Saturday, December 12, 2009

W. Eugene Smith at war

This month's Salon Section features outstanding photographs taken by Gene Smith, twenty-five-year-old war correspondent. They were selected from the seven hundred pictures which Smith made during a period of nearly eight months, much of which time was spent aboard a carrier. A feature article describing his experiences in the South Pacific appears in conjunction with this selection of dramatic pictures.

Camera on a Carrier
W. Eugene Smith, War Photographer in the South Pacific, flew 15 times against the Japs


THE radio compartment of an Avenger is not a very good place for a photographer. It's too narrow to move around in; there's no place to sit down; there's very little room for cameras. But if the Avenger is flying over a Japanese-held harbor and there are a few holes cut in the Plexiglass housing, and the pilot banks to a good camera angle over an exploding tanker--it'll do.

W. Eugene Smith, twenty-five-year-old war correspondent, found these things out about Navy planes in combat over Tarawa, Truk, Kwajalein, Eniwetok and Tinian islands. He found out about darkrooms aboard aircraft carriers, how close an aerial camera will focus, and how cameras stand up under combat conditions.

When he started from the Pacific Coast for Hawaii, Gene Smith had two Ikoflexes, a Rolleiflex, a 4 x 5 Graflex, a Speed Graphic for color and another fitted for aerial work, a Contax with five lenses, and a Kodak Medalist.

Eight months and 700 negatives later, Gene came back to the mainland for repairs. One camera had a jammed shutter, one was smashed internally, two wouldn't wind film, two had sprung boxes, several wouldn't focus properly, and one leaked light through a bent shutter leaf. The record of the experiences of those cameras--and of W. Eugene Smith--is a photographic story, an aviation story, a human story.

The record begins on the day when the Public Relations Officer of CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet) at "Pearl," as they call it in the Navy, called Smith in to say: "Tomorrow you go to sea. Be here at two o'clock with a minimum of essential equipment." That night Gene checked his cameras over for the thousandth time, counted out his film and flashbulbs, and incidentally packed the extra khaki shirts of his war correspondent's uniform. He looked over his credentials as a photographer for Flying, Radio News and POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY, sister magazines of the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, wrote last letters home to his mother and his wife, and finally decided he was ready.

It was only when the launch had taken him to the side of the slim gray ship that he knew he was assigned to a cruiser for his first trip. A routine patrol cruise: Smith photographed scout planes landing on the ocean, taxi-ing up to the ship, being hoisted aboard by a crane's steel fingers.

Far from the Japs, life seemed so boring that the crew seizcd upon the crossing of the equator for a high celebration. Gene photographed shaving of heads, mock trials, King Neptune in a paper crown, and all the other age-old high jinks of the sea. He tried to protect his camera from salt spray as the sailors crossing the line for the first time were initiated with a fire-hose shower. Just in time he handed his Ikofiex to an officer as a yelling mob of sailors decided to put Smith through the same ceremonius roughhouse he had just photographed!

That night, in his cabin, an unoccupied corner of the Admiral's suite, he cleaned his salt-sprayed camera inside and out with an oily rag, wondering if he ever was going to see a battle. If you had told him that in the next eight months he would cross the equator another forty times and usually be so busy looking for Jap planes that he wouldn't even think of the Shellback rigmarole, he wouldn't have believed you.

It was September 18 before Smith saw action, as his cruiser steamed along as protection for carriers attacking Tarawa Island, still Jap-held. His battle station was the searchlight platform, with hand-lines around it. Gene fell off, and his Speed Graphic and Graflex took a 15-foot drop to the deck. When the damage was checked over the Graphic was way out of line and the Graflex had lost ground-glass and mirror and its lens had rolled across the steel deck--but the lens was still intact.

"But I'm still not getting battle pictures," Smith was saying to himself.

For his next cruise he drew another ship, a small carrier in a task force. When he asked the captain of his carrier to let him fly in the first big-scale American attack on Wake Island, the answer was always, "I'm sorry. Not this time."

