Long ago, I inherited a box of faded World War II images from my dad, an army photographer stationed in the Pacific. I knew nothing about them. My dad seldom talked of the war and died a broken man.
One day I received an email from 1st Lt Don Mittelstaedt (above), a WWII photographer who recognized the pictures. He hadn’t known my father, but they’d served in the same campaigns. Don recounted his amazing story over several emails.
I’d planned to edit it, but Don’s voice is so distinctive. Here’s his story, in his own words (I’ve supplied headings for easier reading):
On Being A War Photographer
“My unit, Combat Photo 10 was based in Noumea, New Caledonia, where the company set up the motion picture and still photo labs.
“Combat Unit 10 was assigned to cover the 1st Cavalry Division, landing at White Beach to capture the capitol city of Tacloban, the same place your father set up a processing lab in the ice plant.
“I am sure Glenn was in the crowd in front of the capitol building when MacArthur made a big speech, giving Leyte back to the Filipinos.
“I had to be OIC [officer in charge], leader, paymaster, record keeper, clerk, immunization recorder, father, mother, counselor, buddy, censor, and all things.
“In return, we all watched out for each other, dug fox holes or slit trenches to sleep in. I consulted with Division G-2 (intelligence on the battle plans), so I knew where to assign my photographers.
“All the 161st and 832nd photographers were very brave, and would really stick their necks out to get good pictures. Many times they would go places that I would not order them to go.
“If the situation was especially dangerous, I would assign the job to myself, mainly because I didn’t want them to be killed. I think most photo officers felt like I did, because we had more officers killed or wounded than our enlisted men.”
On The Post-War Years
“After World War II, I spent 50 years as a journalist and photographer, traveling the world.
“I even spent two years doing underwater photography in the Bering Sea, the Artic, with water temperatures in the low 30s F. Before retiring, I worked for Pan Am World Airways as Senior Photographer.
“I am still alive at 92, blind in one eye, have difficulty walking, and have relegated my photo work to snapshots of the family. I can’t do all the things I used to do. I am not really complaining. I accept that growing old is inevitable.
“Fortunately, I loved my work, regardless of how exhausted I could get. So many people spent a lifetime hating their work.
“Photographers are lucky. Every day, every photo challenges their skills.”
On Embracing New Technology
“I am so excited about digital photography, and the ability to print, email and share your pictures. I wish your father and I had been equipped with the modern digital camera during World War II instead of the heavy 4×5 Speed Graphics and heavy Eyemo 35mm motion picture cameras. We did great pictures, but we would have done even better with today’s equipment.
“A year ago, I knew nothing about computers, because my wife was a professional computer specialist. She did everything, but she was not a teacher. When she died, in 2009, she left me with a 14-inch monitor, which required me to put my nose on the monitor and cover the keyboard with my stomach.
“I was fortunate to have my Arizona County Aging people come to my aid with a low vision computer teacher. Instead of me attending community college adult classes, when I couldn’t drive at night, I had my own tutor beside me.
“The first thing was for me to get a 32-inch monitor, and raise the font to 24 point. Now I can read from about 18 inches away, and don’t hide the keyboard!”
On Making A Documentary At 92
“Although I have been a professional journalist and photographer for more than 70 years, I’m also a late bloomer in taking on producing a documentary at my age. Turns out my tutor was a former Hollywood producer who retired to make documentaries.
“We have recently completed it, with my bobbing head doing narration!
“I have never before seen my head from so many angles, because it was always a full frontal view when I shaved. I won’t make apologies for how I look now, so everyone will have to accept that I am an ‘old geezer.’
“We are seeking a distributor, such as the Smithsonian, History, Military, or other interested TV channel.
“It is the story of Combat Photo Unit 10, from a proud and prejudiced former leader. World War II affected the subsequent lives of all the photographers and their families, and will for generations.
“EVERY SURVIVOR was mentally wounded. Most veterans would not talk about their experiences until their senior years, and so their stories are lost to their children.
“We know your father was sensitive and suffered more than you could suspect, but you inherited a similar sensitivity and creativity. I am pleased you carry the torch forward, and that you are breaking into the writing field. I checked out your blog and admire what you are doing.
“Keep it up for your father’s memory and mine. And as you yourself wrote, ‘It takes trials, errors and failures to ultimately achieve success’! Keep on achieving! I am rooting for you!
“Your father’s name is listed in the trailer with all the other officers and enlisted photographers. It is my hope that the younger generations will appreciate the sacrifices made to save this country, and to honor the dead and those still alive.
“Even though we have only met online, I am proud of you!
“My sincere good wishes to you….Don Mittelstaedt.”
(Update: I’m so heartbroken to report that Don passed away on his 94th birthday — August 3, 2013.)