nerve-wracking early years of WWII. Darby’s Rangers and other specialized military formations were some of the very first Americans to actively engage the Axis powers in combat."
RatnerIn addition to Stern’s Purple Heart and other WWII memorabilia on display at the event, were original handwritten letters to Phil from Col. Darby. One in particular, dated March 2, 1944, asked Phil if he could send some prints to his mother in Arkansas.
Following the emotional induction ceremony, Stern was presented with a black and white framed photo of the Ranger Memorial in Ft. Benning, Georgia from Army Veteran, William C. Green, Bravo Company, 75th Battalion Ranger regiment 1992-1996. Fellow war photographer, Nick Ut was also in attendance and gave Stern a signed copy of his famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo “Napalm Girl,” taken during the Vietnam War in 1972.
Rangers Lead The Way!
Liesl Bradner is a Los Angeles based journalist. The Pennsylvania native graduated from Florida State University where she began her journalism career as a sports reporter for the local ABC affiliate station and a stint in the communications office of Florida State Education Commissioner Betty Castor. After studying English Literature at Cambridge University in England she landed at The Orlando Sentinel before moving to Los Angeles where she worked in the business section at The Los Angeles Times in between acting gigs. Since 2008 she has been a regular contributing writer and editor for The Los Angeles Times covering the arts, books, photography, history and entertainment. Her work has also appeared in Variety, Truthdig, WWII Magazine and several other publications and blogs.
She has interviewed Madeleine Albright, social activist Julian Bond, “Mad Men,” producer Matt Weiner, Hugh Hefner, publisher Benedikt Taschen, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Tim Roth, Leonard Nimoy, several dozen photographers and artists including Larry Fink, Chuck Close, Mark Seliger, Catherine Opie, Lawrence Schiller and New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt to name a few.