Thoughts and words come fitfully to the old sailor. But Herman Schnipper, 91, is adamant about his wishes for the pictures he took while stationed on the USS Astoria. The 1,500 prints--sheathed in plastic, captioned and stored in his Hackensack apartment--depict in black-and-white splendor the drama and drudgery of military service.
"I don't want them to be put in a box and forgotten,” he said slowly, quietly. “I want to show people the war."
Schnipper was a skinny kid out of Bayonne when the Navy, aware of his hobby, gave him a camera and a darkroom and made him the light cruiser Astoria's photographer. From May 1944 through the end of World War II and for several months after, he chronicled the hostilities in the Pacific experienced by the Astoria and also the daily routine of its crew: Sailors in perfect formation for inspection. Shipmates mugging for the camera. A cook cracking open a crate of dried salmon. A boxing match on the ship's fantail.
The collection of photographs has followed Schnipper as he moved from one Teaneck house to another to another and finally to the Hackensack high-rise where he and his wife, Julie, have resided for 18 years. Now, the couple's daughters, Rachel Ohnouna and Sari Shlufman, want to give their dad's wartime photography its due.
"We'd love to put them in a book and show what he did because it's a shame they're hidden away," Shlufman told The Record, adding that the family feels urgency because of her father's age and bouts of illness.
Whether the photos form the basis of a book or a big museum exhibit, the daughters would love if their modest, unassuming father were around to bask in the attention.
Schnipper never worked professionally as a photographer; he was a lithographer who made print advertisements. But his World War II pictures have won him fans.
"He's nothing short of a national treasure," said Brent Jones, an Astoria enthusiast whose great uncle was a crewman. "Herman's a genuine man who did an amazing job capturing an important era in our history."
Jones created a website--mighty90.com--that preserves the history of the light cruiser Astoria (a heavy-class cruiser named Astoria was sunk in 1942). Schnipper's images fill the site. Jones, who lives in Texas, began visiting Schnipper in 2007 to scan all the photos. He grew so close to Herman and Julie Schnipper that he was a guest at their grandson's bar mitzvah.
Outside of mighty90.com, Schnipper's pictures haven't been widely seen. There was a long-ago exhibit at the Teaneck library. An occasional photo turns up in a book, such as "Clear for Action: The Photographic Story of Modern Naval Combat 1898-1964."
Though proud of his photos, Schnipper doesn't talk much about them. He never has. Julie Schnipper, 89, says she didn't even know Herman had been the ship's photographer until after they married.
"I show his pictures to people and he gets angry," she said. "He doesn't want me talking about him, showing off. ... He didn't even tell the rabbi or anyone at temple. I'm not lying."
Schnipper made an exception for the doorman, a Navy vet.
"Anyone else would have come around and said, You gotta see my pictures!" said Melvin Kaplan of Elmwood Park, commander of Post 651 of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.
But not Post 651 member Herman Schnipper.
"He came to one meeting and said quietly, 'I have some photos. Would you be interested in seeing them?'" Kaplan recalled.
The guys were bowled over.
"I've seen many pictures of World War II," said Kaplan, who was in the Korean War, "but these are really active-duty photographs. They're not posed. I can really feel for him and his pictures because I was in the Navy on a battleship. Many of his pictures brought back memories for me."
Kaplan would like Schnipper's collection to wind up at the National Museum of Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., which is under the auspices of the Jewish War Veterans. The museum already has a Schnipper photograph of a small group of the Astoria's Jewish sailors at a Sabbath service.
Schnipper's daughters are pinning their hopes on Jones, who is working on a book version of the Mighty90 website--"basically a view of the final year of the Pacific war through the eyes of the men on the Astoria." But completion of the book, which would have many Schnipper photos, must wait because Jones can't devote time to the project while he completes an MBA.
For now, Herman Schnipper's trove sits in boxes and drawers and the clunky Graflex camera he wielded--"I guess he walked off the boat with it," daughter Sari said--sits on a shelf.