Norman Hatch: USMC

The Second World War was the first war in history to have been extensively recorded by the media. At the fore-front of this was USMC Cameraman, Norman Hatch, (Major ret). Sadly having passed away in April 2017, I had the privilege to interview Mr Hatch on the phone in January 2010. This page is that interview.

“….I joined the US Marines in 1939 at the age of 18. After training as a Marine at Paris-Island I was accepted as an English Instructor for the Marine Corps Institute in Washignton. I was posted to Washington, where I taught English for about 6 months.

Staff Sgt Norman Hatch. Photo courtesy of the USMC War Correspondents Association.

I then got onto the staff of ‘Leatherneck Magazine’, the USMC journal, and later transfered to the Navy Public Affairs Office. I knew then that I wanted to be a Cameraman, and applied three times to ‘The March of Time’ school, where our first motion-picture cameramen were being trained, but I kept getting rejected. 

As the military grew with the onset of the war, an Officer – Lt Alan Brown USN – came to work with us who had been a Director at ‘The March of Time’.

He introduced me to the Founder and Producer of ‘The March of Time’, Louis De Roschmont, and 3 days later I was transferred from Washington to New York, to begin my training. The Navy Public Affairs Office wasn’t happy, as they didn’t have a replacement for me….

‘The March of Time’ was the Grandfather of ’60 Minutes’, the US TV news show.

Their 6 month class taught us how to tell a story in 100’ of film; which was the amount of footage in the camera. This taught you to think about the shots that you needed; which in the future would make the film-editors job a lot easier.

To graduate you need to make a documentary. The graduation film you had to make was one of your own choosing. You were required to select a subject in New York City and tell a story about it in 100 feet of film. All editing had to be done in camera so that the full roll of film gave the viewer a complete story.

My subject was about the elderly gentlemen that spent their days, weather permitting, in numerous little parks in the city. The parks had permanent chess and checker boards which were constantly in use.

What intrigued me most was the determination and concentration on the old faces. So I planned my film starting with the location, the groups of elderly men, both players and watchers, and their hand movements, etc.

The film was a success and I graduated, I could tell a viable story in one minute!

My friend and classmate S/Sgt Johnny Ercole and I saw John Ford get an Academy Award for his movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and said “We`re gonna do a better job than that: we`re gonna win an award for shooting an actual combat movie”; and the team did just that with their footage, which was used in the short documentary ‘With the Marines at Tarawa’.

After this we shipped out to New Zealand.

As a photo unit we worked in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, for about 4 months. We then moved out to camps McCay’s Crossing and Paekakariki where the 8th regiment was in training, and photographed a lot of their activities as we were close to beaches and could photograph practice amphibious landings….”

Our Cameras

I understand the Navy Cameramen used cameras which could be hand cranked or electrically powered. Was this the same for your camera? That must have been a lot to think about when someone is shooting at you…..

“…..the Navy had a tradition to film the take-off and landing of every aircraft. That way, If there was an accident there would be some evidence to look at. The cameras they used were big heavy things that were mounted and could be powered by this hand-crank or electrically powered. Ours were a lot smaller.

Originally we carried a Bell & Howell EYEMO 35mm camera. It carried 100’ of film (used at 90’ a minute) and was generally wound up before each scene.”

“There were only two movie-men in the Division when we were training in San Diego, and this was a big war to cover; so I realised that we’d have to train more movie cameramen.

Prior to leaving San Diego I had to go to Hollywood on a course, so I persuaded the Corps to let me buy all the 16mm Bell & Howell cameras that we could get, together with all the film; both colour and B&W.

The camera had 3 lenses and 3 matched viewfinders, so what you saw was what you filmed. It was an autoloading camera, so was quick to load too.

We used these cameras to train more Cameramen, using B&W film that we were able to buy in New Zealand. We sent this to the Kodak processing plant in Australia for processing.

Most of the guys shot colour film, but I shot mainly B&W as that was the standard film for newsreel and the motion picture industry back then.”

Checking the Exposure

“Although usually the light in the Pacific was pretty good, the exposure kept changing. We were issued with Weston exposure meters, but GE versions were also used….

One minute it would be bright sunshine, and then a shell would go off and the smoke would blot out the sun; changing the exposure. Because of this we had to keep checking the light and adjusting the camera from F11 to F2….”

Camera Maintenance

Was it difficult keeping the cameras operational in the Pacific climates?

“The Photographic Section had a camera repair man. It was his job to service and maintain the cameras, to make sure they were working ok, and that no sand had gotten in that would scratch the film.

It was Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) that as my cameramen turned (handed) in the film, that they had the camera checked out. On Iwo Jima I had the guys do this every 2 ½ days; not only to ensure the cameras were ok, but to check that my men were still ok. We had no radios to keep in touch, as our communications would have interfered with the urgent communications needed for the battle…..”

Our Weapons

“Very quickly I realised that my Cameramen couldn’t carry a rifle. Not with all the film and equipment that they were carrying too. Pistols at that time were only issued to Officers and SNCOs, but while we were training in New Zealand I asked that our Cameramen be issued pistols.