So Smith watched the planes lined up on the flight deck, stood in "air plot," the tactical headquarters for the planes, as they took off on the famous Wake raid of October 6. He was shooting Hellcat takeoffs with his Rolleiflex when the film-winding mechanism broke. Another camera down, but all he had to show for his work so far were pictures of planes with folded wings; of destroyers coming alongside with bags of mail, of bombers and fighter planes heading out into the sun, bound for strikes against the Japs that he couldn't watch. Once he flew a patrol flight.

This still wasn't battle action, and the first thing Smith knew, he was back at "Pearl," waiting again for his next ship. But plans were changed and it didn't come in. Instead, one Saturday night he got a call to repack his equipment, cutting out all surplus weight, and report to the offices of Naval Air Transport. Sgt. Johnny Bushemi, Yank cameraman, helped Smith pack his cameras, lenses, bulbs, and film.

A long overwater flight in a giant PBY, a short stay at a tiny port "somewhere in the South Pacific," and finally Gene saw his ship coming into the harbor--a trim new carrier of the Essex class, the most significant ship of the war. This was to be Smith's home for the next four months; aboard her he was to pick up some of the fine points of being a war photographer, such as stowing cameras in different parts of the ship in case a bomb hit knocked out one set of his equipment; in her darkroom he was to stay up many nights developing aerial photographs of some of the most violent American strikes against the Japanese islands.

The carrier moved out to sea, part of a task force with a still secret mission. One day the ship's loudspeakers carried these words: "This is your captain speaking. Within 48 hours we will be engaged with the enemy. There will be more details of our mission tomorrow."

Tense, carrying at least the Contax always around his neck, Smith kept constantly "topside" (above deck) in case of action. The next time the captain spoke to the crew it was to reveal that they were going in to raid Rabaul. Once again Smith wanted to fly with the attacking bombers, hut the word was still "No. Not this time." For a short moment he was almost assigned to Plane No. 26, but once again plans were changed.

So, in the hours before the strike against the Japs, Gene Smith talked with the fourteen Navy cameramen on the ship, figured which was the best place to be during the attack, and finally measured off the tiny space on the searchlight platform (again his battle station) so that he would be out of the way of the swinging barrel of a battery of 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

The carrier neared Rabaul, a clanging bell sounded General Quarters, a bugle blew, and then a voice over the loudspeaker boomed: "General quarters. Man your battle stations!"

The planes took off for the Jap base and for tense hours the men on the carrier awaited their return. Once Smith climbed up into the "island" and listened in on the radio as the attacking pilots talked among themselves. Once he stood down close to thc flight deck and watched a TBF coming in for a landing--the torpedo planes had run into anti-aircraft and a flock of Zeros on their way back, but as the damaged Avenger came in one hand stuck out from the fuselage, with a gunner's thumb cheerfully pointing up.

Then it happened. Dive bombers and torpedo bombers, refueled, were line up on the deck. The last of a flight of Hellcat fighters was about to take off when the huge Executive Officer of the ship rushed past Smith, saying "Get your helmet, a Jap raid will be here any minute."

Smith ran for his battle station. The last Hellcat ran down the flight deck between the anti-aircraft fire of the carrier. Thirty-five Jap dive bombers headed for the ship, black puffs of smoke specking the sky about them, shells now and then winging one.

Diving from 9,000 feet the Vals (Navy slang for Jap dive bombers) came in. The Hellcat's flaps were still down, its landing gear still unretracted as a Jap plane flashed in front of the plane. The pilot pulled the trigger and flred a short burst of his six 50 calibre guns. The Val smoked, crashed into the sea.

Ensign Billy Watts, ten seconds after his first combat flight started, had brought down a Jap plane. From his searchlight platform Smith took a picture of the anti-aircraft guns firing at a diving Val, then, seconds later, whirling under one of those 20 mm guns, he followed a bomb with his camera and as the carrier swerved, clicked the shutter just as a near miss sent a geyser of water towering toward the sky.

