Veteran Don Mittelstaedt: Still Blooming at 92!

For Veteran’s Day, I have a special tale from the Interwebs.

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.

Then last year Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks debuted their HBO miniseries The PacificIt inspired me to scan the images to a website, The Pacific War Photographs of Pfc Glenn W. Eve.

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 Photo Unit 10
Combat Photo Unit 10, with Don at far right

“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

Don as an underwater photographer
Don as an underwater photographer in the Artic, 1969-71

“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.

Don as a filmmaker at 92, with his big screen!
Don as a filmmaker at 92, with his big screen (where there’s a will, there’s a way!)

“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.)

22 Responses

  1. Beverly Bukkhegyi
    | Reply

    Hello, This is the best one yet! I loved it and plan to forward it to my friends at the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, FL. Keep up the good work and cheers to Don for a well written and expressed comment. Bev B.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Beverly. Don sent me a Halloween card and I wrote him at the beginning of the week to let him know I was publishing this. I was curious to see if he’d gotten distribution for his documentary yet. I haven’t heard back from him.

      Please do forward this. If Don hasn’t gotten distribution, I plan to marshall the Interwebs to help him! I’ll let you know.

  2. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Great story Debra and what a great guy, “The Pacific” was on TV last year sometime, fine viewing. Thank you for sharing this important piece of personal history.
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, David! Don is truly an inspiring man and I’m proud to know him.

  3. asrai devin
    | Reply

    Wow. My husband would love to see his documentry. We enjoyed both Band of Brothers and the Pacific.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Asrai. I write an update when I find out about the documentary’s status.

  4. David Goldman
    | Reply

    WOW! That is an amazing story! The power of the Internet! For you to have been able to be in contact with this man is truly a modern miracle. An incredible story, two incredible men, and one incredibly inspiring blog post.
    Looking forward to more.
    David Goldman

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, David. It is a great story of the power of the Internet. I didn’t publish everything, because I try to stay to around 1000 words. But Don learned how to scan all his photos in HD for the film. It must have taken months, since I did the same for my dad’s. That’s such a labor of love and such a huge accomplishment. Hope to hear from him soon.

  5. Michael Walden
    | Reply

    Amazing story! Thank you for this 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Michael. I feel incredibly honored to know Don.

  6. Dave Leggett
    | Reply

    Brilliant post Deb.
    I really enjoyed reading it; this one is particularly special as it’s close to home with the work your father did.
    Don’s input was great too and he sounds like a great guy.
    I’m really glad your were able to exchange correspondence with Don and have direct input for your latest article.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Love
    Dave

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, sweetie! He’s a true hero and role model for us all.

  7. Teresa
    | Reply

    This is really awesome. My friend had a similar experience to yours — her father gave her several binders of letters he wrote while serving in WWII. She wrote a memoir based on it. While writing the memoir she learned he was a top-secret code-breaker! I’m sending her to your site to read this, very cool!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks for stopping by, Teresa! I saw your ninja kitten the other day. Loved him. Did you send that link? I’d be very interested: elle.b (at) laterbloomer.com. Thanks!

  8. Marianne
    | Reply

    This post is very special, Debra. Thanks for sharing!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      He’s a very special guy. I just got an e-card from him and he’s getting ready to preview his documentary at the local army base. At 92, he’s my role model. Thanks for stopping by, Marianne!

  9. Roxana (Swartz) Argast
    | Reply

    I found this story about Don when I did a Google search on him for my father. My Dad is also 92 and was a classmate of Don’s at Journalism School in Missoula in the early 40s. I think they’ve kept in touch (more or less) ever since but my Dad said he had not heard from Don this year and wondered if he was all right. I was happy to report that Don is alive and well. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve printed your story about Don to send to my Dad.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      That’s so fantastic, Roxana! I heard from Don just before the Holidays and have been meaning to publish an update about his documentary. Hope your dad enjoys the article.

  10. Don Mittelstaedt
    | Reply

    To Roxana (Swartz) Argast………I am constantly amazed at the power and magic of the internet. I must thank Debra Eve’s blog for finding several lost friends, and I am so glad you found me. I have received a grand letter from your father, Bill, which I am overdue in answering. I have had a flurry of physical aliments in the last month requiring too many visits to the doctors, so my correspondence is behind schedule.
    Bill and I were close friends and classmates at the University of Montana, Theta Chi fraternity brothers, as well as fellow Sigma Delta Chi members (the national professional journalism society).
    I visited Bill at Boeing Field south of Seattle in late 1945, where he was stationed as an Air Corps Liaison officer. I have not seen him since, and have not met your mother, Deloris, nor
    you, but Bill and I have kept in touch .
    I remember my Seattle visit, because Bill took me for a ride over Pugit Sound in an Air Corps PT-6 plane…a faster plane than I was used to. He let me take over the controls, which were very sensitive. A tiny wiggle on the joy stick would result in a snap roll or a loop. I proceeded to make an unintentional airshow for the folks on the ships below, crossing Pugit Sound. My nose would start to climb and I would over correct into a dive, then over correct again into a stall. I was used to little L-4 and L-5, or biplanes, and this Pursuit plane had far more power and speed than I could control. The folks below must have thought I was on a roller coaster, but I was just trying to keep the plane in the sky. Bill took over and his skill brought us safely to earth again That was 67 years ago.
    A story I must share. I am sure you will forgive your father for having girl friends before he chose Deloris. Anyway, Bill borrrowed my kayak to take Georgia Roosevelt
    for a ride on the Clarks Fork River in Montana. I had named my kayak “Don Juan”, hoping it might help me get dates, and Bill tought it might work for him, also.
    Unfortunately they capsized in the rapids, and Bill, instead of saving my kayak, rescued Georgia. I thought Bill had his priorities backwards. because my kayak was swept off to an inglorias and unknown destination, while Bill could have found a new girl. I am only kidding, because Georgia was worth rescuing.

    Thank you, Debra, for your
    blog connecting people again. Who knows how many skeletons will pop up out of my past. Can empty bones rattle around on the internet?

  11. Don Mittelstaedt
    | Reply

    Hi Debra…Thank you for your blog, which has reconnected me with friends of long ago. I tried to send a reply to Roxana (Swartz) Argast, but I don’t think it got out of my computer, and I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have her email address. I did receive a grand letter from her father after she found me at Late Bloomers. I hope you realize what a great thing you are doing on the web, and with your other writing and endeaverors. I am very proud to have you for a friend. Don

  12. Anita
    | Reply

    I’m sad to report that Don passed away yesterday on his 94th birthday. He was an amazing man whom I loved dearly. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    ~ Don’s granddaughter, Anita

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Anita, thank you for letting me know. Words cannot express how sad I am.

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