Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

They Also Served: A Soldier's Pacific Theater Album, World War II

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

They Also Served: A Soldier's Pacific Theater Album, World War II

Article excerpt

BORN IN 1920 IN ELGIN, Oregon, photographer Fred Hill grew up in a family that loved cameras, darkrooms, and black-and-white prints. His grandfather had worked with glass-plate negatives, and he had taught Fred's mother how to develop and print her own pictures. By the time Fred turned eleven, his father Lynn, who ran the local hardware store, and his mother Etha, a teacher and homemaker, had cleared a space in their cellar, and their boy was making contact prints. Down in that darkroom one day, Fred mustered the courage to develop his first roll of personal film, and that process launched his seventy-year quest for memorable, useful, and beautiful images. (1)

Attending Eastern Oregon University in La Grande between 1938 and 1940, the novice photographer carried his camera everywhere. During the summer of 1940, Hill met and befriended Minor White--later an internationally famous fine-art photographer--who was then teaching his first photography classes at the Works Progress Administration Art Center in La Grande. Using the Hill family car, White and Hill photographed northeast Oregon together--more as fellow freelance photographers than as teacher and student. After White left La Grande in November 1941, he continued to correspond with Etha Hill, Fred's mother, and in February 1945, the two young photographers met again on Mindoro, the Philippine island where now Sargeant White was serving in Army 24th Infantry Intelligence and Sargeant Hill was working in 5th Air Force Photo Reconnaissance. At their February 1945 meeting, they discussed photography, took photographs of orchids, and talked about enrolling in a California art school after the war. (2)

In July 1940, Hill joined the 41st Division National Guard unit in La Grande. Once a week, his infantry unit drilled at the armory for three hours until, on September 16, 1940, everything changed. National Guard units were federalized, and Private Hill became a full-time soldier in the U.S. Army. Though he insisted he was a photographer, the army placed Hill in an infantry mortar squad and shipped him to Fort Lewis, Washington, for training. After asserting for fifteen months that he was, in fact, a photographer, in November 1941, a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the army finally transferred Hill to the new Oregon National Guard 123rd Observation Squadron at the fort's Gray Airfield. (3)

In May 1942, Hill married his sweetheart Martha Simonson at her parents' home in Tacoma. For the next seven months, he flew as an observer on coastal submarine patrol, photographed the camouflage of Coast Guard units, worked in various offices, and--as always--recorded the world around him with his camera. In December, Private Hill was transferred to abase in Salinas, California, where the army assigned him to the 17th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 5th Air Force. Eventually, the squadron got its orders, and the men moved to training bases in Louisiana and Mississippi.

On October 6, 1943, they boarded the SS General John Pope in Newport News, Virginia, and sailed for the South Pacific front. For some time, official opinion had generally agreed that "the military organization with the most efficient photographic reconnaissance would win the war." (4)

Fred Hill would contribute to that victory.

Hill served as an aerial photo reconnaissance lab chief in the Pacific Theater. Like the men in other such squadrons, he and his crew set up and operated darkrooms to process the photographs brought back by squadron planes that flew over Japanese-held territory. Sometimes, if American anti-aircraft guns fired three red warning flares over their tents, they ran for their foxholes, but if these darkroom soldiers were to provide critical target and topographic photographs to commanders and pilots, they had to be removed from combat.

Like thousands of other support troops who survived World War II, Sgt. Fred Hill never fired a shot in combat. …

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