The AA guns swung to starboard and he heard someone yell "Torpedo planes!" Smith decided to get to the other side of the stack. He jumped the four feet from his searchlight platform, and just as he landed on the deck he saw something bright falling--his Contax had broken loose from the neck strap. By the time he got around, the torpedo planes had been driven off for at least a moment. He got his helmet and inflatable life belt, then picked up the Contax. It looked fine on the outside, but the inside was a mess of broken gears.

The attack continued for an hour. Once there were burning Jap planes on the horizon every fifteen degrees around the ship. Officially, 86 out of 125 attacking Japs were listed as shot down by planes or AA fire in the attack. Four American planes fell to the Japs; others were hit. The most tense moment in Smith's life to that day came when plane No. 26, the one in which he had almost gone up, landed with the rear-gunner, in whose place Gene wouid have flown, badly, bloodily wounded. It was weeks before he was even out of the hospital. Later Smith was to feel the same way about another piane casualty. But on this day of the Rabaul raid, it was work, work, work.

That night Smith helped the photo crew of his carrier develop their pictures until nearly 1 a.m., when he finally got a chance to load his Nikor reels with two rolls from the Medalist and two from the Ikoflex. He put the reels into the big tanks of DK-20, waited, rinsed, then fixed the film, and finally turned on the lights to look at the negative of the near-miss of a 500 pound bomb (see photograph, page 45), one of the great pictures of the war. After he had looked at the four rolls of the Jap attack, he kept on developing until 5 in the morning, finishing up all the odd rolls of film on hand. Once, whlle film was in the developer, he took a look at the inside of his Contax and sadly added it to the casualty list.

What is the photolab of a new U. S. carrier like? Five rooms, several enlargers, big wooden tanks along the walls, all on the level of the hangar decks, amidships. It's pretty much like any other commercial photolab where thousands of negatives and prints may have to be processed in a few hours.

This particular lab, like the fourteen men in the photo crew, is under the direction of the photographic officer, Lt. C. K. Eaton of Los Angeles. Lieutenant Eaton's men turn out increasingly better work, but the quality still does not suit him. Many of the men are without previous experience with cameras and not even the Navy's flne Photo School at Pensacola can make up for that lack.

Smith, asked for a critical appraisal of Navy photography, was loth to speak harshly of men who risk their lives to get their negatives, but he did have some cool comments about teaching photographers to "do things by the book," without regard to changing conditions. "Inflexibility" would be his one word of criticism of Navy cameramen. If other words could be added, they might be "lack of training in coverage; lack of appreciation for quality developing and printing; ofttimes improperly chosen equipment (of a score of Medalists aboard the ship, not one was equipped with a lens shade)." The Navy, of course, would have its side of the story in reply: the speed with which the personnel have necessarily been trained, the basic routines which secure adequate pictures under almost all conditions, the differing requirements of Navy and press photography. The Navy's pictures are military reconnaissance photos, and composition, drama, or print quality don't count one tenth as much as getting the picture, getting sharp details, and getting prints out fast. Both Smith and the Navy would agree that intelligent criticism was one way to improve Navy photography and on the other hand, that "adequate" is not good enough for the U. S. Navy.

Even with half his cameras out of commission, Smith still had his Medalist, his aerial Graphic, and an Ikoflex in working order. The aerial Graphic had been made from a regular 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, with a metal hood substituted for the leather bellows, in order to stand wind pressure. He had had a bayonet mount installed for his filter and lens shade.

Only a few days after the Rabaul raid, the carrier, in a newly made up task force, again headed for Jap territory. This time it was the Gilbert Islands--and this time his long sought permission to fly came through. Once in a TBF (Avenger), once in an SB2C (Hel!diver), Smith flew over Japanese territory. On these flights he learned how to take a pair of pliers and knock out the plane's Plexiglass housing so his cameras would have a free swing. He aiso learned that none of his cameras was really adequate for action pictures from a low-flying, speeding plane. He began to scheme a way to get around this difficulty.

