Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Staff Sergeant Joe Longo served in the Army Air Force during WWII and the Korean War as a combat cameraman on bombing missions. It was his job to document the missions of the 13th Air Force, and his footage was used for both intelligence and newsreels. He later founded the International Camera Association.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Staff Sergeant Joe Longo. Longo served in the Army Air Force during WWII and the Korean War as a combat cameraman on bombing missions.
Friend of mine and myself, after the draft- And a lot of guys were enlisting, this friend of mine and myself decided we were going to run away and join the Canadian Air Force, because they were recruiting at the time. And I didn't say anything to anybody at the house, and I literally ran away. And this, later on, turned out to be a no-no, because my dad was very put out.
Anyhow, I got up to the Manning Depot up in Ottawa and we had to go through a screening process. And this Screening Officer remarked on my name, "Longo, L-O-N-G-O." And he said, "What kind of a name is that? What's the background?" I said, "Italy. My dad was born in Italy." And he says, "Oh." He says, "I'm afraid we can't do too much with you." And I asked him, "Why not?" He said, "Well ... I asked for a reason.” He said, "Well, supposing you had to go on a mission and bomb Italy, for example." I said, "Well, if that's the case, that's the case. Those are the orders. I think that's what military and discipline is all about." But it didn't convince him.
In the meantime, my father found out where I was. And boy, he really blew his top. I went back home. And there I was in limbo, so to speak. And during that limbo period, I was drafted into the infantry, which was a far cry from where I wanted to be. So I really ... My training and background was in the infantry. I was a BAR, NCO with a rifle company. And I found myself on a boat to South Pacific. But that's okay. I was young enough, and it was all gung-ho. That esprit de corps and that you're doing something worthwhile. Although, I'd much rather been doing it in the Air Force.
When we got to Nouméa, New Caledonia, I contracted fever. And all the fellows that I went up with, came across with, all went up into combat up in Munda and that area. And while I was recuperating, they all came back, all shot up. And in the meantime, an Air Force ... An officer came around and said, "What are we going to do with you?" I said, "Send me home," which was out of the question. He said, "How'd you like to get in the Air Corp?" at that time. I said, "I have no technical training." I said, "I applied for the Aviation Cadet, but my papers never came through," and the usual snafu. So he said, "Well, take my advice, you ought to." I said, "What would I do there?" He said, "Well, we'll transfer you to a headquarters company." And this was up on Guadalcanal. And it was just after the fighting had ceased, so it was relatively safe. But I found myself looking for something to do. I was a fish out of water. Here I was infantry trained, all set to go into combat. And I was in an Air Force unit, headquarters, yet.
I found out that there was a unit called a 6th Combat Camera Unit. And I talked to a couple of the guys, and it sounded like they were leading a pretty interesting, exciting life. So I applied for a transfer. And they said, "No, we're filled up now," because those Combat Camera Units in the Air Force, at the time, were, excuse me, were made up, I believe, of 21 men. And we only had 11 people on combat ... On flying, air crew, also as combat camera people. So their roster was filled up. And I went back to doing little to nothing with the headquarters bunch.
They gave me jobs, anything military, like raising the flag in the morning and lowering it. And in case there was a threat of a Jap invasion or something, which happened in one of the islands I was on, they went through the records and got everybody who had infantry or regular military training, because most of the fellas in the headquarters were all clerks and odd jobs, or mechanics on the flight line, or gunners, or air crew. So if anything come out and look like a threat, they would go through the records and find out who can set up these perimeter defenses and all that. And I was always chosen. And the funny story there is because when we had to train some of these clerks, get them out from behind the typewriters, and help set up a perimeter defense on the beach, they didn't know the weapons. They'd fire them off indiscriminately because they weren't trained for that. And there was another fellow and myself, he was an ex-infantry fellow too. He said ... He was a Corporal. And he said, "I think we'd be better off with the enemy, rather than being back here behind the lines."
But that infantry training was sort of a stigma for me. And I never thought I would lose it, till one day somebody said, "Those people at the Combat Camera Unit want to see you." So I went down and they said, "You still interested in joining the unit?" I said, "Yes, very much." He said, "Well, what do you know about photography?" I said, "Well, I took pictures for the high school newspaper. And I've always been interested in it." And then they said, "Do you know the .50 caliber machine gun?" I said, "Of course," because coming out of the infantry, that's one of the basic weapons. So they said, "We'll give you a trial."
