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"We Remember"
by Dwayne O'Brien

1st Combat Camera Unit
A history



For Carol: FIRST COMBAT CAMERA UNIT

(Part 1)

Before I get into the history of the 1st CCU (no, not a cardiac care unit), I'll explain a few things about combat photographers, what they did, where they went and how they were regarded by air crews and infantry.

There were several types of combat photographers. There were still, mosaic and motion picture photographers. The still photographer documented action in the air and on the ground. Group photographers did the same with the additional duty of taking photos of bomb strikes.

The mosaic photographer did the mapping photos wherein many photographs, taken at regular intervals, were meticulously joined together to form a composite map. Maps, as you knew them started this way.

The motion picture photographer, or cinematographer, was similar to a newsreel photographer, utilizing motion picture cameras to document the war. The films were put to use as propaganda, training, documentary and combat evaluation motion pictures.

Combat cameramen suffered the highest percentage of casualties of ANY service in World War II. Nevertheless they were not well-liked, often thought to be "in the way", "extra baggage", and most often "bad luck". I even began to believe the latter when I photographed a crew member BEFORE a mission and he did not return.

The "bad luck" status, in our case, was mainly that the mission was NOT going to be a milk run. It was likely a tough target or a mission signaling a notable event such as an invasion, delivery of gasoline at tree-top level or the bombing of a strong pocket of resistance.

A rather crass individual by the name of Fagan, wrote in his booklet "I didn't like camera men. There must have been some clean-cut, bright-eyed American types--but I never met any." He then went on to describe a group photographer that tried to abort a mission by venting all of his oxygen since he was frightened and did not wish to go to Vienna. Fagan, referenced all photographers as "flaky" types. I wonder if group photographers had ever taken photos of his strikes?

Another pilot, Carigan, laced it into gunners for their outrageous claims of kills, terrified tail-gunner shooting at a P-38 (an easily identifiable friendly) stating, "As always, he missed." "And now a note on gunners." "I had only one gunner who shot down a German fighter." "Most gunners had great troubles getting their guns pointed at the enemy; if they did, the guns malfunctioned or the bullets hit another American bomber."

Carigan goes on to tell about his tail gunner "freezing" (psychologically) on his guns and burning them out. His terrified nose gunner abandoning his turret and attempting to bail out when 6-190's attacked head-on. Only the efforts of his steady bombardier and his .45 restrained him. NO DOUBT THERE IS TRUTH IN THESE INSTANCES; BUT TO BESMIRCH AN ENTIRE GROUP IS A BIT MUCH!

To Carigan's credit, he did say these weak ones came to him from a broken up crew that had gone through two forced landings and whose pilot had declared fear-of-flying. He also credited one gunner from this group as being the only good man in the lot.

"Killer Kane" once vowed he'd shoot down the "early return" artists and they weren't the crew members doing the 180's!

I just spoke to Bill Fili, author of "Passage To Valhalla" The Air Battles of Europe - From Schweinfurt to Regensburg to Ploesti- and he said," I did not like photographers, they were bad luck!" I did order his book and video; maybe I'll see why <G>. Nevertheless, he did use our movies in his video. Who would know what a raid was like then if we hadn't photographed it?

 

A group known as the First Motion Picture Unit was set up in July 1942 by someone who learned to fly under Orville and Wilbur Wright. If you haven't guessed, that was none other than "Hap" Arnold, himself. It seemed that Hollywood was having trouble turning out recruiting and training films for the military. The first recruiting film had been turned out by Warner Bros. with Jimmy Stewart playing the lead role. Arnold was impressed by the film and ordered it to be shown in all theatres in America. It was entitled "Winning Your Wings" Did any of you guys on the BB get suckered in by this one? It was quite a success and as a result the FMPU was born.

The First Motion Picture Unit, with Jack Warner as boss, cranked out a film entitled "Rear Gunner". This little gem, and you may have seen it, was designed to dispel the then-persistent rumor that a tail gunner's life was just three seconds. Many of the first films were shot at the defunct Vitagraph studios in Hollywood. Later when Hal Roach closed down his studio in Culver City, FMPU moved in at $1.00 rental per year.

The flying arm of the post was headed up by then Major Paul Mantz, who borrowed an A-29 from Lockheed as a camera ship. Later, Col. Mantz was to take us on hair-raising aerobatic flights designed to get us used to keeping fighters in the Eyemo camera viewfinder, only in this case it was, I believe, the Mount Wilson Observatory that stayed still and we did the gyrating.

Soon the post began to be known as "Fort Roach" and the training combat crews as the "Culver City Commandos". Locals often regarded the group as a bunch of Hollywood Goldbricks.

Nevertheless, General Ira Eaker considered the training, orientation and combat documentary films as helping save lives and training thousands of recruits. Discovery channel and A&E, have certainly made use of the films. I thank them for it.

I often wondered what had happened to the many thousands of feet of film we shot. Actually most of it resides in the National Archives slowly deteriorating. The media seems to have made one trip to the archives, grabbed a few hundred feet of "representative" film, and used these to depict almost all phases of the war. I shudder to tell you the times a scene was misrepresented in a media style documentary.