Then, November 18, the bombing attacks on Tarawa and Makin Islands came to a head as the great invasion fleet moved in. They called it "D-Day," that third day of the assault on Tarawa, when bombing and shelling were followed up by the fleets of invasion barges. The water bugs waited offshore from the isiand, circling constantly, then moved in at signals, advancing upon the beachhead in waves. From overhead Smith aimed his cameras at the pattern of whitccrested wakes, at the smoking island with its wrecked piers, at the U. S. Marines who were on their way in to write another page in history. For the next five days the carrier was under attack almost nightly. They ate fast, waiting for "Betty Time," when the bombers came.

He wanted to go ashore--but the carrier's job was air cover for the landing and there was no place for a plane to land on Tarawa until the fifth day. Finally he got an O.K. from the Admiral and Lieut. Comdr. Frank Whitaker took him along in a TBF, landing on the hastily rebuilt airstrip almost on the tail of the first U. S. planes to come in.

"We're taking off in one hour. Be back here!" Whitaker told Smith who was already running towards an unused jeep. By fast talking he got permission to use it (how would a Marine lieutenant be able to foretell that Smith would run it into a shell hole and knock out the brake system in five minutes?).

Smith's Tarawa shooting cannot go on the "famous" list, for the Marine photographers who had landed two days before--some even taking color movies, two giving their lives--made the immortal pictures of that action. But he did record the gutted frames of planes, the Marine burying parties tossing sand on dead Japs, and in one shot the gray, macabre horror of a ruined pillbox overlooking a twisted Jap rifleman's body. And he did get back to the airstrip after a mad, hectic hour of stopping his jeep to read signs that warned, "Danger - Mines," careening through the wasted tree stumps of a battered stronghold. With his friend, Whitaker, squadron leader of the torpedo planes, he once again landed on his carrier "home," his Ikoflex and Medalist around his neck, his aerial Graphic in his hand. Only casualty: lens shade and filter, despite bayonet mount, lost from the Graphic in a dive-bombing attack.

But his plan for more specialized equipment really got going. First he talked someone into cutting special camera hatches--two holes in each side of the transparent Plexiglass housing--into TBF No. 13. Then, because his picturts were already proving of value to the Navy, he discovered that it wasn't so hard, after all, to borrow a Fairchild K-20 aerial camera. Before long, in strikes against Naru and Kavieng, Smith was having camera-fun, aiming the 50 shot, rapid-fire K-20 at Jap harbors. He had to learn a new camera geography--how to stop down to f 11 and set his shutter speed to 1/500 second, how to put on the minus-blue filter, how to load the special rolls of Tri-X and Super-XX film. Pictures on these flights? "Nothing much," says Smith.

The exact times and sequences of the jobs of a carrier cannot be set down, but somewhere in this time Gene took time off from carrier cruising to fly in a B-24 (Liberator) from an island down to Guadalcanal, carrying his Ikoflex and an extra Contax he had purchased from an officer. He also took part in a mixed military venture: Marines, flying in Army C-47 cargo planes, dropping ten tons of supplies by parachute to U. S. forces near Bougainville.

And then towards the end of January, back on his carrier, he felt the tension in the air as the gigantic armada moved in for the Marshalls invasion. On January 29 he flew in No. 13, his plane with the camera hatches over Kwajelein Atoll, aiming his K-20 at Jap airfields pockmarked with U. S. bomb hits, at Jap planes burning from U. S. incendiary bullets, at sinking Jap ships. Two of the four planes in his flight were shot down by Jap AA.

Then came Eniwetok, the day after. The going in the air-fighting was easier...pilots were soon to complain that there were no more targets. Once, after strafing and bombing a Jap freighter, Smith's pilot held up the attack for a minute so they could swing closer for more pictures (see pages 48-49).

On the morning of February 2 the planes were due to make a strike against Engebi Island. An Avenger carrying the Navy cameraman who was to record the bomb damage had trouble, went into tbe water. Whitaker, the squadron leader, asked Smith by radio if he would make pictures for the Navy that day (he was assigned to Lt. Dickson's plane). Raymond Clapper, writer aboard the carrier, was assigned to Whitaker's plane.