So they gave me a two-week trial. I went up with an instructor once. And then the second time, I was on my own. We were flying out of the Admiralty Islands, at the time, and I was flying with the 307th Bomb Group. And evidently, the two or three missions that I went on, film report came back, and I guess I made the cut. So from then on, I just stayed with it. Now, the reason they wanted me, I found out later on, that they had lost two regular men, one over [inaudible] and one over [inaudible]. And they were two very very hot targets. And the vacancies came within three days of each other. So I either replaced a fellow named Gene Romine or Johnny [Mediodia]. I don't know to this day. And those two names always stuck in my mind because one of those guys had to give up his life for me to become a combat cameraman.
And from then on, it was just routine. And then we would take on all the duties that were thrown at us, flying mostly in B-24s, B-25s. And toward the end there, I racked up almost 35 missions. Toward the end, I got what they called TDY, temporary duty, with an Australian Beaufighter Squadron. And that was another experience altogether, because they were crazy, but interesting, socially and militarily. They were good people.
There's nothing like the baptism of fire. That's an expression that's ... I suppose you've heard many times. But believe me, it's true. I must admit, the first one or two missions they gave me were considered milk runs, because they didn't know whether I could cut it or not. But there is no such thing as a milk run. It may be a milk run over a target, but you could come back and have your hydraulic shot up and crash on landing. So milk run is a really ... It's a misnomer. Beware when they say, "Oh, this is going to be a milk run." You always got to look over your shoulder.
But on the first one or two missions I had, they really were milk runs. We ran into ... We're doing some shipping strikes, and we ran into very little ack-ack and very little fighter. But the third and fourth over Borneo on the Celebes, and there was one particularly hot target called Balikpapan. Balikpapan is on the southern coast of Borneo and it was the Ploesti of the Pacific. The Japanese needed that to get their fuel so they could send up their fighters and keep their Air Force going. So it was a very hot target. Three quarters of the men that flew those missions were lost. And they had two Air Forces in on that, the 5th Air Force, which was General Kenny's outfit, and then ours, the Jungle Air Force, the 13th. And we always felt self-conscious because the 13th Air Force was very small. We only had the two heavy groups, whereas the 5th, they came on with all the big ... So they were the 8th Air Force of the Pacific, and they got most of the publicity and all that. And that sort of irked us.
But the mission, I think that when I really found out what it was all about was on a run to Borneo. And at that time, the Japanese were using phosphorus bombs launched from their aircraft. They would come in and lob this missile at you. And if it hit the aircraft, it just burned right through, right through your control wires and everything else. And if you try to do anything about it, you can get burned real bad.
I remember setting up the camera. We had ... We usually used two cameras. We used a Bell & Howell with a 400-foot magazine over the hatch. I'm trying to remember this now. Over the hatch.
I'll never forget, we were at 14, 15,000 feet and the bombardier through the intercom said, "Cameramen, get ready." And then he gave me about 15, 20 minutes. The camera was already threaded. I went back to the hatch, put one foot on one side, one foot on the other, held on. And I opened up this ... And there was nothing but Pacific Ocean below me. And right away, I'm saying, "Jesus, suppose you had to get lost in that maze of water, they'd never find you." But somehow, whether it's your youth or what, you overcome those things. They've just become something you remember or think about after. I set this camera up with a 400-foot magazine. The bombardier will tell you three minutes, or three seconds, or whatever the time is. And you start your camera, and you plug it into the aircraft power, and you have it facing down. You have your lenses and exposure all set. And you start your camera on his command. And pretty soon, you see the bombs coming down, in train. I'm sure you've seen those shots. And then you record the damage. Then you lock that camera off. And as the B-24 pulls around, you go to the waist window with another smaller camera with one lens on it, called a Bomb Spotter, 35 millimeter. And there you record the damage from the side. Now, when you run out of that 100-foot load, which is around ... It's almost 90 feet a minute, at 24 frames. I shot mine always a little faster, to hold down the vibration. You had to reload that real fast because then you were going to get hit with fighters.
And I remember this one mission, I was wearing a flak helmet, for safety's sake, but I couldn't get the camera close to the ... And I was missing a lot of shots. So when I got back, I went to one of the Crew Chiefs there. And at the armory shop, they made me a sport finder. And when those fighters come in at you, they came in real fast. And you had that little hole to look through and you could ... You'd miss it because they're coming in at, at that time, maybe 180, 190, maybe 200 miles an hour. And you only had a short run out of it. And that's another reason I would raise the camera rate, the speed of the camera, so I'd get more exposure. But just looking through the finder was not good because you'd miss a lot of it.
Then after that, I took the helmet off and I sat on it most of the time. And when I was shooting out of the waist, I would use this with a finder, a sport finder, so that I could get peripheral vision. And as they came in, you could follow them out and then have to wind again.
