United States Air Force (USAF) Combat Photography: Southeast Asia


In the beginning was the word- [grunt]
-the spoken word which sometimes provoked combat. [Music] Then came the picture- a
combat picture- as man sought to record for his fellow man the nature of his
experiences and the lessons he learned. From the picture came written words at
first a kind of artists shorthand the first crude attempts to create pictures
with words but the picture is made with words were often obscure. They couldn’t
tell the whole story and much of their impact was lost in the translation. For
centuries then man has relied on the universal language of pictures to
document his armed conflicts. As the technology of war progressed, so did the
techniques and the tools of the artist. The greatest single improvement occurred
in the 1860s, during the Civil War, when a revolutionary new device for recording
historic events was introduced [shutter clicks]. The camera. There was no nonsense, no romantic
inaccuracy ,about the camera. It captured exactly what it saw with sometimes
appalling reality. And as the equipment and the techniques
improved, photography became an increasingly vital source of historic
reference military strategy and public information.The invention of motion
pictures added a new dimension. 1914- on the Western Front. [Sound of gunfire and airplane motors] The combat cameraman established himself as
an indispensable member of the military team.
World War II was documented by 50 million feet of incomparable combat footage. [Sound of gunfire and airplane engines and explosions] The end of World War 2 marked the
beginning of a new assault in the vanguard of the burgeoning jet age, sleek
new aircraft were already smashing through the sound barrier. New speeds and
performance levels required more sophisticated weapons, radio and radar
systems- and once again as in the past the advances in the technology of war
required corresponding advances in the tools and techniques of war’s
documentation. This is the story of how a serious technological gap was closed in
Southeast Asia when US Air Force combat photography took up the challenge and
gave a new look to the age-old language of pictures and in color. [Music] In the mid-60s, the United States became
an active participant in South Vietnam’s struggle for freedom. [Sounds of gunfire] Air Force fighter bombers went into
action only to learn the Air Force photo capability then in the field was too
small- a stepped-up demand for films too great-combat camera development had
dropped too far behind supersonic fighter aircraft technology and ordnance
delivery techniques. In 1965 recognizing the need for remedial action the US Air
Force chief of staff directed that an entirely new operation plan be
formulated .The planning task was assigned to aerospace audiovisual
service- AAVS- through its parent organization the Military Airlift
Command- MAC. The MAC and AAVS planning staffs followed through. The requested
plan was submitted in record time and approval was received in December of
that year. Two months later the 600th Photo Squadron, a single manager combat
photo capability, including all photo except reconnaissance, began to take
shape at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. (Sounds of aircraft taking off] The combat photo function was beginning
to align itself with all other Air Force operations in the theater. Headquartered
in Vietnam the squadron established detachments throughout Southeast Asia.
One primary mission is combat documentation called “Com Doc.” It produces
historical documentation footage on the ground, in the air, on every phase of the
Vietnam conflict. you see Air Force “Com Doc”
photographers jump into battle [Music] The “Com Doc” cameraman document anything and
everything of significance. [Music and sound effects] The wounded soldier leaves the
battlefield within minutes. Max Medical air evacuation back home
in less than 24 hours. [Music and sound effects] Puff, the Magic Dragon-18 thousand rounds a
minute. Com Doc footage finds an immediate use and fills an imperative need. It
provides a film link between the air staff planner in the Pentagon and the
combat operation in Southeast Asia.It also serves to keep the American public
informed on the latest progress of their fighting forces. Equally important it
finds a lasting use as visual history caught and recorded at the moment on the
spot . [Sound effects] The highest priority in the photo squadron’s mission is armament reporting
photography. This is over the target combat documentation filmed for the most part by
cameras installed in the strike aircraft. [Sound of bombs exploding] Air strikes are filmed in direct contact
with the enemy, under hostile fire, as evidenced by these tracers. It is combat
photography in its purest form. [Sound effects of aircraft and tracers firing] The footage supplies vital operational
information and answers merchant questions. Was the target hit? [Sounds of bombs exploding] Which weapon work best against it? [Sounds of bombs exploding and aircraft flying] What improvements in delivery techniques
and weaponry are needed? Watch this MIG try to evade our missile. [Music, aircraft sounds and explosion] Good strike
footage is operationally priceless. Adequate airstrike coverage calls for
cameras filming forward and aft, at various speeds and settings, depending on the
type of ordnance carried. Some of the sophisticated fighters arriving in
Vietnam had no provisions for air strike photography. Others had outdated gun
cameras. AAVS personnel tackled the gun camera problems head-on.