One of the First Motion Picture Units productions was "Learn & Live". Guy Kibbee played St. Peter. Pilots were accessing Kibbee's domain by committing one of 12 major pilot errors. A first showing upset the Army Air Corps' director of education. He ordered a scene cut that showed an A-20 pilot killed in a belly landing, stating that he didn't want any boy to feel that this practice carried any danger with it. (He should see the photo of Lackanookie, I submitted to the Lib Club news.) Another scene showed a pilot who was killed in a ground-loop. "Please, he cried, (and I"m quoting) "take out the scene that has the smoking foot in it!

Recently I was pleased to see a film shot by the First Combat Camera Unit, entitled "Air Siege". If you've seen it, you may have wondered about the narrator. Yes, it WAS Ronald W. Reagan. Captain Reagan was our squadron commander.

The post was well populated by famous personalities, (present company not included) such as Capt. Ronald Reagan, Lt. Clark Gable, Sgt. George Reeves, Cpl. Alan Ladd, Pvt. George Montgomery, Lt? Van Heflin, outstanding flyer Paul Mantz, Craig Stevens and Arthur Kennedy. There were others, but I do not recollect them.

Lest you begin to think it was all fun and games, I had already gone through the prescribed infantry basic training, completed the Air Force basic at Atlantic City (deep sand makes a no-fun obstacle course) and was now headed for the combat camera basic training. If you caught the film "Combat Camera" on A&E cable, it showed a short segment about the FMPU. By the way, our passes were usually spent at the Hollywood Canteen. It was rough! <VBG>

 

 

Clark Gable, who had recently lost his wife in a plane crash, volunteered to fly some combat missions overseas. He had picked the crew of a ship named "Ain't It Gruesome" to follow through their last missions. Shooting from another plane, he saw the B-17 get jumped by a FW-190 and with one engine knocked out they got lost in a fog and circling over the North Sea jumped when their fuel ran out. On Gable's 5th mission, his ship was hit by 15 flak bursts that came close to his feet. It was then apparently decided not to tempt fate any longer, and he was returned to the U.S. Jimmy Stewart ran his full tour.

FMPU also did a top secret film on a high altitude bombing run on a Florida replica of the concrete V-2 rocket launching site at Peenemunde. Reagan reported later the time spent in the viewing room watching slow motion pictures of huge bombs bouncing off the concrete buildings as if they were pebbles. Later, on screenings, bombs of the armor piercing type were seen going through the concrete as though it was cheese. These films were flown to the 8th Air Force and the launch sites were knocked out in time to postpone the V-2 launchings long enough for D-Day to take place on schedule.

Another project of the FMPU was a huge scale model of the entire route to Ota, Japan complete with landmarks such as rice paddies, geisha houses, factories and cemeteries. Nakajima was producing engines for a new fighter and the film made with boom and wire cameras laid a visual route for the pilots. Reagan narrated the film, the 90 x 90 foot model constantly being up-dated by recon reports that were flown in daily from the Pacific. The film was uncannily accurate as reported by the returning B-29 pilots. Some pilots said they felt they had flown the same mission before. Bet you navigators in the ETO would have liked a briefing like that!

The film "Earthquakers", a story about B-17 missions, earned the FMPU an award. It had been regarded an outstanding documentary on the Air War. And guess where the first Memphis Belle came from? You guessed it, the First Motion Picture Unit.

P-38 pilots were afraid the extra tank would explode in flames when hit by a bullet. The Unit's film convinced pilots that the plane was safe. HOW did DEY DO DAT? In the Pacific, the P-40 looked like a Zero to the pilots and gunners; at least at a thousand yards. A captured Zero was brought to San Diego and flown side by side with the P-40 at all angles and the films sent to the S. Pacific. Reagan, again acted and narrated.

Volunteers for the combat camera units were trained to use many motion picture cameras by Hollywood professionals. Both 16 and 35 millimeter units were used. Sixteen millimeter Auricon and Filmo cameras were frequently used, but 35 mm was the standard. For sound movies, Mitchell studio cameras were used, but the most ubiquitous machine was the 35 mm Eyemo. This was a handheld cine unit that filmed most of the war documentaries you've seen.

(Later the 1st CCU was to drag a 900 lb. four cylinder generator and a Mitchell sound camera into Yugoslavia to do coverage on Partisan activities with Tito. A Mitchell was also dragged to Romania to cover the story "Operation Reunion". This film covered the repatriation of more than 1000 POW's that had been captured after being shot down in the Bucharest area. The 1st CCU received a commendation for this film from General Arnold.)

After a thorough indoctrination on cameras, the combat crews were shipped to a "rough" area, Beverly Hills <VBG>, where if you peered through the trees you could spot Errol Flynn's and Rudy Vallee's homes. Judo was a daily 3 hour exercise and many of us had persistent headaches for that time. Our instructor, Orun Haglund. I was told, was an Olympic champion. The trail to get to the camp was called Laurel Canyon Drive, and we did it quite often from Culver City to the Boy Scout camp. It was a fair hike with full packs and a continuous Queen Anne drill show for the amused locals.