And then we had what we call a throw around camera, which was a K-20. It was a still camera and it was self-focusing. And a lot of time, we'd get good shots of bomb damage or even fighter action. You could set them so you'd get some good ... And that you work this way, so you didn't have to have a close hand on it. And there's a lot of times that we'd pass that camera around, whoever thought they might get some good shots. And the crew people like that because they thought they were being photographers. We never got bad stuff. Out of a whole role, we'll maybe get five, six good things.
The primary mission of the 6th Combat Camera Unit was cover all the activities of the 13th Air Force, new targets. And from that, they would get intelligence data, or they would send a lot of it back to the States, and they would edit it at One Park Avenue. That was an editing setup they had there. And they would cut stories and release them to the newsreels, so that the people at home could find out what they were doing. And a lot of times, they didn't have civilian cameramen that would go along on these missions. So they would have to rely on fellows like us that were shot for the military, that were regular combat cameramen. That was our job. And I saw a couple of my stories, long after I got home, that I had shot. And all of a sudden, there's déjà vu. Say, "Hey, I remember that." And you look for the credits because there are no credits. There were no credits in combat photography. If there is, it's ... I never found it.
After the two training missions, where I evidently turned in some decent footage, they thought that I was seasoned enough to go out on my own. And in a B-24, we had two, sometimes three cameras. The main camera, which was used at the camera hatch, which was behind the right and left waist window on the B-24, that's where the two gunners sat. And anytime there was any action, you usually shoot over their shoulders. And sometimes if they were hit, you'd have to take that position over. This is why they were interested in somebody that knew how to handle .50 caliber machine guns. There have been times where they deliberately went one man short, and then that would be your primary job. It was defense of the aircraft. The one camera we had over the camera hatch was a Bell & Howell with a 400-foot magazine. That gave us about four minutes running time. And depending on the altitude that you were at, see how long it would take those bombs to hit their target. That was something we tried to check beforehand. And we never really had a set formula. Had I been doing it longer, I probably would've realized that at 15,000 feet, a string of 500-pound bombs would take so much time to hit the target. But I usually weighed out pretty good. And we had a lot of help from the bombardier, who would give me five or 10 seconds before he'd say, "Cameramen, start your camera." And from that position, I'd be hunched over the camera, over the camera hatch, and I'd just be looking through the finder. And you're seeing the target coming up. And then I'll film the bombs. He'd say, "Bombs away," and those bombs would come right into your frame. First time I saw it, it was just a marvelous because it was really low level. And the concussion, I didn't expect the concussion. And we got a little ... And because everybody laughed and it was a ... Then lock that camera off. And then you're pulling off the target, is when you're going through flak and it's a good idea to always shoot where the flak is coming from. So if they ever want to use some intelligence on it, they could see, to send in another group to knock out those flak guns. You'd get coverage with a small ... It's a smaller ... 35 millimeter. It's a single lens. It's called a Bomb Spotter. And you put a 100-foot load in that. And you'd be still in the waist window area, either right or left. I always like to shoot out of the right as the aircraft was going forward. I just had a better feeling that way. But you'd have to shoot over the shoulder of the waist gunner. But that's okay because it left you free to do other things, and you'd get cutaway shots on the gunners.
Favorite shot of mine was when the brass ... When being hit by fighters, they'd fire their guns, and the brass would hit the ... And make that awful noise. The .50 caliber brass. And that could be dangerous later on because we had to move around real fast. If you had the heavy flying boots on, you'd slide all over the place. And I don't know how those guys, some of them, stood up because they chased some of those fighters that were coming in at odd angles. They really had to move real fast, and you had to move with them. In other words, you play the barrel of the gun and try to get the gunner in the side. And it's a nice shot if you get the barrel firing and then the target coming in. So it was one of these, rather than just shooting into empty space. And that camera had to be loaded real fast because then the fighters would come in. And you couldn't use the big camera because that was already down. So that Bomb Spotter really did a good job.
Well, the average missions last 11 to 12 ... We flew a lot of hours. 11, 12 and 13 hours. There's a couple of missions I came in on, where the two outboard engines quit, just because they were out of fuel. We just made it. When we landed, we would have the fella that drove me in the morning, he would come back, help me with my gear. We'd get back to our unit. And I would have the captions made up. And we'd ship the film back to headquarters. And then we wouldn't hear anything more about it for two or three, four weeks. They gave a critique, saying footage good, or next time this here, or shaky. That's what used to bother me, where you get some clown selling your footage was shaky. And here you're up at 15, 16,000 feet with a virtual carpet of flak, and the Aircraft Commander trying to hold that airplanes still. And this guy complains about the footage being shaky. That really hurt. That really did.