Today, the gun cameras installed by AAVS in Southeast Asia exceed 95%
effectiveness. This aiming device or kipper appears on most gun camera footage. [Sounds of aircraft] A pod installation fitted to external
pylons and mounted on the aircraft at an ordnance station houses two high-speed
cameras- one looking forward- the other looking aft. The pod can be used for tail
chase, and for recording weapon deliveries of its own aircraft. Pod
cameras are only an interim measure. The pod development program was tackled with
two goals in mind. First, how to best photograph weapon deliveries, and
second, how to install the cameras in the aircraft. This latter problem was solved by
devising a blister camera installation. Briefly, a blister is a protrusion on the
aircraft. This approximated the ideal of mounting
the camera array inside the aircraft. Like the pods, they house cameras aimed
forward and aft, and are automatically activated when the pilot fires his guns
or drops his ordnance. Motion picture cameramen and still
photographers of the 600th also ride into combat with the jets. [Sound of jet taking off]. Attacking
heavily defended targets in North and South Vietnam. With the forward air controllers in
their low-flying aircraft. From their vantage point, the combat cameraman records air
strikes against the enemy below him. With hundreds of combat sorties flown
each day, the 600th photo teams must load, download, service,maintain, and repair the
airstrike cameras. They work fast to unload the exposed film, and get it into
the lab for immediate processing. The photo squadrons five labs are equipped
for 16 millimeter color motion picture processing. Housed in air transportable
trailers, air-conditioned and fully equipped, these labs are the nerve
centers of the whole airstrike combat documentary mission. Within hours after
touchdown, the labs process and deliver to the fighter unit commanders,
intelligence officers, and pilots, color films of the day’s combat missions, for
rapid post strike analysis. This footage documents several strafing
runs at an enemy petroleum depot. Here- there’s no need for a return
mission. The airstrike footage is culled by the film editors at each motion
picture lab. The most significant footage is used nightly to brief the commander
of the Seventh Air Force in Southeast Asia, rushed to the commander of the Pacific Air Forces- to Washington for viewing by
the Air Staff- and ultimately- for public release. Strike footage is also carefully
screened by the intelligence fraternity at all levels of command. South Vietnam
facts in spotter aircraft seek out the enemy mark the location with smoke, then
call in the fighters to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong targets such as
base camps, roads and truck parks, food and munitions storage areas, supply routes, underground bunkers, trenches,foxholes,
and fortifications. [Sounds of gunfire and bombs exploding] These mini guns fire 6,000 rounds per
minute. Until March 31st 1968, Air Force fighters
and fighter bombers flew daily missions against North Vietnam major communist
military targets, north of the 20th parallel.Near Hanoi and Haiphong, pilots
struck communist airfields, power plants, iron and steel complexes, and army
barracks. They encountered heavy savage conventional and surface-to-air missile
and anti-aircraft fir, as well as enemy MIGs. [Sounds of aircraft and bombs exploding] A selected original is forwarded to the
Air Force archives to be cataloged and stored permanently, as a historical
record. Another type of airstrike photography is filmed by specially
designed cameras focused on the combat aircraft radar scopes. Immediately after
downloading, the exposed black and white film goes into an automatic processor
and comes out within minutes, ready for immediate evaluation by the Tactical
Fighter Unit. A panoramic strike camera also provides
a rapid look at combat results. This camera records an image that extends
from horizon to horizon, fore and aft, along the aircraft flight path by means
of a rotating prism. A portable processing unit, designed for 70
millimeter film, provides short processing time, ease of operation, and
quality reproduction.The transfer film is pre-imbibed with a developer and a
fixer. As the transfer film contacts the exposed film, processing takes place
producing both a negative and a positive transparency. Within an hour after
landing, prints made from the positive transparencies are ready for viewing by
Tactical Fighter Units.They provide excellent operational information for
the combat pilots and for intelligence personnel. The most significant negatives
are turned over to intelligence for further in-depth study. The 600th
maintains a fully equipped still photo laboratory at each of its 17 theater
locations for reproducing black-and-white and color photography.