We had a trained Photographer with us who was ex-FBI. He taught us how to use a pistol in combat at a small range we built in the hills near our camp. When I went back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to visit the major supply facility I requisitioned twenty-five Colt M1911 .45 calibre pistols.

I got some funny looks as a Staff-Sergeant with all those guns, but my Cameramen had their pistols. I did this again just before the 5th Marine Division went to Iwo Jima…..”

The Second World War was the first war in history to have been extensively recorded by the media. At the fore-front of this was USMC Cameraman, Norman Hatch, (Major ret). Sadly Norman Hatch passed away at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, at the age of 96 on 22nd April 2017.

Feet wet at Tarawa….

“ …..Cameramen had never been seen or assigned to the frontline before WW2. We were apportioned to the units that were going to be first in action, so that our footage would show people what our troops were doing.

Often a Marine would say ask me why I was there. 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. The work of my Cameramen was used for training purposes, public affairs and operational use; to learn lessons that could save lives in future landings.

Just prior to us shipping out for Tarawa we had a trainee Cameraman, or ‘Striker’ Bill Kelliher, who hadn’t quite finished his training. We didn’t feel good about letting him loose with a camera out there, so he came with me. I must have been the only Cameraman in the Pacific Theatre with his own assistant. He made sure the cameras were loaded, wrote the ‘dope-sheets’ on the exposed film ( that told the people back home what the film was about and where it was shot).

With his help we were always ready to film…..” Norman Hatch and the Cameramen came ashore with the second wave at Tarawa, in landing craft, rather than the armoured ‘Buffalo’ amphibious assault vehicles of the first wave.

Many landing craft got stuck on the reefs that lay offshore, and the men had to wade in through hundreds of yards of open water, while being shot at by Japanese gunners. The Cameramen carried their equipment and 4000’ of film; none of which could get wet. Once ashore the Cameramen joined the many hundreds of other Marines taking cover on the beach, as the landing faltered.

Eventually; and through sheer bravery and determination the assault began to creep forwards across the island; and the Cameramen were at the front filming the close-quarter fighting.

Norman told me; “……… we were photographing an attack on this block-house when I heard a cry ‘HERE COME THE JAPS!!’. I twisted my body and filmed them only 20 – 30’ away.”

This footage is believed to be the only time during WW2 that both sides in a battle were filmed in the same frame. It certainly shows the close proximity in which the Pacific fighting took place.

I asked Norman about his comment on the ‘Unsung Heroes’ DVD, where he said that he felt that he was ‘living in the movie, disassociated with everything that was going on around. “………. it’s impossible to get good footage while down in the dirt. You have to stand up and walk around; so there I was walking around, while the guys shooting were down in the dirt getting as low to the ground as they could. Once the adrenaline starts moving you stop being afraid and get on with your job.

I figured the Japs wouldn’t shoot me as they thought I was a crazy-man; just like the Indians in the old cowboy movies, who never killed the old crazy-man as they believed that to be bad karma……”

Thankfully no 2nd Division Combat Cameramen lost their lives at Tarawa to capture the images we watch today, although one freelance cameraman was killed.

After the Tarawa landing After Tarawa had been taken from the Japanese, Norman Hatch’s film was transported to San Francisco, USA and developed for newsreels. It was picked up by all five of the US newsreel companies, being accredited to Norman; which hadn’t been done before. The 16mm film footage was processed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

This footage was edited by Warner Bros studios in Hollywood into the short movie ‘With the Marines at Tarawa’, a documentary that showed audiences the true horror and intensity of the fighting in the Pacific.

President Roosevelt made the decision to release the film, which showed the grissly reality of war, and its human cost. Film of US casualties hadn’t been shown since WW1, but his decision galvanised US public opinion and support for the war in the Pacific. The Cameramen of the Pacific theatre had done their job well, and shown the people back home the sacrifices being made by their forces.

The documentary went on to gain an Academy Award; just like Norman Hatch and Johnny Ercole had joked together all those years before…… Norman Hatch went on to film the fighting at Iwo Jima, and had a long career as a Cameraman, retiring from active duty in 1946.

He finally retired from the USMC as a Major 1981. Norman Hatch’s biography can be read at the USMC Combat Correspondent’s website.

About Tarawa

The USMC landed on the heavily defended Japanese held island of Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, on November 20th 1943. Initially pinned down on the beach by heavy fire, through bloody determination the Marines pushed forwards, and seventy-six hours later the island was in US hands.

“……they say that when they were discussing the invasion of Normandy (France) some people dismissed it as being to heavily defended. It’s said that Churchill quoted the Jap General who said that it would take ‘100,000 soldiers 1,000 years to take Tarawa. The US Marine Corp took just 76 hours. They say this persuaded the doubters about a Normandy invasion.”

About the movie ‘With the Marines at Tarawa’

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.

About The March of Time

The March of Time was a newsreel series that was shown in movie theatres from 1935 to 1951. Each film in the series was 20-30 minutes long and immediately proved a success with audiences. Despite this the series proved a money-loser, and it was ended in 1951 as audiences got their news daily on TV, which made the newsreel format obsolete.