Monday, October 1, 2018

Navy Combat Camera, 1942-2018: A Reflection

Lieutenant Wayne Miller, combat photographer, wears flash mask and gauntlets while making photographs of combat action onboard USS Ticonderoga (CV 14) in November 1944. While working at the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1942, Miller's off-duty photographic work caught the attention of  Captain Arthur W. Radford, and he became the first man hand-picked by Lieutenant Commander Edward Steichen to join his Naval Aviation Photographic Unit.  (U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command Flickr).
One of my primary tasks as historian and editor at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum is to select images that succinctly illustrate the stories I and a number of contributors write for the edification and enlightenment of the public.  These images are culled from a number of sources, including the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Naval History and Heritage Command, which maintains thousands of images from both repositories in its files.  The originators of many of these key images were the men and women of Navy Combat Camera, which since 1942 has gone wherever our men and women in uniform have gone around the world.

The staff of the mobile photographic unit known informally as "Quackenbush's Gypsies," with their eponymous leader, Commander Robert Stewart Quackenbush (center right), pauses during the Pacific island-hopping campaigns of World War II.  Unlike Cmdr. Edward Steichen's photographic unit, composed mainly of civilian professionals who only donned Navy uniforms for the duration and went back to their former careers after the war, many of the men Cmdr. (later Rear Admiral) Quackenbush trained went on to found what later became Navy Combat Camera. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
At an unrecorded location somewhere in the Pacific, members of of Combat Photographic Unit (CPU) 7 pause to have their picture taken.  According to Lieutenant Michael Larson, the last officer-in-charge of Expeditionary Combat Camera, nine CPUs, with four to six Navy photographers attached to each, were sent to combat theaters around the globe during World War II.  (Courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera)
Rather than just embedding with the troops, they were the troops.  While most had advanced training in photojournalism and videography, they also were qualified to operate most small arms and they had to graduate the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) course before deploying into hostile-fire zones.  Others had specialized training as aircrewmen or divers. They were truly representative of the people they covered. 

Chef Photographer's Mate Kuhn, a combat cameraman, briefly thinks of home as he pets a mascot of the 1st Tank Battalion “C” Company somewhere in Korea, August 1952. (U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command Flickr).
Aside from producing visual documentation of operations within the military, Navy Combat Camera units were also important incubators that produced versatile visual communicators who joined the ranks of their civilian counterparts after completing their service in the military.  Many of them have gone on to produce content we all consume from publications, wire services, and other news outlets in order to understand the goings-on around our world and their significance.  

A combat photographer readies his F-56 camera for shots from a U.S. Navy helicopter in March 1954. (U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command Flickr)
Alas, this source of visual content for today's news editors and historians of the present and future is no more. On September 21, 2018, Expeditionary Combat Camera Atlantic held a decommissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, and Fleet Combat Camera Pacific held a similar ceremony at Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego.  The last official day of operation was October 1. 

Photographer’s Mate 1st Class David J. Graver operates an underwater D. B. Milliken 16-millimeter motion picture camera with Underwater Sekonic Light Meter to film an underwater wreck off Fresh Creek, Andros Island, Bahamas, May 1974. (U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command Flickr)

Members of the Navy Combat Camera Team videotape the activities taking place around an airfield on Grenada during Operation URGENT FURY, 1983. (Courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera)

Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class April Hatton from Navy Combat Camera videotapes U.S. Marines from the 2nd Light Armored Infantry Battalion embarked aboard USS Nassau (LHA 4) entering the water in 1993. By the early-1990s, female members of Navy Combat Camera were routinely embarking on exercises and operations.  (Courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera)

Photographers Mate 2nd Class Erin Waters, a photojournalist at Fleet Imaging Command, Combat Camera Group, Atlantic, loads 5.56mm rounds of ammunition into an M-16 magazine cartridge during a weapons qualification training period at an Army base in 1994. (Courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera)
It was fitting that Expeditionary Combat Camera's final mission was in support of a Naval History and Heritage Command survey mission of the USS San Diego (ACR 6) which is presumed to have been sunk by a mine deployed by a German submarine on July 19, 1918.  A Navy unit dedicated to short-notice deployments involving media support and historical documentation in the sky, on the surface, or under water was a valuable asset to have for such a mission. 

Chief Photographer's Mate Bob Sasek watches as Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Wayne French tapes events occurring during the multinational relief effort Operation RESTORE HOPE. The two were part of an 11-person combat camera team that deployed to Somalia in 1993 from Naval Imaging Command, Pacific. (Courtesy of Expeditionary Combat Camera)

The author with Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific, Operation UNITED SHIELD, Mogadishu, Somalia, 1995. (Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps)
In a recent Virginian-Pilot story about Expeditionary Combat Camera's closure, former CNN videographer and Navy Chief Photographer's Mate Skip Nocciolo, who logged two tours with Navy Combat Camera, asked, “Twenty years from now will there still be plenty of archival footage that can be drawn upon for documentarians and filmmakers to utilize to tell the story of the military?” 

It is a difficult question to answer, but it is safe to say that images and footage of American troops at work will not completely disappear, yet things will certainly never be the same.  Or, perhaps, they will be more like war photography was at the very beginning. The desire to document the battles that decide wars that change human history has been around since before Roger Fenton ventured out onto the Crimean peninsula in 1855.  Many experts agree, however, that Fenton staged the most famous version of his most famous war photograph, perhaps to make it more dramatic.  There is no doubt that intrepid and ambitious civilian visual communicators will make their way out into combat zones as long as armed conflict persists, and they will come back with the goods, by hook or by crook.  A new wrinkle exists, however, in that we live at a time in which the average Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine carries a device capable of documenting their own daily activities, and many do, even in the thick of combat. 

However the fateful step to disestablish Navy Combat Camera plays out, I do not envy the task of those historians, documentarians and editors, decades from now, who will hunt and peck for just the right image of a particular operation only to find it behind a paywall, or perhaps not at all.


David Wendel Robinson said...

As a former US Navy Photographer it saddens me to see the end of Combat Camera. They were always the best of the best and ran with their cameras into situations where no others would.

mike said...

I acquired a set of 7 B/W negatives of pictures of the Iwo Jima invasion (Feb 19, 1945). These images were taken by a member of the US Navy's Combat Photo[graphic] Unit 13. I have the name of the US Navy combat photographer. He also participated in filming the second wave of the Okinawa invasion (Apr 1, 1945) as well as being assigned to several US Navy vessels for a variety of photographic missions.

If anyone has any information pertaining specifically to CPU 13, I would be very interested in chatting with you.