US Combat Cameramen

The Second World War was the first war in history to have been extensively recorded by the media. As the people who made and captured this history, themselves fade into memory, these images bare testiment to WW2.

Historians the world over owe a debt of gratitude to the bravery of the Combat Cameraman; without whom there would be no images to study. As Joseph Longo, founder of the International Combat Camera Association, said: “The brave ones shot bullets; the crazy ones were shooting film”.

The role of the Combat Cameraman

Combat Cameramen served in all the services, with differing roles. Airforce photographers flew with bombing missions, often having another role in the crew. Their pictures not only giving us an insight into a war at 30,000 feet, but being used to assess battle damage. Navy photographers served on the fleet and also had a ‘day-job’ as well as their photographic duties. Combat Cameramen recorded their images for several reasons.

The people ‘back home’ had to be informed of what their ‘boys’ were doing overseas, and news from ‘the front’ was invaluable in selling War Bonds. Combat footage was used not only by the new agencies, but for training purposes.

Indeed; slow motion movie footage has been accredited with changing the way US paratroopers were taught to land, which drastically reduced the amount of injuries.

USMC Combat Cameraman Norman Hatch told me: “..often a Marine would ask me why I was there (in the battle). I simply told them that I had to be there every bit as much as they did; to show the people back home what our guys were doing, so that the public would support our efforts.”

One cameraman filmed footage of the USS Hornet being hit by a Japanese bomb during the Battle of Santa Cruz. The film in his camera survived the hit; while sadly the cameraman did not.   It is believed that 54,000 Combat Cameramen lost their lives in action during WW2.

Hollywood director John Ford was himself injured while filming the attack on Midway Island in 1942.

The close-up fighting in the Pacific, along with the brighter conditions was ideal for the Combat Cameraman, particularly due to the slow speed of WW2 era colour film. The oldest Cameraman to go ashore at Tawara with the USMC was 54.

Makeup of a photographic unit

Most photographic units consisted of a ‘stills man’, a ‘movie man’ and a driver.  Trained also as regular infantry, Cameramen could, when required also do ‘other tasks’, as Art Schmitz of the 101st Airborne told me:”Our company photog at Bastogne was usually too busy as our bazooka man, but one evening during an aerial bombing, he was rushing around taking flash pictures! Like the rest of us, he wore the standard U.S. Army long winter coat, helmet and liner. “We weren’t too thrilled at his drawing possible attention by shooting off flash pictures.”

Training

By 1942 specialist Combat Cameramen were being trained.

The Signal Corps trained 1500 movie cameramen in the Culver City studios of Hall Roach; which seems very few to cover a a global conflict!

The Signal Corps also trained stills photographers, many of whom had been photographers in civilian life.

Being itself still a very specialist field, the first Colour photographers were themselves selected from the Instructors at the Photography School. Photographers were assigned to the Photographic Branch of the Signals Corps, while Colour photographers came under the (Army) Bureau of Public Relations.

‘With the Marines at Tarawa’

A team of USMC Combat Cameramen landed with the second wave at Tarawa Atoll, on November 20th 1943. Initially pinned down on the beach by heavy Japanese fire, the Cameramen could only film the Marines as they hunked down from the withering fire.

Through bloody determination the Marines pushed forwards, and seventy-six hours of bloody hand to hand fighting later, the island was in US hands. USMC Combat Cameramen were with the fighting Marines throughout the operation. (See also Interview with Norman Hatch, USMC Combat Cameraman )

With the Marines at Tarawa is a full-colour short documentary film directed by Louis Hayward that used footage taken by USMC Combat Cameramen during the battle. The documentary showed more gruesome scenes of battle than other war films to date.

Combat Cameramen on Omaha Beach

Despite many Signals Corps Combat Cameramen going ashore with the first wave troops at Omaha Beach, Normandy, most of the moving footage was filmed by the Coastguard.

Once the beachhead was secured, the Signals Corps cameramen handed their footage to the Beachmasters for sending back to England. Unfortunately the bag holding most of this footage was dropped overboard when being loaded onto a ship; and lost forever.

Similar bad luck was to befall the creator of some of the most poignant images to come from Omaha Beach. These were taken by the civilian photographer Robert Capa.Having landed ashore with the second wave, Capa shot 106 images of the carnage on the beach with two 35mm Contax II cameras.

However, a darkroom error resulted in the loss of 3 1/2 rolls of film, with the images that could be recovered having a distinctive blurred look.Many photographers, myself included think that this look gives the Capa images a feel that a crisp image could never achieve. Meanwhile, above the Normandy beaches Captain Dale E. Bikinis became the first man to photograph the invasion, using a specially constructed camera