I got around that by ... I would always answer him back, whenever I could, saying, "Well, we wanted to give you as much realism as we could." An aircraft is a very unsteady platform to shoot film from when you're 15, 16,000 feet in the air and you got fighters and flak coming at you from all sides.
I think you were kind to respond that way. I think I would've said something quite different.
Well, don't forget, I was a Staff Sergeant. Whoever was doing the critiquing was ... That kind of thing. But I was always a civilian at heart, I guess. I always treated it that way. I never got wrapped up in a ... I'd had too much of that in the infantry. When the infantry was really ... And they needed them. You need the discipline on the ground. You don't ... That's what I liked about the Air Corps. You didn't have that ... When you're doing your job, it was tense, it was stressful. But once it was over, it was over. With the military, with the ground crew, you went forward, you went into a battle, took care of the wounded, come back, maybe had a hot meal. Bingo, and you're right back out again. It was constant.
I think it's very important to know that, how we got our assignments, because I say we had in our combat camera, you had 11 combat cameramen. They were all on flying status. And one or two would be stationed with a fighter unit to help put mounted cameras in the P-38s, for that gun camera stuff. Some would be with a B-25 outfit in a forward area. My post was with the 13th Bomber Command. I finally got out of the headquarters. I went to a Bomber Command. Well, I should have because I was with the Combat Camera Unit, so I was combat personnel. And we would get a call from intelligence saying that new target was going to be hit. So we would go to the briefing and listen to the regular briefing that the air crews got. And the guy giving the briefing, the Operations Officer, would roll up the shade and you'd just see the target. And you would figure out how many aircraft were going. And from that, you would pick out the best spot. You had a choice being anywhere you wanted. All you had to do was just report to the Aircraft Commander, and he'd have to take you on board. You don't want to be forward and you want to be behind. So it was always a good idea to get off to the side. And that was not too good because by that time, the ack-ack guns would be trained on you. So it's like flying, as somebody said, in a coffin corner. It was a very tough ... But that made the best camera position.
The routine was they'd wake us up at four o'clock. Now, I didn't sleep in a barracks with a bunch of fellows. I slept in a tent with ... There were three, four of us. And the CQ would come around and wake you up. You'd go and have breakfast, which was always at three or four o'clock in the morning. The kind of breakfast you had, you wouldn't want to eat, unless you were real hungry. And we'd always have somebody drive us there. He would help you with your gear. You got to the B-24 that you were going to fly with. You introduce yourself to the Aircraft Commander and whoever else interested in shaking hands with you at that time of the morning. And the Red Cross had a service. They would have Red Cross girls who were volunteering. And I don't want to put the Red Cross down. They did a great job. But this bunch, they were very social minded. And it was their job to give you coffee and donuts that they would make there. They had to make them fresh every day, were supposed to. And that's what I was hoping for, to get a couple of donuts to take with me. And this one morning, the coffee was cold, couldn't drink it. The donuts were dried up pieces of I don't know what. And I complained. And the girl overheard me. And she had been ... I think she had been out the night before, raising all kinds of hell. Anyhow, her heart was not in her job. So I made a remark offhand and said something like, "I know what I would do if I had these, if I could take these with me." She goes, "What is that supposed to mean?" So I said, "Well, I'll tell you what, you give me that box." And she said, "What are you going to do with them?" And then the other crew were listening because they thought I was crazy. I said, "I'll take them and I'll drop them over the target, and they'll do more damage than the bombs." And she looked at me and she told me something I could do, which was physically impossible. But here I was looking for these donuts and they didn't have them. I always tell that story. It's a funny story.
No, it is.
She was ... Lipstick was all over the place and she's been out, having a good time. I don't blame her. Why not? But fresh coffee and donuts, that's not too much to ask. And then coming in, they would have lemonade. And I'd swear that was piped right from the battery acid. It was awful. It must be cold. And you set your palate up for certain tastes. Gee, Lemonade after ... And it's very hot in the South Pacific.
You always keep your cameras loaded because you never know what to expect. Sometimes you may help in on a rescue mission. Or what I would do is when I make sure that everything was quiet, if that's ever happened, I would go around, all through the aircraft, and shoot cutaways on the pilot, hands on this controls. And I'd also do a shot of the bombardier over the bombs, get a silhouette. Stuff that the editor could use, so they could edit this stuff and make it look like there's a story to it, rather than just ...
