The Oliver L. Austin Photographic Collection at Florida State University (FSU)
Special Collections, Strozier Library
An American Ornithologist's View of US-Occupied Japan (1946-1950) and "Operation Deep Freeze" in Antarctica (1955-1956)
Curated by Annika A. Culver, Associate Professor of East Asian History, Scholar in the US-Japan Network for the Future
Oliver L. Austin, Jr. was born in 1903 in Tuckahoe, New York, and in 1931, received Harvard University's first Ph.D. Degree in Ornithology. As a seasoned sailor whose family owned a large summer home on Cape Cod, Austin felt that he could be of service to the US Navy, and volunteered for sea duty—a somewhat unpopular posting prior to the Battle of Midway when the Japanese were still a formidable presence in the western Pacific Ocean. In 1942, when he was already 39 years old, he went to naval headquarters in Boston and received his orders in late July. After three months of communications school, he was assigned to the USS Tryon, an evacuation transport, or armed hospital ship, headed for an embattled contingent of Marines in New Caledonia. Deck service was followed by duty in Admiral Bull Halsey's communication pool and as communications officer on a gas tanker to forward bases. While in dock, he collected over 2,000 bird and bat specimens in "no man's land" of the Pacific Theater's roughest battles, including Tulagi and Bougainville, and even discovered two new bat species in Guadalcanal. After two years in the Navy and earning Lieutenant Commander rank, Austin was transferred to "military government school" at Princeton University to prepare him for service in the future occupations of Korea and Japan. In a 1977 interview, the ornithologist noted: "I had a wonderful time in the South Pacific. I must say, to me, it was a good war."
Dr. Oliver L. Austin, Jr. headed the Wildlife Branch of the Fisheries Division in the Natural Resources Section (NRS) for the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) from September 4, 1946 to December 31, 1949. He was honored as one of only two members of the US Occupation of Japan who received a personal commendation for meritorious civilian service by General Douglas MacArthur. Austin implemented reforms of game laws and created wildlife sanctuaries as well as public hunting grounds to help conserve and manage Japan's wildlife and natural resources. During his nearly four years in Japan, Austin left behind almost 1,000 well-preserved color photographic slides of postwar Japan under reconstruction: highlights include American expatriate life, ordinary Japanese families in Tokyo and the countryside, and Japanese veterans purveying street entertainments. His son Anthony "Tony" Austin (1935-2019), who served as the conversational English partner of Crown Prince Akihito (b. 1933), the past Heisei Emperor of Japan (1989-2019), donated this remarkable collection, which features rare color photos of former Emperor Akihito as a child, scenes of the grounds of the imperial palace, and shots of collateral members of the imperial family.
The images reveal high artistic quality and composition while they provide a glimpse into an important era in US-Japan relations. Through his ornithological connections, Austin met and collaborated with former Japanese aristocrats who engaged in the transnational study of birds, including Duke Takatsukasa Nobusuke (1890-1959), head priest of the Meiji Shrine; Marquis Hachisuka Masauji (1903-1953), an explorer-scientist who wrote numerous studies in Japanese, English, and French; and Prince Yamashina Yoshimaro (1900-1989), founder of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. In the postwar period, these leading scientists enjoyed reviving their long-standing connections with Anglo-American ornithological communities that spanned the transwar period. Today, Japanese ornithologists still include within their ranks leading global authorities on birds.
In 1955 and 1956, Austin was invited to work as an Air Force scientific observer on the US Navy's first Operation Deep Freeze, a preparatory expedition for the International Geophysical Year. At this time, the nature of American aims in the South Pole depended heavily on the military’s relationship with academic and scientific communities. Operation Deep Freeze I (1955-1956), led by Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, aimed to construct bases for the American role in the 1957 IGY, which marked an eighteen-month period of international scientific cooperation and research, particularly related to the earth’s polar regions. In addition to his work on the expedition, Austin conducted research on Adélie and emperor penguins, skua, and seals, implementing a bird-banding project for his ornithological work. The 170 photographs from Operation Deep Freeze provide a remarkable look at some of the world's remotest locations.
Oliver L. Austin's logo was an 'Ikkibird,' which he used as his signature since the 1930s, accepted even by his local bank in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. It comes from a 1943 letter sent to his sons Timmy and Tony while stationed on the USS Patapsco in the Western Pacific during WWII. Included was a piece of fabric from the wing of a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane.
This collection of photographic slides, curated by Dr. Annika A. Culver (Associate Professor of East Asian History at Florida State University) and donated by Anthony "Tony" Austin, was digitized by student interns through the FSU Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). It was made available to the public upon the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War through this digital archive to allow viewing of Japan's democratic postwar reconstruction after the devastating Pacific War (1941-1945). Seventy of these images appeared in an international exhibit at the National Shôwa Museum in Tokyo: https://www.showakan.go.jp/events/kikakuten/past/past180310.html.