The major portion of the still mission is to produce black-and-white still
photographs for release through information channels in Southeast Asia
as well as bass still lab requirements. Additional black-and-white and color
still photographs are forwarded to Washington for release by Air Force
Information. The original negatives and color transparencies are forwarded to
the Air Force Still Depository for future use and historical preservation.
These pictures represent one day’s output of quality photography.
Still photo coverage includes civic action, newsworthy events,operational
combat activity, and the vital airstrike combat mission. All Air Force combat
photography from Southeast Asia eventually finds a use. You see it
everywhere-in every form of visual media from newspapers and magazines to motion
pictures and television. The Air Force was given the job of defending South
Vietnam with its massive airpower, and F-105 has just scored another MIG
kill. The pilot said I fired a burst from my 20 millimeter cannon and the MIG blew
up only 15 or 20 feet in front of me. The following excerpts from Air Force motion
picture productions best demonstrate further use of Air Force combat
photography received from Southeast Asia. Bien Hoa, in Vietnam.A monthly news review
distributed internally throughout the entire Air Force, to provide its members
with a broad view of significant and interesting events. General William
Westmoreland, Commander,Military Assistance Command,Vietnam, in a message
to the 7th Air Force, headquartered at Tan Son Nhut, wrote, “The performance of the
7th Air Force, in meeting airlift requirements in Vietnam over the past
year, has been outstanding…” “…equipment and supplies are
unloaded near the village of Tuy Hoa…” “…for the start of construction of a new
airbase some 75 miles north of Cam Ranh Bay.” ” All construction is under the
engineering supervision of the Air Force Civil Engineers, 45 days ahead of schedule, Tuy Hoa Air Base began initial operations.” “Mayday Mayday Mayday.” This is
Red Rooster Lee [unintelligible} that’s been shot down.” Sound clips for the Air Force
Command Post and the American public. A pilot is saved by helicopter. A rescue by
the Jolly Green Giant. A dramatic factual short clip. They report for the Air Staff
and the American public. “Although every air rescue is different, what you have seen is happens all the time in this war out
here. And that means hundreds of our best men saved.” On the ground and in the air,
the United States Air Force Combat Photo mission in Southeast Asia is served
around the clock from 16 units and its operating squadron headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. The Vietnam detachments all operating mainly out of
trailers and bands are located throughout South Vietnam. Cam Ranh Bay, Phan Rang, Bien Hoa Da Nang, Tua Hoy, Nha Trang, Pleiku, Binh Thuy, and Phu Cat. The Thai detachments housed in specially
designed air conditioned buildings, report to squadron headquarters through
the six all first photo flight located at Korat. The detachments in Thailand,
reporting to the Photo Flight, are Takhli, Ubon, Udorn,
U-Tapao, Don Muang, and Nakhon Phanom. This is how the Air Force combat
photo mission in Southeast Asia is being accomplished today. An impossible task
for the Air Force, and AAVS, had it not been for the valuable contributions and
material assistance afforded by various Air Staff agencies and major commands.
We’ve shown how the Air Force is closing a technological gap bringing combat
aircraft and combat camera together again as a highly skilled working team.
Looking back to the start, it seems we’ve come a long way in a
rather short while. Looking ahead to the future, our goal is
to keep pace with technology and satisfy the needs of the Air Force.
You may rest assured that when your Air Force has done its job in Southeast Asia,
the final photographic record will be complete. [Music]

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