They headed for the already plastered Jap atoll. The flight had just finished bombing Engebi, and Smith had just finished taking a record picture of a hit on the island, when over the interplane radio he heard Whitaker call for his flight to close in behind him. Smith wasn't watching in that direction, but one of the four planes was directly under Whitaker's, and Whit didn't see it. He started to peel off, his wing dipping low, his Avenger side-slipping toward the fourth plane.

In his earphones Smith heard an excited pilot's voice: "Mid-air collision. Mid-air collision!" His own plane banked and turned, and as Smith lifted bis camera to the hole in the Plexiglass, he saw two bursts of flame on the water: Whitaker's plane with Clapper aboard, and the one that had been underneath. Gene's photograph of the death of the two TBF crews, including a squadron leader, and one of America's great newspaper writers, was just two puffs of smoke against a vast expanse of waves, but it was put into the newspicture pool and appeared in countless newspapers and Life magazine.

That night there was a quietness in the pilots' rooms aboard the carrier, and Gene Smith, who had eaten with Clapper in the officers' wardroom, who had been flying with Frank Whitaker for many weeks of the kind that are like years back home, was quiet in the darkroom as he developed his films. There was not much celebrating of the Marshalls' succcssful invasion.

About this time a whisper began to he heard in the ready room, where the pilots gathered while waiting for operational orders. That whisper was "Truk!"

Truk, called the Japanese Pearl Harbor, had been the subject of jokes before. To say "I'm taking off for Truk" was the height of something funny; it just wasn't done. Gene Smith, when you press him for the truth, will tell you that he, like the pilots with whom he sat for hours playing phonograph records in their spare time, was a little fearful at these whispers of "Truk! Truk! Truk!" Not even the ease of knocking out the Jap airfields at Eniwetok and Kwajalein did much to lessen that feeling of awe. Truk was still a dread word. But, officially, the carrier was just cruising around.

Sometimes they would be under attack by Jap planes, but the fighters and anti-aircraft fire from other ships kept the enemy planes so far away that the only pictures Smith got showed miniature ships on the horizon, surrounded by tiny puffs of smoke. Once or twice destroyers reported submarine contacts, but nothing happened. Once, at night, Gene photographed a distant scene: a Jap plane hit and falling to the sea in flames. His caption on that shot, when it came into the POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY office, read: "I could have made a better picture at home in the bathtub, with a pen-light."

The whispers about Truk grew louder, until one day the loudspeakers revealed that they were really going in for a raid on the Japanese bastion. No, not a raid--an all-out pounding. As the carriers with their escorts sailed toward the coral ring of Truk, someone noticed Smith, walking across the flight deck with an assortment of cameras around his neck and in his hands. He heard the remark about his weighted-down appearance: "If the ship goes down, I know who'll hit the bottom first!"

Between attacks, moving in for a strike, is a tense time aboard a carrier. Pilots sit around, waiting. Some of them play phonograph records. Gene had nearly a hundred of his own records along, and with two pilots formed a classical three-some. When all their records were pooled they had 350--a goodly number for idle hours. One day Smith wrote home, "Speaking of music, I have found what I believe to be the most powerfully dramatic music in the world. It is absolutely electrifying: the shrill bugle call sounding Torpedo Defense."

One day he noticed that his remaining Ikoflex was developing an ailment: a sprung shutter blade. Indoors, for flash shots, it was all right. Outside, in the bright tropic sun, it leaked light, and some streaked negatives are th€ result. Earlier, a Fairchild Aerial Camera repair expert at an island base had helped him refocus the Ikoflex, but this latest bug made things serious.

He took to carrying his newly purchased Contax (whose shutter speeds were all off) always around his neck, loaded with Plus-X. The Medalist he kept up on the bridge, and the sick Ikoflex in the aerologist's office up forward. Th€ aerial Graphic was developing troubles by this time and then he noticed a new affliction on all his cameras: fungus growing on the lenses. It took lens tissue and rye whiskey to clean them off!