One of our favorite locals was Martha Raye who often spotted us and shouted, "Hey Guys, come on in!". Laurel Canyon Drive, being rather steep, made this a very welcome rest stop. Our boys alternately chased Martha's French maid around and raided the kitchen. If we were given a sufficient break, some of the boys enjoyed the pool.

I know it sounds like a picnic for the most part, but our combat courses, particularly under our physically rugged Major left many a husky GI completely bushed. A few, less rugged individuals passed out from the demanding combat exercises. Marines may have had a more rugged course, but not the infantry; I had already been through that.

During the time the First Motion Picture Unit was in existence many experienced still photographers were to pass through its doors, and be subjected to intensive training in motion picture skills. All of these men had volunteered for Combat Camera Units, and were subjected to further rigorous training in combat tactics. Training in Judo, hand combat, rifle, grenades, .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, desert survival, etc. were part of the curriculum.

Flight physicals, whirling chairs, depth perception, eye charts (Some memorized by anxious recruits like myself), and a series of arm wrenching shots qualified them for flights above 30,000 feet. Tours in the decompression chambers at Santa Anna, and aerobatic flights with Paul Mantz eventually qualified many to man a 35mm motion picture camera and hold it on target to record aerial combat in all theaters of the war.

Today many of these films can be seen on TV, recording raids from Ploesti to Borneo. Prisoner rescues in Bucharest, partisan activities in Yugoslavia, combat in Italy with the 5th Army, the entry into Rome, and several major invasions were covered by these men.

Combat camera units often comprised 23 men, 15 of which were on combat/flying status. Camera repair men were important, keeping the delicate cameras in running order. At high altitudes the oil in cameras congealed to stone, a fact all-to-apparent to the cold, weary cameramen on his return home. If you flew as a substitute gunner, time passed; otherwise you worried about your films.

Not all cameramen returned home. As a matter of fact, the cameramen suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any service in World War II. Jerry Joswick, author of Combat Cameraman, was the ONLY cameraman of sixteen to survive the low level Ploesti raid. As an Air Force cameraman, he had been in Africa to photograph commando raids behind Rommel's lines, he was in the first wave of D-Day on Omaha Beach, Jerry was in the Battle of the Bulge, trading his camera for a rifle, and he parachuted into Germany with the Airborne. Jerry did not attend the 50th FMPU Anniversary reunion; he passed away last year.

Our small unit, the First Combat Camera Unit, had seven casualties amongst the 15 guys on combat duty. Two of our boys were shot down over Ploesti, a third was shot down near Venice while flying in a PBY photographing a sea rescue mission. The fourth, a UCLA star, was killed in Northern Italy and a fifth blew up in front of me on the invasion of southern France.To this day, I believe Al Muse's ship was sabotaged. A sixth was interned in Switzerland when their plane was heavily damaged in northern Italy.

A seventh member of the First Combat Camera Unit was shot down in the Bulgarian area. While descending in his chute, he was repeatedly shot at by civilians. On reaching the ground, he was immediately beset upon by a crazed crowd bent upon his destruction. Lt. Resce was cruelly beaten and had his groin bashed in by rifle butts. German soldiers having spotted his descent arrived just in time to rescue him from the civilians. He spent time in a German prison hospital until his release. He was still to spend many months in Walter Reed hospital after the war's end. This was yet another lesson in the desirability of carrying a .45 on missions.

 

Last September, the First Motion Picture Unit had the Fiftieth Anniversary reunion in Studio City, CA. I drove the Laurel Canyon Drive to show my wife the area. I scarcely recognized the place; couldn't find the site of Martha's house, and had all to do to stay on the road. Ronald Reagan didn't show this time. The only one of the original "stars" at FMPU I saw was George Montgomery. Only one of the 1st CCU boys, beside myself, was Sherwood Mark who had been shot down on his first mission over Ploesti. "Woody" modestly claims 1/2 a mission. I argued it was 1 mission since it was considered a double!

So there you have a cursory history of the First Combat Camera Unit, Carol. It was no trouble to repeat it since I had saved it on disk.

 

 

 

 

The above "History" was written several years ago in response to a girl's request to know where all the combat photos came from. Carol Erbe is the daughter of a ball gunner in the 8th Air force. Some time ago there was a portion of Prodigy devoted to veteran's postings. One day Carol came on line asking if there were any B-24 veterans about. She would like to talk to them. She was the daughter of a B-24 ball gunner. Well, the B-24 vets came out of the woodwork and the B-24 Roll Call was born. Prodigy, after some time began to charge by the time that the vets were online. The Vets and Carol abandoned Prodigy and moved over to the Internet where we remain today.

Carol, undaunted by the shift over, made efforts to establish an area where her B-24 friends could once again congregate. With the help of a relative , Andy Smith, and a wonderful website , she was able to bring into being the Internet B-24 Veterans Group which thrives with its' Mailing List, Guest List and Web Site. Some time ago, a grateful group of these Vets contributed to allow Carol to fly aboard a B-24 which her Dad had flown in so many years before. The "All American" rebuilt by contributions to the Collings foundation flies once again today. She is outfitted with the combat regalia she had in WWII. Thanks much for your efforts, Carol Erbe.

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