My first one or two missions, all I did was just shoot what was happening with the aircraft. It was a bombing mission. But after that, I said, "Well, why not make a story out of it?" And they did this very successfully with the 8th Air Force. They passed cameras around. And all these guys were shooting it, and the editors loved that because they could cut a sequence and cutaways with the bombardier and the fighter attacks, and they could almost cut it in the camera, except they use more than one camera. So I always busied myself. I never came back with film that was really left over. I come back with… I go out with maybe 11 or 1,200 feet of film. And maybe if I came back with one or two, I would consider that a good run. But I figured there's always a shot that you need.
When I got off that mounted camera, the one that was in the hatch, I just let that camera roll out because there wasn't much you could do about it. And we just let that sit there. I would lock it off. And then the aircraft would bank off the target. And that's when I would get up off, climb over the camera and get ready in the waist window. As I say, I like to shoot out of the right waist. And on the intercom, you can hear any fighter attacks. Or there's always somebody that says, "Boy," and you've heard this many times, "The flak is so thick up here, you can walk on it." That's not an original thing, but that would be a good indication to get ... And a good shot is if you could just get a piece of clear sky with an aircraft in the background and had the black puffs of smoke. You're always thinking in terms of good shots.
I always liked to get good formation shots. As a kid, I remember seeing these great two-winged airplanes and the old leather helmet days. And I see these great shots stacked up and I said, "Gee, I'd like to get that." And anytime I could, I would. If we'd see, coming off the target or on the target, there's good cloud formation and they look real good. And you could tell ... You were that close, you could tell that the pilot knew he was being photographed. And he'd bring that B-24, which is a lumbering piece of equipment, he'd get it really snug, right under your wing there. And sometimes he'd give you a thumbs up, or a laugh or smile, and it was that great shot. And then somebody would say, "Where are we going to use this?" I said, "Don't worry, somebody will find a good use for this spot."
I was doing something like that on the target in Borneo. I think it was Tarakan or Brunei Bay. I'm not sure. When they all seemed to run one into the other, and it was a great shot with great clouds. And I was sitting behind the pilot, shooting in back of him, in back of his head, up to the formation, up to the left. And they ... Three, four B-24s were stacked beautifully, one above the other. And they filled the frame just right with a 50 millimeter lens. And I had a yellow filter on it, brought out the clouds. And I said, "This is one of the picture shots." So I was shooting and I kept shooting. And then I went down, I took the camera down, and started to wind it. You had to wind those things. And all of a sudden, I heard over the intercom, "Geez, did you see that?" And right away, you don't know where to look. And I looked up and where that airplane was that I was shooting, I just caught the glimpse of a couple of pieces of metal. In the amount of time that I went down to wind that camera, that B-24 was gone. And here I was doing a calendar shot, if you will. So to answer your question, like you asked me before, about danger, it came anytime, any way. There were no downtime. In the air, it's all ... And you don't get a second shot at reality.
Now, had I been using an Arriflex like the German combat cameramen used, I wouldn't have had that problem because they had a 200-foot magazine, had battery operated. And I could have kept that thing in frame and probably gotten myself a terrific shot, if you call a plane blowing up in front of your face a terrific shot. But let's face it, it is. That's what war's all about. It's history. Everybody looks for that shot. The Germans shot the best combat footage because of their equipment.
Yea we were afraid, but it was ... Fright took on a different image in those days. And I think that you can attribute that to youth. And it was like something exciting. And I've been figuring it out lately. Somebody asked me that once before. And somehow, when you look through that camera, you're looking through some optics and you're in more or less an optical twilight zone where you ... Everything's happening in front of you, and somehow the three or four pieces of glass that you're looking through, that make up the finder, separate you from ... You're invincible. Or you don't think about it. And usually, when you see your footage come back, you'd say, "I can't believe I did that." But there's a little security in looking through that finder. See, the infantryman on the ground doesn't have that. He looks over his rifle, over the barrel of the machine gun, and he puts his shells into the enemy, and there's a direct contact there. With the cameraman, it's different. The cameraman is separated by the optics. And that, I think, gives you the courage or the strength, or maybe the stupidity, I don't know, of separating you from what could be a very dangerous situation. And you think that goes on, and you're like, "I want this to be good because I want to get that exciting shot." There's a lot of adrenaline going. And then that wall of glass that separates you from God knows what, that could be ... And things happen very fast. Things happen very fast on a mission. If they're jumped by fighters, you very seldom get a warning enough in advance, say, "Well, wait, I got to load film." You always have to be ready. And you'd hear the other fellas too, in the other aircraft. Maybe they'd spot the enemy [carrier], find out they're coming from two o'clock or three o'clock. So you'd get some sort of an idea. And then when I had that sport finder made so that I could really look around to see where these guys come, they'd start out as a little image, a little speck, and you'd see getting closer and closer. And a lot of people say, "Well, he came so close I could see his eyes or his teeth." Well, that may have been the case, but when you got that wall of glass between you and the action, you don't remember that until you see it.
