Joe was born in the Bronx, New York City, on August 7, 1917.
He graduated from high school in 1938, worked for the “Aerial Exploration” company, but got drafted in 1941. His basic training was in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Joe went to cover the invasions of North Africa, Italy and Southern France. He served as a combat photographer with the 163rd SPC, with Seventh, Fifth and Third US Armies. He was discharged as a master sergeant in 1945.
He had taken pictures of wounded men, dead men, bombed villages, refugees, especially children. He rode with Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army, Gen. George Patton of the Third Army, as well as tankers and infantrymen.
Hanson’s work landed him on the cover of Life Magazine on Nov. 14, 1944, in a story about combat photographers. Later he would photograph Field Marshal Hermann Göring, German Luftwaffe commander, who was a war crimes prisoner in Munich.
“I could go wherever I wanted,” Hanson said, explaining the Goering photo. “If there was something happening, I just went. No one would stop me.”
One of the things he vividly recalls, was the photographing of the liberated camp of Dachau.
“I’ll never get that smell out of my memory,” he said. “You could smell that camp before you even saw it.”
But he has more, like the relatively few who liberated concentration camps. The experience is the central one in his life and he says he doesn’t want anything about that camp forgotten.
Drafted before Pearl Harbor, Hanson was a Signal Corps photographer and a veteran of landings and combat in North Africa, Italy and southern France. He photographed combat along the way, but said nothing he experienced, not the horror of the battle of the Rapido River in Italy, where 5,000 men were lost, nothing prepared him for Dachau.
“We were in France when I got orders to go into Bavaria to Dachau. They said for me to go to a concentration camp. They said ‘Take all the film you can, and photograph everything,’ ” Hanson recalled.
A member of the 163rd Signal Photo Company, Hanson and his driver loaded their jeep with press cameras, his personal 35 mm Leica camera and lots of film.
“We travelled some distance to get there and it was a horrible place,” he remembered.
Hanson said he found a magazine photographer who was throwing up all over his cameras.
“There were people little more than walking skeletons. Dead people were lying in piles, many were rotting,” he said. “The ovens in the crematory were still smoking and had bones in the them. The smell was overpowering.”
When the war ended, Hanson came home to New York, and went to work for IBM. The company sent him to college and he retired as a photographic engineer. During all this time, he kept the pictures he made locked in this closet.
After his children grew up, he and his wife, Clara, moved to Boston.
“There was a man there claiming the Holocaust never happened, that it was all Jewish propaganda,” said Hanson, a devout Catholic. “I was enraged. I knew it had happened. I had seen it. I got out my pictures and started showing them to everyone. People have to know it happened, and make sure it never happens again.”
Over the years, Hanson has taken part in national education programs, plus he conducts his own personal information program at schools, synagogues, anywhere people will look at his pictures and hear him talk.
“I have to do it,” he said, “but I worry about who will do it when I am gone.”