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United States Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, GA
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Photographers document wartime Army

by Marla Jones

When Allied Forces landed on the beach on D-day, Hollywood was there — in a Signal Corps uniform.

Photographic functions were established as part of the Signal Corps as early as 1894. By the time World War II began, there were three separate facilities for film and still-photo processing: the photographic laboratory at the Army War College in Washington, D.C., and two motion-picture production facilities, one at Fort Monmouth, N.J., and one at Wright Field in Ohio. Photographic training took place at the Signal Corps training center at Fort Monmouth.

Hollywood, media support

During the 1930s, eight Signal Corps officers trained in motion-picture production techniques in Hollywood under the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' auspices.

In 1942, famed filmmakers Darryl Zanuck and Frank Capra were commissioned for wartime service as Signal Corps officers — Zanuck as a colonel and Capra as a major.

Because of the long-established ties with the film industry and the early development of its photo and motion-picture facilities, the Signal Corps' Army Pictorial Service was nearly up to the job of providing for War Department needs.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Chief Signal Officer was urging the War Department to purchase the old Paramount Studio at Astoria, Long Island. After the Army acquired the property in February 1942, its training courses for both still and motion-picture specialists relocated there.

As training at the Long Island facility increased with the war build-up, the Army received the professional expertise of New York press photographers from Associated Press, New York Times, Daily Mirror and New York World-Telegram, who volunteered their teaching services. Motion-picture students even went on news-film shoots around New York City for practice. The school instructional staff used few books, relying on practical experience, on-the-job training and the words of experienced professionals.

Hollywood studios even contributed their expertise and the use of their studios. Some 50-60 of the industry's best filmmakers donated time as instructors at Astoria.

Combat photographers

The 1942 war plans called for a signal photographic company for each field Army. There were four: 161st, 162d, 163d and 164th Signal Companies. They were divided into teams of one lieutenant and six enlisted men, including still and motion photographers, drivers and one clerk.

By mid-1943, the original companies had been increased with the addition of 165th and 196th Signal Companies. It still was not enough. The number of campaigns multiplied, and so did the need for photographers and technicians. Expanded responsibilities meant the force grew to supply the services.

Signal Corps cameramen follow infantry troops on the move Signal Corps combat cameramen Sgt. Carl Weinke, left, and PFC Ernest Marjoram wade through a stream while following infantry troops at Red Beach 2, Tanahmerah, New Guinea, during an Allied invasion April 22, 1944.

Army photographers learned some of the skills they required from experience in combat. One thing was clear — in combat, it was often difficult to capture the essence of the action due to limitations of the cameramen's placement and lack of opportunity to move. Films and photos of the training exercises looked more realistic than the real thing.

The security problem

Depicting combat operations realistically and with visual action and excitement was only one problem photographers faced.

Security was a multifaceted problem for the photographers and the chain of command. The issue of how to caption a photograph without showing labels on equipment or without giving too much information prompted contentious debates. The possibilities for security violations were numerous and caused signal officers to be overly cautious and restrictive at first. Photographers were often tasked with providing "full coverage" pictorially but in compliance with security. The conflict was never resolved.

Photographic immediacy

Photographic companies, with their teams disbursed to different battles, had the daunting task of supplying photo documentation and news-media photos throughout the war. All the dramatic historical events of the war were captured on film and sent to the Pentagon's still-picture library.

Photographing where photography forbidden by Germans Signal Corps cameraman ignores the German warning, "photography forbidden," to shoot movies of activities along the Rhine River March 5, 1945.

Demands for speedy delivery of news-media photos to U.S. press outlets led to a 24-hour air-courier service from Europe to Washington, D.C. By 1943, the Signal Corps used the newly-developed radiophoto, or telephoto electronic-transmission system. Color photos taken at the Potsdam Conference required seven minutes each to transmit.

Thus, the news media received their combat photos from the military. The still-picture library retained the best photos for tactical and historical documentation. By the end of the war, there were more than 500,000 photos in the library.

V-mail

One of the new and unique responsibilities of the Signal photographic service was V-mail, or photographic mail. After July 1942, signal photographic-mail companies took over microfilming and developing soldiers' mail at photographic-mail stations. V-mail saved an enormous amount of space and weight in cargo ships and airplanes. At its peak in 1944, the photo-mail companies handled 63,638,405 letters.

Motion pictures

The most visible part of the photographic mission during World War II was the motion picture. Both the soldiers and the general public saw many of these and were educated and inspired by what they revealed.

War Department combat documentation, or historical films, made under Zanuck's supervision, used Hollywood expertise and artistic techniques. Lt. John Huston was one of the directors; these films sometimes incorporated "dramatizations," or staged effects.

Historical films about specific campaigns or battles were not reserved exclusively for military use — civilian audiences saw them, along with entertainment films, in commercial theaters. Footage from Fox Movietone News and Pathe News, as well as confiscated enemy film, went into the war documentaries.

Pathe News and 20th Century Fox, under contract to the Army, produced some of the historical series. With titles like "Combat Report," "Firepower" and "Attack Signal," they were intended to dramatize the war effort's significance.