That little glass, that makes you, I don't want to say invincible, but ... Then when you take your eye away, and you find out that the right waist gunner or the left waist gunner has been hit by flak, or by fighter, or a 20 millimeter cannons that the Japanese had in those fighters, they were devastating. When it happened, there was a split second I didn't know what to do because the fighter came in, he fired. And I don't even think I got the shot because when you hear that, those shells going through the aluminum on an aircraft, it's like a freight train running wild. It's a sound I'll never forget. It's like being in an aluminum tunnel and somebody pounding on with sledgehammers. And then pretty soon, you know you're in trouble when you start to see daylight between you and the aircraft. And when this fella got hit, as I said, the first thing I wanted to do was follow him down and do the story of what happens to a man when he gets hit in combat. But that isn't the way it works. I was not told, but I was, in no uncertain terms, nonverbal. I was told that, "You take care of the aircraft, and then take care of the wounded fellow." So I went off the fighter attack down to him. And then I certainly realized that that was not my job. So I had to take over the other side of the aircraft and defend it best way I could. So you take over the gun. And then when things get straightened out, then you help the wounded guy. But a no-no is to immediately start shooting the guy on the ground because as a photojournalist, if you want to put it that way, that would be the course of events. Fighter comes in, fires, man gets hit, man gets down, and you following it right down. But it doesn't quite work that way in combat. In combat, the first thing you got to do is defend the aircraft, and then take care of the wounded.
As combat cameramen, we flew with different crews all the time, which really was a ... It's a disadvantage because we didn't have the camaraderie or the spirit that the regular crews had. And we were always sort of ... We were gypsies. Exactly, we were gypsies, gypsies with cameras. We'd go to a briefing, find out what the target was going to be, find out the best place in the formation to be to get the shots. And we would go up to the Aircraft Commander and say, "I've been assigned to so-and-so." And he'd say, "Okay, you've been here before. Get in the back." And very seldom, they'd question you about your experience because they figured if you've been over there that long, you've experienced quite a bit of combat.
Shooting film, combat film, from a B-24 is rather difficult because you station yourself behind the waist gunner, the waist being in the right and left part of the aircraft, in the back. And you only have a small window to shoot out of. And there was no glass, it was all open. But you've only got a small field of view, if you will. So if a fighter comes in, you really have to try to pick him up real early because the closer he gets to you, the faster he is going to be. So if you can get a beat on him ... And those were always good shots. And the intelligence people liked it too, because they could tell, when looking at the film, how these guys would press their attacks. Some would be aggressive. Some would be a little cautious. But they like to know that because from that, they could tell what strength the enemy had and whether they were using experienced pilots or they're using fanatics. And this all played out very well in the intelligence portion of flying combat and hitting targets.
The first couple of missions, it was just going through the motions. I got what they wanted, the bombs landed, and the whole thing. But then I said, "There's got to be more to it than that." So then I would really try to get something interesting. And sometimes I'd get laughed at. They'd say, "What are you trying to do? Get hardy in combat." But it was just something that was there and struck your eye at the time. If you can be creative, why not? You're telling a story with a camera. And sure, the danger's there. But as I say, you're looking through that finder, and you're almost invincible. You don't realize that that separates ... Now, had this been a situation where I would've been on the ground, and I could see bodies getting blown up and really see the destruction, like some of the Signal Corps guys had, I don't know how I would've handled that because there's something about dropping bombs on houses and targets. You detach yourself from that. You make believe there's nobody down there. And then you just realize that, yes, there is. Not only is there somebody down there, but there's somebody up there too. And the constant fighter attacks, they would bring you back to reality real fast.
Later on, some friends of mine that were Signal Corps fellows, when we exchanged stories ... And some of the stories they tell are a lot different from the stories I tell. And yet, we were both after the same thing. On the ground, with a Signal Corps cameraman or an army photographer, that's covering a battle, where you can see him and you can see the sniper, or the tank, or whatever it is that you're shooting, it's a little different. You see, there's an immediacy there. But with us, we would hope for the action. And then hopefully, when it got back, it made some sense to the people who were looking at it.
There's more contact on the ground. Plus the fact that you're always reminded of the dead and the wounded because way after a battle, there's always got to be dead and wounded. But up in the air, if a man gets hit on the crew, well, he got hit and that's bad. And you try to cover that. And hopefully, that's all that happens up there. Then you start to get scared. That bring you back to reality, when you see somebody laying on the ground there with his Mae West shot away and blood all over the place.
