Armed With Cameras 

Edward Steichen and the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit captured remarkable human images from World War II.

By Tim Brady

For rank-and-file seamen serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, life was a mix of long, dull voyages punctuated by episodes of violent and deadly action. Few historical documents capture the essence of the sudden and dramatic shifts in this life quite as vividly as do the pictures taken by naval photographers throughout the war. From devastating Kamikaze attacks on destroyers to bombarding Japanese defenses on a long string of Pacific atolls; and from Navy flyers huddled pensively in pre-strike meetings to the death spiral of a Japanese Zero plunging into the ocean, naval photographers captured it all. They photographed blasted carrier decks in the middle of the South Pacific and the snow- covered Aleutian Islands. They were on the black beaches of Iwo Jima and captured images of sailors playing basketball on makeshift deck courts. A naval photographer shot the surrender of the Japanese on MISSOURI in September 1945; another caught a group of shipmates, caps in hand, standing above a row of shroud-encased bodies about to slip from the deck of the carrier INTREPID into their watery grave.

Throughout the war, naval photographers, embedded in units and on ships, took intelligence photos from the air, shot combat images and recorded the daily work of their sectors, risking their lives in an attempt to show the war to the American public. In the process, they captured thousands of images now scattered throughout the National Archives in pockets of research destinations, assigned to battles, ships, admirals, geographic locations and various offices within the U.S. Navy.

Of the thousands of photographers who served and recorded images, one small cadre of talented photojournalists deserve special mention. Organized by Edward Steichen, one of the country’s most famed photographers, the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit by war’s end would be recognized as among the most important documentarians of World War II. Employed first as a means to boost recruitment of much-needed Navy fliers, the handpicked squad would ultimately be sent to ships and aircraft carriers throughout the Pacific where they would capture the heartbeat and drama of war in images that remain deeply compelling to this day.

When Steichen arrived in Washington, DC, in the fall of 1941 to offer his photographic services to the United States Army Air Force, there was much to recommend his work. He had long been recognized as one of the country’s greatest photographers in a career that stretched back to the early 20th century. Along with his mentor and colleague Alfred Steiglitz, he had been instrumental in lifting photography from a trade to an art.

Laboring in New York and Paris, Steichen had rubbed elbows with and photographed many of the era’s great artists while also contributing to the revolution in modern arts that flourished before the Great War. He was caught in France for a time when World War I began, ultimately serving with the American Expeditionary Force as a photographer with the Signal Corps. His original intention was to “be a photographic reporter, as Mathew Brady had been in the Civil War.” The U.S. Army, however, had different plans. They needed aerial photographers to serve as intelligence sources, so Steichen took to the air, learned the necessary skills of an aerial photographer, and became head of photography for U.S. Army intelligence and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.

After World War I, Steichen once again reinvented himself, this time as a highly paid and sought-after fashion photographer. Working out of a New York studio for clients like the J. Walter Thompson ad agency and Vogue, Steichen shot portraits of scores of Hollywood and New York celebrities, including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire. So successful was he that Steichen announced his retirement in the late 1930s, having grown tired of commercial photography.

As this history suggests, Steichen was no kid when he traveled to Washington, DC, in 1941 to volunteer his services for the war effort. In fact, at 62 he was well beyond the age limit for induction into the Army Air Force, and was turned down flat by his old branch of service. He had returned to New York and was working on a project for the Museum of Modern Art when, a few months later, Captain Arthur Radford, commander of training for aviators for the U.S. Navy, contacted him with an offer. It was soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Navy needed to fill its rosters with pilots—thousands of them—so a public relations campaign featuring striking images of the exciting life of a Navy pilot was in the works. Could Steichen help?

He quickly began recruiting a small team of photographers. Steichen sought experienced picture-takers, men who had worked as journalists or documentary photographers or were accomplished portrait photographers. The P.R. campaign was only to be the first assignment for this unit and Steichen wanted a versatile team prepared to shoot both combat and intimate portraits of shipboard duty.

Most of the first half dozen recruits—Wayne Miller, Charles Kerlee, Fenno Jacobs, Horace Bristol, Victor Jorgensen and Barrett Gallagher—fit the bill. Steichen relied on Radford’s pull within the Navy to obtain the necessary institutional freedoms the team members needed if they were to collect their photos unencumbered by standard Navy regulations. Unlike regular Navy photographers, for instance, all unit members were commissioned as officers upon entry into the service.

Steichen himself knew how to grease the skids. His skills as a premier portrait photographer were put to good use among the admiralty of the U.S. Navy. Both in Washington and in Honolulu, en route to his first trip into the combat zone in the fall of 1943, Steichen took dozens of photos of Navy officers accustomed to stiff studio portraits. Shot by Steichen in naturalistic lighting in a style that actually suggested character and personality, the portraits impressed the Naval hierarchy, who clamored to be photographed by the famous shooter. He could then use the good graces generated by these portraits to promote his unit’s work.

