In 1961 LIFE magazine decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Pearl Harbor by focussing not on how it changed the world, but how it altered the life of one man.
Harold Lumbert was a civilian living thousands of miles away when Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was 21 years old and working on an assembly line in Aurora, Illinois. He had been married for eight months and his wife Burnette was pregnant with their first child, a son named David.
But Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, and eventually Lumbert into the Marines, by way of the draft. He was shipped overseas in November 1944. And he became one of 670,846 Americans who were wounded during the war.
During fighting at Iwo Jima, he was hit by a Japanese shell that tore away the flesh at the front of his skull, broke his lower jaw in seven places and also ripped the nerves at the base of his neck. He was sure he was about to die, and he wondered to himself, “How is Burnette going to bring up the kid?”
Lumbert didn’t die, but he would stay in hospitals into 1947, enduring 33 major operations and countless smaller procedures, in an effort to put his face back together.
As one operation followed another, with painful missteps along the way, Lumbert became increasingly worried about what he looked like—and he had no idea, not only because he was bandaged but also because, to his great frustration, the hospital staff kept him away from mirrors. Finally, in the office of the dentist who had been working on his jaw, with his bandages off, Lumbert slid down in the chair to get a look at himself in the reflection of the metal instrument tray. The dentist, seeing what he was doing, relented and gave Lumbert a proper mirror:
The doctor watched and said nothing while Lumbert stared into the mirror at an apparition that was mostly a hole from the sockets of its burning eyes down. The remaining flesh hung shapeless because there was no longer an upper jaw nor much of the front of the skull to support it. A framework of aluminum bars was fastened to the skull with screws and looped down to give some kind of alignment to the fragments of the lower jaw. The sight, the doctor knew, could destroy a man; he prayed that it would not destroy this one.
Lumbert’s face was rebuilt, and so too, slowly, was his life. He eventually returned to Aurora and his job on the assembly line. Lumbert had feared his wife would leave him, given his disfigurement, but Burnette stayed by his side, and their family grew. They would have three more children, though in a tragic accident their first-born, David, died in 1953, at age 10, after falling from a tree and fracturing his skull.
LIFE devoted 18 pages to Lumbert’s story. The photographs, taken by George Silk, show Lumbert with his wife and three daughters, and with friends, partaking in the satisfactions of everyday life. What SIlk’s photographs do not show, however, is Lumbert’s face. Silk photographed Lumbert from behind or over the shoulder, or with Lumbert’s face in the shadows.
The choice not to show Lumbert’s face is a powerful one because of what Silk does capture in abundance: the friends and family who are enjoying Lumbert’s company. Especially when Lumbert is with his daughters, their eyes are looking at him with love.
In the story Lumbert talked about how he enjoyed the company of his daughter’s friends, because kids had an easier time with his appearance. “If you grab the chance, you can make a friend out of a youngster before she knows what’s happening,” Lumbert explained. “Once that’s done, she thinks of you as a friend and it won’t even occur to her that you look different from anybody else.”
It’s the real message of Silk’s photos: how Lumbert looks matters less than how the people in his life see him. That message is brought home by the story’s closing lines:
By now Lumbert fully understands the special vision which allows children to see beyond the face of a man. As he watches his daughters happily shuffle through the family album and talk about the photographs of their father as he was long ago, he knows that they know that the two faces belong to the same man.