I don't think I would be taking the same chances now as I did then. I think being young has a lot to do with it. You’re more, I don't want to use the word courageous, because that sounds like you're patting yourself on the back. But you took more chances because you really wanted to get something a little special and a little extra.
I had to bail out once. We were shot up, and the hydraulics was shot away. And the pilot said, "I'm going to bring in as close as I could to the beach," I bailed out. And luckily, we weren't even a mile or so off. And we got picked up right away. But now had that been ... Happened over the target, getting picked up in such a large vast ocean was very ... That's the thing I really got ... Really worried me because If I got shot down and I had to bail out, and I'm in the ocean, who would come and pick me up?
They did have good rescue facilities, I'll say that, but that's a big ocean. But they made some remarkable rescues, guys that have been in their dinghies for 15, 20, 25 days. But we don't know about the ones that didn't make it. We hear the ones that did make it. So that was the only thing that frightened me. Luckily, when I did have to bail out, it wasn't too far off shore, so I didn't have too much time in the water. Matter of fact, we got picked up real fast.
I was very lucky. I never got hit. I came close. People around me got hit. And when you put that camera down, and you're suddenly faced with the stark reality of combat, and you see that guy lying on the ground, they hurt, then it sinks in. And it sinks in all the way till you get back to the base. Especially if the aircraft is shot up, then you got to face that. You say, "Will we make it back?"
See, the fellas on the ground don't have to worry about that because they just roll over and get on out of the foxhole and walk to the next point. But in the air, it's a little different. An airplane is shot up, the thing you got to sweat out is can the pilot bring it back? You're fighting the elements there. There's no place to hide in an aircraft, not when you got ack-ack firing at you and aggressive fanatic fighters trying to make you another statistic. It's entirely different, but dangerous on both ends.
You don't know who's shooting at you. You hear over the intercom, "We're running into flak," and right away you try to trace down to the ground if you're low enough to see where that's coming from. But you're up there, everybody's shooting at you. That was the bad thing about a shipping strike. They were dangerous because you'd come in out of the sky and you'd be the target. And depending on how many guns they had on the boat that you were after, everything was shooting at you. They saw you, and everything was coming up at you. And I got to tell you, the guy that I really admired was the pilot who had to fly into that stuff. At least we saw the guy that- second-hand as we trailed by.
We had one fellow in the office, his name is John Hubbard. He was a Staff Sergeant. And he had quite a few missions. And this one morning, somebody was supposed to ... I don't quite know how it goes. I was not personally involved, but John said, "I'll take this mission." And I'm trying to think of who it might have been. And anyhow, it was one of those cases where he took the mission. And on takeoff, with a full load of bombs and gas, he blew up the end of the runway. And in a small unit like that, it really hits home.
There's another thing too, with the boys on the ground. They moved around, so they didn't have that attachment to one group. But in the air, you all became part of a crew and part of a family. And especially in our Combat Camera Units, we had very few ... I think we had 11 men on flying status, flying combat. And we had to service a whole 13th Air Force. Those units were not very big. They came out of the First Motion Picture Unit.
When I got out of the service the first time, I was an inactive reserve. And on the same set of orders, they put me from inactive reserve to active reserve to active duty, paragraph one, two, and three, because they really needed combat cameramen, World War II guys, because, I guess, the action over there was just ... They didn't have any trained personnel. So they recall me back, and I was stationed on the West Coast. Then I got a call one morning that we were going to do some air to air refueling of the 1st Tactical Fighter Squadron, to be gassed, fueled in the air, while on the way to a combat zone. And the man who ran that was a fellow named Colonel Sheller. And they were Republican. I'm trying to think of the aircraft. They were like FAEs. They were Republic aircraft. And every place that I went and landed, I was in a tanker. Every place I went, I had a set of orders, ordering me on for another 35, 45 days. As a result, I was getting closer and closer. I got so close that I wound up in Korea, at an Air Force installation there. And at that time, the fighter pilots were having problems hitting ground targets. So what they would do is they would take a pilot out of a Fighter Squadron and put him on ground duty, and put him up in a forward area as an observer. Then him and his pilot jargon could get the pilots to come in. He'd say the speed, the heading. And he would give them a good critique on whether they were hitting the targets with napalm. This was ... And we did that story. And that got pretty dangerous because when you open a forward area like that, that means people can shoot at you. So there's a classic example, going from the Air Corps back to the infantry. Though, I guess it's dangerous whichever way you look at it. But that was an interesting story. And we had quite a few airdrops too, that ... Over enemy territory.