These documentaries were important "message" films, often boosting the public morale through frequent showings in factories, union halls and community rallies. They were translated into Spanish, Portuguese and French and sent to allies and neutral countries.

Zanuck was the Signal Corps officer placed in charge of all photographic phases of the North Africa invasion. Zanuck quickly dispatched combat-photography teams and individuals to staging locations and to Eisenhower's headquarters at Gibraltar. As invasion forces hit the beach in Africa, combat photographers carried guns as well as cameras. Zanuck produced the film, "At the Front in Africa," from the footage brought back by his teams.

The training-film challenge

But if historical films and combat documentaries made highly interesting and exciting viewing, the training-film section had a much more difficult mission.

Since film was an ideal medium for teaching and because the rapid growth of the armed forces created an increasing demand for training films, the Signal Corps entered into continuing contracts with commercial production companies and movie studios through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' research council. Even Disney Studios produced training films under Signal Corps contracts.

As new weapons and equipment came into use, the need for training films multiplied. The challenge was to make them engaging to watch. Signal Corps Pictorial Service turned out entertaining and interesting films on dull subjects like map reading, clothing care and trench-foot prevention.

An example of new technology that created a critical need for training films was radar. Radar was so new that few people in the military had knowledge of its uses and potential. The first three films about radar were rushed into production by Signal Corps filmmakers. These and subsequent films explained how to use existing radar systems.

Senate scrutiny

Later the relationship between the Signal Corps and the research council became the subject of Senate scrutiny after charges that only the big studios affiliated with Zanuck received War Department contracts for training films. The Army conducted its own investigation of the relationship between the Signal Corps and Hollywood. The resulting reorganization clearly separated long-standing relationships with the research council and set out guidelines for future contracts.

The 1943 Congressional hearings centered on questions of Zanuck's dual functions as the research council's chairman and as a signal officer, along with connections to 20th Century Fox. The hearings came to a close with no significant findings, as it was generally acknowledged the Hollywood studios had not produced inferior films, nor did they overcharge for their services.

The subsequent reorganization of Signal Corps functions was a benefit to the photographic activities, establishing better fiscal accounting and reporting controls and clarifying operating procedures.

Army motion-picture production in general was significantly upgraded by the infusion of movie-industry- trained technicians and by the use of studio talent to make films soldiers informative yet interesting. Training films, usually hopelessly boring, were brought to life by imaginative producers and directors with movie experience.

Value to commanders

Combat film coverage was not only used for historical films but was extremely valuable to high-level staff officers and commanders. The "Staff Film Report" was one of the most useful products created by the Army Pictorial Service. A weekly digest of combat footage from every combat theater, the "Staff Film Report" was shown to high-level military staff in Washington and other theaters of war.

Assembled quickly and expertly from 200,000 feet of combat film shot each week, the short reports drew unanimous praise from all commanders and allied staff as well. The weekly reports showed the progress of combat campaigns and the effectiveness of weapons used, as well as the effect of terrain and weather. The "Staff Film Report" and the "Combat Bulletin," its modified version with all secret material removed, were eagerly awaited for their informational content. The "Combat Bulletin" was the Signal Corps equivalent of Movietone News.

Importance to morale

The issue of morale and creating informed, motivated soldiers was tackled early in the war through a series of films made under Capra's supervision. "Why We Fight," a seven-film series he produced, was so successful in explaining the issues that drove American participation in World War II the films were shown to war workers and then to the general public.

Frank Capra editing film while Signal Reserve major, WWII Hollywood director Frank Capra cuts Army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II.

Capra's production staff included two writers who later became well-known to the American public: William Shirer and John Gunther.

Other morale films followed, including "Your Job in Germany" and "This Is the Philippines." A regular series of entertaining short features on the progress of the war effort, the "Army and Navy Screen Magazine," was shown along with commercial movies for the GIs' off-duty enjoyment.

As the war came to a close, the War Department realized there was a critical need for the public and military forces to understand that the defeat of Germany was not the end of the war effort. The plans for defeating Japan in the Pacific needed to be explained to the American public.

The orientation film, "Two Down and One To Go," produced in 1944, was distributed for simultaneous showings throughout the world. Military and civilian audiences saw this film, which served as the command-information vehicle to explain why the military services had to continue the fight until victory was achieved in the Pacific. About 97 percent of all military members viewed this particular film.

Photo production

By the end of World War II, the Signal Corps had produced 1,338 films, and of these, nearly 1,000 were rescored into foreign languages. It had operated the largest film-distribution organization in the world and maintained one of the world's largest film libraries. Some 500,000 still photos were placed in the still- picture library, a mere fraction of photos actually taken and developed.

It's not an exaggeration to say the Signal Corps' still and motion-picture cameramen risked their lives to document the battles and other activities of the Army. Their portable darkrooms in the field were small tents. With little training at the beginning of the war, and poorly-defined guidance on their mission, the Signal Corps photographers accomplished monumental tasks, articulating U.S. policy objectives and documenting the Allies' wartime achievements. Photography was invaluable as a vehicle for training millions in a very short time.

Ms. Jones, Fort Gordon's deputy public affairs officer, holds a degree in political science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She enjoys reading and studying history.


Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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