Max Desfor, 104, War Photographer at Midcentury, Is Dead

Max Desfor, an Associated Press photographer whose image of hundreds of Korean War refugees crawling across a damaged bridge in 1950 helped win him a Pulitzer Prize, died on Monday at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 104.

His death was confirmed by his son, Barry.

Mr. Desfor volunteered to cover the Korean War for the news service when the North Korea invaded the South in June 1950. He parachuted into North Korea with United States troops and retreated with them after forces from the North, joined by the Chinese, pushed south.

He was in a Jeep near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, when he spotted a bridge along the Taedong River that had been bombed. Thousands of refugees were lined up on the north bank waiting their turn to cross the river.

“We came across this incredible sight,” Mr. Desfor said in 1997 for an A.P. oral history. “All of these people who are literally crawling through these broken-down girders of the bridge. They were in and out of it, on top, underneath, and just barely escaping the freezing water.”

“My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera,” he said. “I couldn’t even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold.”

The Pulitzer jury in 1951 determined that Mr. Desfor’s photos from Korea had “all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography — imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest and the ability to make the camera tell the whole story.”

The Pulitzer board honored his overall coverage of the war, based on a portfolio of more than 50 photos, and cited the Taedong River bridge shot in particular.

Mr. Desfor was born on Nov. 8, 1913, in the Bronx and attended Brooklyn College. He joined The A.P. in 1933 as a messenger. After teaching himself the basics of photography and moonlighting as a photographer, he began shooting occasional assignments for The A.P. He became a staff photographer in the Baltimore bureau in 1938 and moved to the Washington bureau a year later.

After the war Mr. Desfor was supervising editor of Wide World Photos, the A.P. photo service, and returned to Asia in 1968 to be photo chief for the region. He retired from The A.P. in 1978, then joined U.S. News & World Report as photo director.

Mr. Desfor and his wife, Clara, had a son, Barry.

In January 2012, when he was 98, Mr. Desfor and his longtime companion, Shirley Belasco, surprised guests by getting married at her 90th-birthday party. They had been friends since the 1980s, when the Desfors and Ms. Belasco lived in the same Silver Spring apartment building. They became a couple a few years after Mr. Desford’s first wife died in 2004. Ms. Belasco died in 2015.

During the Korean War, Mr. Desfor was walking near a field when he spotted two hands, blue from cold, sticking up in the snow. The hands, which had been bound, belonged to one of several civilians who had been taken prisoner and executed, their bodies left to be covered by snowfall.