The Japanese were great at camouflaging. And this target at Balikpapan, you come in off the beach, off the water, and everything was set right in front of you, all the refineries. And there were a lot of gunner placements there. And you could never find out where they were because in black and white film, all you see is a flash. So intelligence wanted to know where these guns are, and how big they were. And the only way to do that was to shoot color film. And from the muzzle flashes, you could see the length of the muzzle flash. And whatever way they could do it, they could decipher or figure out what kind of a gun it was and where it was. And a lot of times that worked because a lot of times they didn't bother changing gun positions. So once they got it processed, they would look at it immediately.
Now, this stuff was all done overseas and it was done for intelligence purposes. And that's what made this very interesting. Plus the fact that we were shooting color. But it was very dangerous because you'd have to go in with the lead ship and have everybody firing at you. And there we would mount cameras too. And we'd take that film, bring it back. And immediately, they would evaluate it. And on the strength ... Or the information they got from that film, they would plan the next day's strike so they could get those guns before they moved them. But to me, that was a very dangerous situation. But I was thrilled with it because it was a chance to shoot color. And I was one of the few people in the Air Force that shot color in combat. 35 millimeter color. I think they shot a lot of 16 in Europe, I'm not sure. But for our unit, we shot all black and white.
First of all, we had different uniforms. In 1947, they changed from the all brown to the blue. But that didn't really mean anything because they were so under-supplied and under-stocked that I was still wearing flight clothes from some guy that had worn them in the 8th Air Force in England. They just never got around to us. And we were a rag tag bunch. It was different in a sense that ... The equipment was the same. We used the same cameras. The enemy was different. The enemy was more of a ground operation there. With the B-29s, out of Japan, they were sort of limited in what they could do. And it was harder to shoot fighter strikes because they were using MiGs. And that was almost twice the speed that the Japanese Zeros came in at, so that made your job even more difficult. Plus the fact that you were shooting out of a bubble, and you were shooting from ... Man, the guns from the inside was a little different. A little larger aircraft, you could move around a little bit more. But shooting out of a B-29 was very difficult, for me, because you didn't have much of a shooting area. With the B-24, you opened up that waist window, and boy, you had a real almost 18 x 24 opening there. And you could really have a lot of peripheral vision. So we relied on a lot of mounted cameras to get the bomb strikes there. And hopefully, with a small handheld camera, we could get ... A head-on strike was very difficult. They'd come right at you, even in the nose, which was a good area to shoot out of because it was all, a lot of plexiglass up front. And you could see these fighters coming in. But when it came by at jet speed, it was very difficult because they came in real fast, and firing very heavy ammunition at you too.
I think I was more frightened in my short tour in Korea than I was in the long tour I had in the Pacific. I was in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. And to me, the war in Korea took on a different meaning because when I got there in '53, it was, we weren't doing too good. Morale was not that good. It was a different war. And having been in both of them, I can definitely say that the morale ... Even though I think they ... Well, there was a purpose there in the WWII. Good guy, bad guy. It was simple as that. In the Korea, forgive me getting political, we weren't sure. We weren't sure. And then when the Chinese jumped in on it, that gave us a little incentive because then we knew we had a job on our hands.
I noticed the morale, different. And I don't want to go into it now, but Vietnam, forget about it. Vietnam was ...
You weren't in Vietnam, were you?
I was there as a civilian.
My god Joe, you’ve been everywhere?
Well, not quite. I went there ... We were there to break a story on ... I was working for ABC News. We were there to break a story on the Golden Triangle, the Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. There were the three borders up there where there was supposed to be having shipments of drugs. But we never did get to complete the story.
Well, I would be with combat camera guys. Coming off a mission, I would be curious to know how they ... Both civilian, mostly military though, because I was always attuned to the military. Even though I was a civilian at the time, having been a military combat cameraman, I had an affinity for these guys. And I would ask them questions because of course in Vietnam I was about 20, 22 years older. And I was just curious to know, "What were the problems you had? Yeah, well, I did this. Oh, yeah. We had that." And the problems were still there, but the morale was not there though. I could see the decline of the morale from WWII, the good war, if you will. Then Korea, which was the question mark. And then Vietnam, there was different purpose altogether.
In WWII, there was definite sides. And that gave you an incentive and gave you the morale and the esprit de corps and the professionalism, if you will, to return a good job. That feeling was not all there during the Korean thing. There were certain elements missing. I don't know what it was. It was almost like a cloak around you. You never had that same ambiance that you did in WWII. Come back from a mission and you'd have a cold beer waiting for you. And there'd be sort of a sense of accomplishment. I never experienced that in Korea. But then again, I didn't fly that much with the same crews all the time, so I don't know.
That was Staff Sergeant Joe Longo.
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