Combat Photographers Risk All to Document War
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 13, 2000 Dick Taylor, Norman Hatch, Donald Honeyman -- you may not know their names or faces, but you've probably seen their work.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen (left) meets Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Allen (center), 1st Combat Camera Squadron, and Army Sgt. Angel Medina, 55th Signal Co., at the Pentagon Oct. 4. Cohen hosted a tribute to the military's past and present combat photographers. Photo by Staff Sgt. Scott M. Ash, USAF.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
These military photographers captured a lasting visual history of World War II. Taylor was on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Hatch captured the Marines' triumph at Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Honeyman was at the liberation of Manila.
DoD paid tribute to the military's past and present combat cameramen at a recent Pentagon reception and film preview. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, invited more than 250 defense leaders, commanders and corporate executives to the Oct. 4 screening of the Dreamworks film "The Shooting War."
Richard Schickel, a Time Magazine film critic, produced the 90-minute documentary about World War II combat photographers. It includes missing footage shot by Academy Award-winning director John Ford on the beaches of Normandy. Melvyn R. Paisley, a World War II aviator and former assistant secretary of the Navy, found the several reels of film in 1998 at the National Archives.
In opening remarks at the screening, Cohen thanked these men and the other combat photographers who "caught" the images of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo. He said America is indebted to the heroism and the courage of the men and women armed only with cameras who show what the nation's service members go through and the sacrifices they make.
Cohen, who first saw the film during D-Day commemoration ceremonies in New Orleans in June, said Dreamworks executive and film director Steven Spielberg had asked Schickel not to "pretty it up," and Schickel complied.
"This is not Hollywood," Cohen stressed to the Pentagon audience. "This is real, and you will see scenes that will catch your throat in terms of their emotional impact."
Actor Tom Hanks and historian author Stephen Ambrose narrate the film, due to be aired on ABC television later this year. "In their hands, the camera became a weapon more potent than a rifle -- a weapon whose impact resonates even more powerfully now, as memory is transformed into history," Hanks states as the film opens.
Much of the dramatic, tragic footage was not released in full during the war, Schickel said, because "we didn't want to show American losses and American pain. Now it's many years later and we can show all of that. I think it is to our advantage to show all of the story of World War II which includes the pain, the suffering, the losses."
The film shows the wounded, the dying, the dead. It depicts the destruction and devastation of war. A Japanese woman tragically throws her baby and then herself off a cliff rather than surrender. Japanese kamikaze pilots crash into U.S. carriers off Okinawa. It also shows Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after his hanging death in Milan and the Jewish corpses of Dachau.
As he worked with the photographers and their footage, Schickel said he realized they were making "an intimate epic," beginning at Pearl Harbor and ending at Nagasaki. The film embraces every branch of the service and many of the most significant battles of World War II, he said, "but it is told through the eyes of men who were anonymous, for the large part, in gathering this footage."
The documentary highlights more than 20 veteran photographers, who talk about their work recording the realities of war.
"I loved it, because it was dangerous," one combat photographer said.
"I'm a 'fraidy cat,'" admitted another, "but if there was a job to do, I did it."
"No matter how horrible the action was that you were covering," still another explained, "when you looked through that glass, that glass was your filter."
"I got carried away one time and got out in front of the gun firing, and that was a big mistake because the muzzle blast got me and knocked me about 40 feet ass over tea kettle," said another.
"I don't know if these men are part of the 'Greatest Generation,'" Schickel concluded. "But I do know this: In getting to know them to make this film, their dutifulness, their modesty and their common decency impressed me inordinately, and I think it will impress you."
Prior to the screening, the Cohens' guests had a chance to view a static display of photos and equipment. Combat camera personnel from the Army's 55th Signal Company, Air Force 1st Combat Camera Squadron, Marine Corps Combat Camera and Navy Fleet Combat Camera Group were on hand to answer questions.
Petty Officer 3rd class Heather Contant of Pensacola, Fla., a video editor with the Navy's combat camera team in Norfolk, Va., demonstrated her editing skills. She noted to one guest that she had just returned from covering training exercises at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, with a team of three still photographers and three videographers.
"It's like no other job in the Navy," Contant said of her four years with combat camera. "We work with all branches of service. We're all over the world. We're not just stuck on a ship. There's a lot more opportunity to see the world. I've been to Albania, Kosovo, Crete, Greece, Italy. Anywhere something's going on, we're there."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Allen of Erie, Pa., an aerial photojournalist with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron, based at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., said his unit takes pictures of joint operations around the world. He's been to Somalia and, most recently, he flew bombing missions over Kosovo.
"I took this job out of basic training because it was offered without a tech school," Allen said. "I didn't realize that I'd gotten so lucky in what I picked. It's a great job. We get to fly in just about every type of plane the military has -- as long as it has two seats," he said.
The military's joint combat camera teams document, process and transmit still and motion imagery to support air, sea and ground combat operations, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Reger, operations chief for DoD's Joint Combat Camera Center.
"We're a low-density, high-demand type of organization in all the services," he said. There are only about 360 active duty and 230 Guard and Reserve combat camera photographers in all, and they play an important role in every contingency operation, training exercise or humanitarian relief mission, he noted.
Whether the mission involves mine-clearing, doing damage surveys, settling disputes among local residents, aiding refugees or documenting war crimes -- the military's combat cameramen are there, said Reger, who's spent 11 years in combat camera field units.
"They provide the historical documentation of those events, but more importantly, they provide a tool for the commanders and the decision makers in the national capital region to be able to look at events as they unfold and make decisions about what needs to be done."