Keeping their focus under fire
Despite his exploits capturing historic motion picture footage during the bloody battle of Tarawa a few months earlier, it wasn’t until Norm Hatch found himself cowering beneath a furious, Japanese artillery barrage at Iwo Jima that he realized the incredible risks he was taking as a combat photographer.
“That barrage lasted a day and a half, and there is nothing much you can do about it except dig in,” Hatch explains. “I knew exactly how artillery worked. One guy turning a couple of little wheels controls the direction of the shells. Whenever I heard a shell go off to the left, it occurred to me that if that crazy [guy] were to turn one wheel one click to the left, the next one would come in right on top of my position, and that would be it. Most of the time, I took it all in stride, but that really shook me up.”
Hatch, a retired Marine major, is something of a Marine Corps legend because of his efforts to organize and revolutionize the way combat photography was captured in the Pacific theater during World War II as photo officer for the 5th Marine Division.
The culmination of those efforts was a 20-minute film that evolved out of newsreel footage captured by Hatch and other cameramen at the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. That film, “With the Marines at Tarawa,” earned the Marine Corps a 1944 Academy Award for best documentary short. It combines black-and-white, 35-millimeter footage captured by Hatch during the opening hours of the engagement (Hatch was the only cameraman to reach shore during the first half of the battle) with some of the first color combat footage from the war, shot by colleagues carrying, for the first time in combat, more compact, 16mm cameras under Hatch’s direction.
Now 82, Hatch is one of the best-known members of an organization consisting mainly of aging men who witnessed, and recorded for posterity, some of the most important, and brutal, moments of the last century in conflicts around the globe. That organization is the International Combat Camera Assn., founded in 1988.
According to Donnie Shearer, the organization’s president and a retired Marine sergeant who filmed battles in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, as well as the Saigon evacuation in 1975, the group’s main purpose is to win recognition for combat cameramen.
“These men function to photographically record the military experience, to preserve military history, and remind the public about how horrible war really is,” Shearer says. “We want people to know that the images they see on documentaries were taken by someone made of flesh and blood -- people who, in some cases, gave their lives to acquire them. We are lobbying production companies and television networks that air programming with combat footage to add graphics giving credit to the cameramen -- if they don’t know the names then, at least, to thank the unknown cameramen.”
Shearer talks reverentially about such combat photographers as Marine Cpl. William Perkins, posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1967 after hurling himself on a grenade in Vietnam to save fellow soldiers, hoping the camera on his chest might absorb the blast; and Bill Genaust, the cameraman working under Hatch’s command who captured the historic footage of the second flag-raising at Iwo Jima. (AP civilian photographer Joe Rosenthal shot the famous still photo of the scene.) Genaust was killed about a week later -- “one of the few photographers we lost in the Pacific, I’m sorry to say,” Hatch says.
The men in this fraternity are bound by the experience of performing a creative function under horrific conditions, subjugating both their instinct for self-preservation and the natural tendency to become repulsed by the incredible horrors they were documenting. This unique ability to concentrate “only on the shot,” as Hatch puts it, is a hallmark of the combat photographer.
“At Tarawa, I saw a guy blown to pieces as soon as the ramp dropped on the beach,” Hatch recalls. “I didn’t get emotional. What could you do? Stop and cry? That would turn you into a basket case in less than five minutes. You are trained as both a Marine and a photographer. You understand it’s a do-or-die situation, that you have a mission -- to capture this footage -- and you function on adrenaline. You don’t have time to be afraid. It’s almost like divorcing yourself from the world, and when you look through the viewfinder, transposing yourself to another world. I would concentrate so hard on getting the shot that it would take over my psyche.”
Shearer’s experience was much the same. Decades after Vietnam, he still recalls “the awesome feeling of excitement” he felt while filming bloody encounters.
“It’s hard to describe, but I was just thinking of [scenes of carnage] photographically,” he says. “I just had no time to think. Afterward, that’s when it hit me, and there is a price you pay for that.” In Shearer’s case, he says that price involved almost getting thrown out of the Marines at one point for threatening to shoot a sergeant “who busted my chops after I spent a night sitting on top of a friend who had just been killed.”
Marty Bolhower, a retired Marine corporal, was a still photographer during the Korean War, and he has vivid memories of essentially “becoming the camera” in a firefight.
No ordinary job
“In a big fight, there is so much smoke and dust and everything is so chaotic that it isn’t really that interesting photographically,” Bolhower says. “I learned early on that I had to get close to the men, frame tight, make the picture interesting. If you look at great combat shots over the years, they are mainly tight shots that really show faces and pain and what is really going on. That takes an incredible amount of concentration, and the danger sort of recedes in your mind in those moments.”
Still, the job is much different than being an “ordinary” photographer, the veterans concede. For instance, Shearer says that, in Vietnam, he trained himself to operate a motion picture camera with both eyes open.
“Usually, when filming, you keep the second eye closed,” he says. “But in combat, I learned to compose the shot with one eye in the viewfinder, while keeping the other eye open to watch my surroundings. I got some great pictures and stayed alive that way.” The veterans feel the risk was worth it, because it served a noble purpose.
“Wars aren’t good, let me tell you that,” Hatch says. “They always say make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, but if people never see that history, then it might. My work in the Pacific, and the work of those other guys, was done to record the history of our Marines, and to help the public. The best way for the public to decide if they want to support a war or not is to see what it’s really like.”
-- Michael Goldman
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