The first member of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit assigned to an assault unit was Horace Bristol, who sailed with the carrier Santee in the invasion of North Africa. Charles Kerlee, a well-known Los Angeles advertising photographer [this description of Kerlee seems to contradict Brady's earlier depiction of this unit being composed of photojournalists rather than studio photographers] before the war, was sent to the South Pacific with SUWANEE, then followed its captain back to the newly baptized Yorktown (named in honor of the first YORKTOWN, sunk at Midway), sailing out of Norfolk in early 1943. He was joined there by motion picture cameraman Dwight Long, who would spend months documenting life aboard this newest of carriers.

Even as these men began preparing for the harrowing task of shooting combat photos, they captured life on the big ships, including indelible images of the sheer might of the U.S. Navy. Steichen sent them out with a simple command: Don’t photograph the war; photograph the men. The humanizing images they gathered served the double purpose of portraying life on the ships and providing inspiring images for the home front. Beginning in late 1942 and into 1943, Steichen collected some of these images into a traveling exhibit called “The Road to Victory,” an unabashed effort to promote the war and the Navy’s role in it. Unit photos were also published in national magazines such as U.S. Camera and Popular Photography, as well as in newsweeklies such as Life, Look and The New York Times Magazine.

Steichen himself entered the action in November 1943 when, along with Victor Jorgenson, he boarded the new carrier Lexington at Pearl Harbor. It soon sailed for Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and Steichen, though by then 64, immediately got busy. On his second day aboard, while shooting photos of the ship’s landing officer, an out of control aircraft careened directly toward him. Steichen wound up in the safety net surrounding the deck, which saved him from plunging into the ocean.

Meanwhile, Kerlee had sailed on YORKTOWN to Wake Island and Miller was on SARATOGA at Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, and with Lexington after it suffered Kamikaze attacks in the Japan Sea. Horace Bristol moved from North Africa to the Aleutian Islands. Beyond the carriers, group members also photographed life on battleships, submarines, hospital ships and more. They flew countless missions with Hellcat fighters and torpedo bombers, shooting sky-high images of maneuvers and invasions.

Dwight Long, filming on YORKTOWN, mounted cameras on the wings of Navy aircraft, side-by-side with the planes’ machine guns. He collected startlingly realistic images, the likes of which had never before been seen. Steichen himself went ashore at Iwo Jima on his second visit to the Pacific in 1945, shooting the aftermath of the invasion there and at Okinawa. The images he gathered while serving on LEXINGTON were collected in a book called The Blue Ghost, while Long’s film footage was assembled and edited (with Steichen as director) into a documentary that premiered in Hollywood in December 1944. A few months later, “The Fighting Lady” would win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature which featured Admiral John S. McCain Jr. ’31, USN (Ret.).

The Naval Aviation Photographic Unit took images of the war right up until the very end, following U.S. forces into occupied Japan to capture compelling shots of newly liberated American POWs, newly imprisoned Japanese soldiers and the devastating aftermath of Hiroshima. By the end of the fighting, Steichen had been promoted by U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to head all U.S. Navy combat photography.

The unit disbanded in the fall of 1945. A fraction of its work was published in the literally titled book U.S. Navy War Photographs. Steichen also put together a second traveling exhibition of war photographs called “Power in the Pacific,” which served as a bookend to his “Road to Victory” exhibit from the start of the war.

Early in the history of the unit, Steichen had argued that his photographers should get individual credit for their photographs. Long tradition in the U.S. Navy, however, stipulated that any image taken by a Navy photographer be simply stamped “Official U.S. Navy Photograph.” All the photos taken by World War II Naval photographers are lumped together in archives, and sorting out Naval Photographic Unit photos from the rest is difficult (except for in those cases in which Steichen himself designated them by author).

The U.S. Naval Academy is fortunate, then, to possess a collection of some 3,000 photographs donated by longtime Steichen friend Tom Maloney, who edited U.S. Camera magazine during the war. Now part of the Naval Academy’s Special Collections & Archives Department, many of these photos can be viewed in the archives’ digital collections.

After the war, Steichen was appointed photographic director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the 1950s he put together one of the greatest photographic exhibits of the century, “The Family of Man.” This groundbreaking exhibit demonstrated the humanizing qualities of photography, a vital task in an era marked by the violence and death of two World Wars—both of which Steichen had served in with distinction. The noted photographer lived a long and full life, dying in 1973, just two days before his 94th birthday.

Tim Brady is an accomplished writer of history. His books include the volumes “A Death in San Pietro: The Untold Story of Ernie Pyle, John Huston, and the Fight for Purple Heart Valley” and “Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic World War II Voyage of the SS CONTESSA.”



Source: April-May 2018 Shipmate


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