Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scenes of yesteryear: Upside down over the Pacific

By John Russell 

Every once in a while I find myself thinking about the “good old days” when I was a senior about to graduate from Menomonie High School in June 1943. I welcomed the event and was pleased that I had survived 12 years of attending school — from kindergarten to my senior year — in the same building.

I was ready for a change. Unfortunately that “change” didn’t happen the way I wanted. Two weeks after my graduation from MHS, I turned 18 and it didn’t take long before my life was changed forever.

During the three years before graduating from Menomonie High, I was working as a clerk at Lee’s Drug Store, a job that found me working many school nights. And I was still working at Lee’s after graduation. One of my jobs was to deliver refreshing sodas and sundaes to the members of the Dunn County Draft Board at its monthly meetings where the fate of local men and boys and their future military service in the war was decided.

I was always the guy who delivered the treats, and when I took the tray with the goodies to their meetings, I often added “Ha, ha, you can’t catch me!” before I quickly left to return to Lee’s.

In the Navy now

Well, you know the rest of the story! It didn’t take long after my 18th birthdway for the draft board to find me. Four months later I was saluting Navy officers I didn’t know, followed by my assignment as a Navy photographer. I served in that role in Washington, D.C., Pensacola, Fla., San Diego, Calif., and was actively involved in the Pacific Theater on three small aircraft carriers: the USS Breton, USS White Plains, and the USS Shipley Bay.

For the next two years, I took and processed photographs of naval operations. It was a good life, considering the serious life of World War II. I had a spacious office and a darkroom, the latter the site of two bunk beds to accommodate myself and another photographer. It was busy place where we processed all the film from the gun cameras on the fleet of the squadron’s fighting planes that flew from our carriers in such battles as Ishigahci, Sakashima, and Okinawa.

I never flew from our ship since the squadron on our ship had only room for the pilot, but in training I had many aerial trips flying in planes like the Dauntless pictured here. I was a photographer that flew in several Navy planes, and one of my favorites to fly in was the SBD Dauntless.


The only problem with this plane — and two or three of other planes I flew in — was that I was always behind the pilot and usually situated above the wing.

Since most of the subjects I was assigned to photograph from the my position on the plane was directly over the wing. To be able to “shoot” the action and avoid the problem of the wing being in the way, the pilot would flip the plane upside down to give me a full look at the subjects below.

To prevent falling out of the plane, I was held in place by a gunner’s belt. As you might expect, I did have an occasional problem.

One very memorable moment came while flying upside down. One of the two clips keeping me in the cockpit gave way — and I was left hanging with only one clip keeping from falling out of the plane. I never wore a parachute on these occasions because of the difficulty of holding the large camera required to take the needed photographs.

All of this happened more than 70 years ago. I’m happy to report that I have been graced with many more years living a much less dangerous life in 2016.


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