The Truk strike changed from the waiting period of the jockeying approach into the fateful pre-dawn hour before. The big worry was whether they'd be attacked by land-based planes from Truk, but everything was clicking perfectly (except Gene's cameras). While it was still dark the Hellcat fighters took off. A little later the first flight of dive bombers started warming up on the after part of the flight deck. Lieutenant Dickson, with whom Gene was now flying steadily, smashed the elevator of his plane, so Smith couldn't fly with the early TBF's. He was eating an apple in the ready room when Dickson stuck his head in the door and said, "Come along, we're going."

Truk! It was being said out loud now, almost gleefully. Most of the Jap fighters had already been shot down, and although the great base was well protected by ack-ack, the planes that were attacking were coming back for more bombs and gas. But it was still Truk.

They flew in formation to the outer ring of coral, then started heading down. They could see the smoke of strafed airfields and burning ships in the harbor as the flight of four Avengers glided down. Dickson checked his target (the whole job was done so methodically that each flight had a section of the harbor assigned) and then the planes headed for a tanker in a torpedo run under fire.

At a thousand yards the "tin fish" started dropping: two didn't make proper power runs (as you can see by the crooked wakes they left in the picture on page 47), one missed but went on half a mile to hit another freighter, and the torpedo dropped by Dickson went smack into the tanker. Dickson cut to the left in a steep bank, then turned again for a moment as Smith shot the picture of the target with four torpedoes heading for it, then dived on a gunboat that was almost directly under them. For seconds the tracers from the plane and the gunboat's anti-aircraft guns were crossing in midair.

If Gene had any ideas about holding up the attack so he could make better pictures, he didn't mention them as the flight of TBFs, relatively unscathed, streaked back towards the carrier. He did take a look at the smoke spirals in the harbor and noted that six or seven Jap ships were burning in one corner, and he did think to himself, "What a swell guy it was who designed this K-20 for highspeed work." Like the others, he also thought, "My God, I've flown over Truk!" And in admiration of his Lieutenant Dickson who had worked his way up in twelve years from plane-pusher on a carrier's deck to pilot, he had still more ideas--for Dickson flew them in, and out again.

After Truk came other actions: the Marianas, where the hard-hitting carriers were beginning to run out of bombs and "air plot" decided to drop depth charges instead. At Tinian Island Smith took a shot as carefully composed as any of his peacetime ones for Parade or Life. In the foreground was a TBF--in the background was the airfield with three pillars of smoke climbing toward the Pacific sky. He knew by now that his non-focusing aerial camera would be sharp on planes as close as 80 feet. Just before he made this particular shot he discovered his flight was under attack by Zeros, but the fight was soon broken off by the Sons of___Heaven.

It was during the Marianas attack that Smith listened in on the inter-plane radio and heard the slow, easy-going voice of one of the pilots with whom he had pooled records say, "I'm hit in the shoulder and I'm going down." Smith's plane was so badly shot up it nearly crashed in landing.

It was at this time that Gene Smith's last working camera went haywire. The next day he climbed to the bridge to get his Medalist and discovered that someone had fooled with the levers and got it out of whack.

One day he heard that in the Eniwetok landing Sergeant Bushemi, who had helped him pack and who had laughingly taken Smith's kidding about being a character in "See Here, Private Hargrove," had been killed.

Not very long after this Smith's carrier headed for port and he began to get ready for a trip to the mainland for camera repairs and refitting. He had had his share of troubles: Once there was no mail for two months. Another time he discovered his color film had all gone bad from improper storage. Once he landed on his carrier, checked upon the plane, and found machine guns had put bullet holes in a neat bracket all around the place he stood. Another time he had to have several teeth pulled.

At the other end of Gene Smith's big adventure--the office where his negatives arrived from the Navy censors, we were having a satisfaction that Smith seldom had from his work: seeing 11 x 14 prints. It kept us saying, "Here's a guy who's proving what a camera can do in a war."

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