US Signal Corps Photographers

 

The US Army had recognized the importance of having photographic and motion pictures coverage of their operations during WW1 but as WW2 broke out only a small number of men had been successfully trained for the role. By the end there were 15 signal photographic companies, 3 service battalions, and several thousand photographers and technicians.The US Army had recognized the importance of having photographic and motion pictures coverage of their operations during WW1 but as WW2 broke out only a small number of men had been successfully trained for the role. By the end there were 15 signal photographic companies, 3 service battalions, and several thousand photographers and technicians.

 

The problems faced in getting these companies organized were partly due to an extensive training program - they did the full basic as GIs then a 12 week combat photography course which involved long duration patrols, navigation, map and compass work, surviving away from support and logistics, assault courses carrying all their camera kit, all sorts of stuff; after which they formed into their teams and did a further 6 months as a team to really solidify the team spirit, before shipping. They also faced problems due to supply of equipment. At the start of the war there was no suitable contracts with manufacturers for equipment so individual commanders and units had to scour their local civilian suppliers of the right cameras. Military designed photographic equipment didn't make it into theatre until after the wars end for the most part - eg. the military OD7 version of the speed graphic camera only saw very limited use in the PTO towards the end of the war, and the specially designed Type 14 helmet that had a lifting visor for cine-cameramen only saw a limited release of 100 or so helmets so was very rarely seen if at all by most men.

 

The men of these companies were organised into seven man teams or detachments that were then allocated to units throughout the ETO. They typically comprised...

 

An Officer (usually 2LT)

2 x Stills Cameramen (carrying the 5 x 4 speed graphic)

2 x Cine Cameramen (carrying either the Bell and Howell eyemo 35mm cine camera or a 16mm alternative where 16mm was preferred)

2 x Driver

 

Transport for these teams was intended to be jeeps and trailers (for the huge amount of kit they carried per man) but supply problems of jeeps meant many units substituted one jeep for a GMC or WC - this jeep and truck arrangement ended up being the preferred combination in at least one company.  

During the time of Cobra in July 1944. The unit assigned to record the operation was Detachment 'OHIO' of the 165th Signal Photographic Company under 2nd Lt Witscher. Their mission was varied but intended to cover a wide range of activities. They were there to record the war for historical purposes as well as record the detailed day to day activities of the men fighting. They photographed destroyed or captured enemy equipment, as well as use or modification of allied equipment, for evaluation purposes. They photographed for intelligence gathering purposes for local theatre commanders, and then recorded combat and the aftermath of combat. Often they worked in response to directives from Washington about what kind of footage was needed or not needed for release to the public through various press offices.

 

In action they were completely autonomous from local command and often working ahead of main elements of any task force - a problem that led in several cases to camera teams arriving in a location prior to an allied ground attack and getting captured by the German forces and then subsequently liberated the same day. Casualty rates were also high amongst camera teams as 'getting the shot' was often not compatible with using cover effectively - watch any of the PTO footage by marine corps cameramen for graphic evidence of this. All the men carried a pass issued by SHAEF headquarters, which effectively functioned like a warrant card guaranteeing access to any areas of the theatre and any assistance needed in their job. Some infantry units were wary of the photo teams that they regarded as 'fire magnets' but the overall response was very good.

 

Uniform wise the detatchments mostly wore standard wool uniforms. Where they were attached to units they often reflected the units they were with at the time. eg. Detatchment P. 162nd were with the 37th ECB of the 5th ESB on D-day, so spent the first part of the Normandy campaign with the white helmet arcs and blue amphibious badges.

 

Detatchment ‘O’165th actually arrived in Normandy by parachute with PIR regiments of the 82nd so during the first part of Normandy they still wore jumpsuits - by the time they are reassigned to 2AD for Cobra there's no evidence at the moment that they still had these but we'll keep looking through the archives to confirm this or not. Initially they were all also armed with M1's but this changed to submachine guns and carbines fairly early on due to the practicalities of operating a camera with a rifle, and then by D-day they all had side arms except drivers.

 

As a group we are very much focused on the living history side of things. We only use period cameras correct for the unit and time we are portraying. We only shoot onto film stock and process the film ourselves. For 2AiE COBRA 2016, we'll have a full detatchment of seven men, and be carrying a lot of film. We'll see you all through a lens in July next year.

 

For more, see the US Signal Corps Photographers' Website 

 

 

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