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Edward steichen and the naval aviation photographic unit.

Like so many American civilians who set aside their successful professional careers to support the war efforts in WWI and again in WWII, Edward Steichen's contributions reached far beyond his immediate area of expertise.

By the time Steichen was given command of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in 1941, he was 62 years old and had accumulated a lifetime of achievements and accolades both professionally and as the commanding officer of the Army's photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces in WW1. Beginning in 1917, he would serve 16 months in that post and be awarded the rank of lieutenant colonel (with a citation by Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing) and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

As it turned out, it was just the beginning of "Steichen's Boys" impact on the very future of America. Their photographic record of Naval Aviation's combat heroism would become one of the most powerful American weapons the Japanese war machine would have to face in WWII.

Into the Breach

1941: The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declares war on Japan as she swarms across the Pacific Ocean toward Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.

It was a defining time for the U.S. Navy. It had sustained near crippling losses to the Pacific Fleet and the carrier-based air wings at Pearl Harbor. Naval Aviation was in dire need of new pilots to be recruited and trained as the "tip of the spear" that would defend against Japan's incursion eastward.

Enter Capt. Arthur W Radford, commander of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics and head of the Navy's pilot recruitment effort. Radford believed there was competition between the Navy and the Army Air Corps for a limited talent pool, and that attractive, top-rate photography in the press (as well as the design of both posters and leaflets) would help the Navy reach its quota of 30,000 new pilots each year. Although Steichen was approaching retirement age, Radford reached out to him with orders to assemble a team of crack photographers to help with that effort. That Radford would reach out specifically to Steichen for this mission was not surprising. What was surprising was the autonomy given to Steichen in assembling and deploying his team.

Lt. Barrett Gallagher, who joined the unit in 1944, had reported aboard USS Intrepid (CV 11)--then the flagship of Rear Adm. Gerald Bogan--and asked to join his staff. Bogan asked what the lieutenant's orders were, to which Gallagher is reported to have said, "Sir, my orders are to go wherever I want, stay as long as I want and to return home when I feel like it." After the admiral had time to review the orders and determined that was exactly what they said, he welcomed Gallagher to his staff Such was the freedom of movement given to the entire team through the efforts of Radford, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief in the Pacific, and special letters of recommendation from future Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal.

"Steichen's Boys"

The original team that Steichen put together included Lt. Wayne Miller, Lt. Dwight Long, Lt. Charles E. Kerlee, Lt. Charles Fenno Jacobs, Lt. Cmdr. Horace Bristol, Ensign Victor Jorgensen, and Ensign Alfonso "Fons" Iannelli. Bristol, working for Life magazine as an original member of its staff, and accompanied writer John Stcinbeck during his travels in California that resulted in his celebrated book, "The Grapes of Wrath." Jacobs also spent time as photographer for L. Kerlee earned his chops as a commercial illustrator, while

Jorgensen excelled at the Portland Oregonian newspaper, where he spent time as a copy boy, a photographer, and even the paper's news editor. Miller, the only rookie, was already Navy enlisted, so Steichen's instructions to him were "I don't care what you do, Wayne, but bring back something that will please the brass a little bit, an aircraft carrier or somebody with all the braid; spend the rest of your time photographing the man." It was Steichen's prime concern--don't photograph the war; photograph the man, the little guy; the struggle, the heartaches, plus the dreams of this guy. Photograph the sailor.

Before Steichen was done, he and his team had gained passage aboard USS Lexington (CV 16), USS Yorktown (CV 10), USS Intrepid (CV 11), and USS Ticonderoga (CV 14). They had photographed battles from the raid on Truk Islands to the "Marianas Turkey Shoot."

In late 1943, Steichen was aboard Lexington when she took a 'fish' in her stern after a five hour Japanese air attack. Steichen was positioned off the port stern in the netting that extends out over the water so he could capture both the aircraft landings and the landing signal officer (LSO) directing them safely aboard. A Grumman F6F Hellcat had been unable to abort its approach, missed the arresting gear and crashed into the ramp. Both the LSO and his assistant dived into the net on top of Steichen to escape the fiery crash. He still got the shot.

"The Fighting Lady," 1945

In addition to leading the Naval Aviation photographic team, Steichen was given the assignment to direct 20th Century Fox's Academy Award-winning 1944 film "The Fighting Lady." Extensive use of gun cameras and footage provided by him and his team gave the film the unmistakable feeling of reality, even though the plot was entirely fictional, and the filming locations were anything but. Filmed almost entirely aboard Yorktown and in Technicolor, the on-deck action sequences were deadly reality and produced some of the most riveting combat scenes of the Pacific campaign.

Return to Civilian Life

The unit was largely demobilized after the end of the war in August 1945. Steichen returned to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York as director of photography. In 1955, with Carl Sandburg, he produced the widely acclaimed MoMA exhibit, "The Family of Man." With 503 photos from 68 countries selected from nearly two million submitted photographs, it became one of MoMAs most celebrated photographic collections and was eventually viewed by more than nine million people, before being reissued in book form. It is still in print to this day.

Just as Edward Steichen had admonished his Naval Aviation photographic team to photograph the individual Sailor to tell the story of VVVVII, he held to his own guidance in his return to civilian life by searching out, observing, and recording individuals to tell their stories of unsung struggles and heroism in their everyday lives.

Edward Jean Steichen passed away at his home in West Redding, Conn., on 25 March 1973 at the age of 94.

Caption: Capt. Edward Steichen photographed above the deck of USS Lexington (CV 16) in November 1943. (Photo by Lt. Victor Jorgensen)

Caption: Two Curtiss 582C-3 Helldiver aircraft bank over USS Hornet (CV 12) before landing, following strikes on Japanese shipping in the China Sea, circa mid-January 2945. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Charles Kerlee)

Caption: Background: Takeoff from USS Lexington (CV/6) during the defense of Tarawa in lute November Photo by Capt. Edward Steichen, USNR)

Caption: An aerial view shows the USS Yorktown (CV 10) landing her planes. Most of the footage for the motion picture "The Fighting Lady" was shot on Yorktown. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Charles Kerlee)

Caption: Ordnancetnen arm planes on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown (CV 10), while in the background off duty Sailors watch a movie. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Charles Kerlee)

Caption: An echelon of Grumman Avengers flies in formation over the Pacific. Avenger flyers and the torpedoes they launched with deadly accuracy scored many important successes against units of the Japanese fleet. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Horace Bristol)

Caption: An aircrewman wounded in a strike on Rabaul, Papua New Guinea is helped out his aircraft aboard USS Saratoga (CV-3) on 5 November 1943. (Photo by Lt. Wayne Miller)

Caption: Navy pilots pilots in the forward elevator well play basketball aboard USS Monterey (CVL-26) in June 1944. The jump-shooter on the left is future U.S. President Gerald R. Ford. (Photo by Lt. Victor Jorgensen)

Caption: The colors wave jauntily in this famous photo as the fleet returns from another successful engagement. (Photo by Cmdr. Horace Bristol)

Caption: Sailors fire 40177M guns aboard USS Hornet (CV 12) on 16 February 1945, as her planes aided Tokyo. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr. Charles Kerlee)

Caption: Aircrewmen put on flight gear in preparation for another strike against Manila on 5 November 1944. Somber faces show they know what they are up against. (Photo by Lt. Wayne Miller)

Caption: Aircraft return to USS Lexington (CV 3.6) during the Gilberts operation in November 1943. Crewmen in the foreground are sitting on the wing of an SBD-c, as an F6F-3 lands and a TBF-1 taxiies to a parking place on the forward flight deck. (Photo by Capt. Edward Steichen, USNR)

Caption: A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber from VB-5 from USS Yorktown (CV zo) over Wake Island, in early October 1943. (Photo by Lt. Cmdr, Charles Kerlee)

Caption: Doctors and corpsmen treat Okinawa casualties aboard USS Solace (AN 2) in May 3.94.5. Casualties on landings, especially early in the Pacific invasion days, could be very heavy. (Photo by Lt. Victor Jorgenson)

Caption: "The Flatiron", 1904 by Edward Steichen Gum bichromate over platinum print. This famous photo of the New York City landmark in Times Square illustrates the artistic influence of Alfred Stieglitz and his Camera Club of New York upon Steichen prior to his Army enlistment in 2927. The "Pictorialist" vision created here would give way to Steichen's goal of photographing the Sailor during his tutelage of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in WWII.
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Publication:Naval Aviation News
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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