Introduction to his book, The Victory Era in Color. Rare color photographs of the World War II years.
(Jeff tells us on p 5 of Victory Era that this is the largest collection of 1940s color in the world.)
World War II must have been fought in black and white...at least to judge by the photos Americans have seen for the past 50 years. Newsreel footage and history books have trained the postwar generation to think of the 20th century's pivotal event in shades of gray. That's too bad, because according to those who were there, the tanks, jeeps, air-craft and people in that war were the most colorful in history. The rare color photographs you'll see in this book offer proof of that.
My own impressions of the Second World War were molded by my father's Army Air Forces scrapbook. The photos he took in North Africa gave me a glimpse at the P-38s he and his friends flew while fighting a war far from home. When I was a youngster during the 1950s, I'd spend hours poring over those black-and-white glimpses into Dad's youth.
I found myself wondering what those black-and-white images would have looked like in real color. This interest was kindled by a single color slide.
Captain Erv Ethell, 39th Fighter Squadron, was sitting on the wing of his P-51D Mustang. Spread across the nose was my mother's name, with her portrait below.
I was around 10 years old when I first found this shot. Was that steely-eyed fighter pilot in the leather helmet really my dad? You mean World War II actually was fought in color? Dad had no idea where he'd gotten the slide, since he used black-and-white film. He must have grown tired of my badgering him about it.
I continued to look at that slide across the years, and as I started a career of writing books about aviation and World War II, I wanted to believe there was more vintage color to be found. But where was it?
During my first 10 years of book writing, I came to assume there wasn't much color out there. But every now and then a stray slide or two would show up, shared by a veteran from his personal photo collection. This teased me to dig deeper.
Strictly on a hunch, I started to ask for color photos whenever I wrote letters to veterans requesting information. This cracked the tap to a dribble, and a few dozen incredibly beautiful slides started to trickle in, mostly from personal collections.
It was always the same�a pilot here or a soldier there would have a few slides, never more than 10 or so, but they were something to see. I'd project them up on the wall and bask in the past coming alive.
Though it seemed impossible, I started to hatch the idea of a book made up of nothing but color photography from the World War II era. Historians told me that color images of those days just didn't exist.
I put increasing amounts of my own time and money into the quest for vintage color by writing more letters and making phone calls�mostly getting nowhere. I began to think maybe they were right.
Little by little, the slides kept dribbling in. This was maddening, since I had a gut feeling there had to be a waterfall dammed up behind this steadily dripping faucet. I felt as if I were onto an Indiana Jones adventure, and kept on digging.
Since color photography obviously did exist in the 1940s, I called the inventors of color film, Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. I was surprised to learn they had but one or two wartime color images in their entire archive.
That seemed impossible! But when I was put through to Phil Condax, senior curator, the story behind early color film unfolded.
In 1935, Eastman Kodak announced an entirely new 16mm movie film called Kodachrome. In September 1936, Kodachrome was made available in roll film, 35mm (18 exposures) and 828 (8 exposures, 28mm wide). It was sold with the amateur market in mind.
Therein lie the seeds for the scarcity of World War II color pictures in magazines and museum files. The pro photographers of the day used sheet film, 4" x 5" or larger, and considered the 35mm format a toy for the family snapshot taker.
By the early '40s, this technology had reached the hands of many enthusiastic amateurs and a few professionals who would soon be at war around the world with their rugged new cameras and color slide film. With-out knowing it, they'd become a small band of unheralded historians.
During the 1940s, Kodachrome was for sale, in apparently significant quantities, in camera shops and drug-stores. Its original 10 ASA film speed was considerably slower than most black-and-white film, but still fast enough to take short exposure snapshots in good light.
One bit inconvenience facing users of this new film was processing. According to Condax, by the time World War II started, Kodachrome was available in professional sheet film sizes, but Kodak's Rochester plant was the sole facility able to develop the film.
During many of the multiple processing steps, temperatures could not vary by more than plus or minus 1/10th of a degree. War photographers wanted their results instantly, so anything that couldn't be developed in a makeshift field darkroom was unacceptable.
What's more, Kodachrome was so sensitive to heat it couldn't be carted around in the field without concern. Most professionals couldn't live with that...but amateurs didn't give it a second thought.
My quest for color finally led me to 55th Fighter Group enlisted man Bob Sand in Bellingham, Washington. When I met Bob, the dam finally burst.
Bob went to war in England as a P-38 propeller specialist and P-51 crew chief. Arriving in 1943, he was so impressed with the rich, deep colors of the countryside that he wrote his parents, Oscar and Rosa Sand, asking them to send color film and a camera to shoot it. He wanted to capture what he was seeing.
Oscar crisscrossed their hometown until he found a camera store that sold Kodak Bantams from $125 down to $37...Oscar bought the cheapest one and sent it off to Bob.
A few weeks later, Oscar found two rolls of 828 Kodachrome and shipped them to England. Every few weeks for the duration, Bob would receive one or two rolls of Kodachrome from his dad or friends.
Bob wrote his parents on Thanksgiving 1943, "I've shot up one roll of film, and while this roll contains nothing spectacular, I hope it is the beginning of some-thing that may have a little interest later on." By the end of the war, Bob Sand had captured life on a wartime fighter base with over 430 full-color slides. He did it without the aid of a light meter or fancy equipment.
After finding Bob, I knew a color picture book was possible, but he was understandably gun-shy at loaning his treasure to a total stranger. He'd carefully archived the slides in glass mounts for over 45 years, storing them in wooden boxes away from climatic changes.
It took me 6 months to convince him to let me see them while we built a mutual relationship of trust based on our love of history. He knew what he had must be shared for posterity, so I wore him down until he relented. When I received his originals, removed them from the tiny wooden boxes and carefully viewed them, it felt as if I'd uncovered a treasure.
Meanwhile, my hundreds of letters to veterans began to bear fruit. The next mother lode came through Bob Kuhnert, 355th Fighter Group, who was in contact with Alexander "Cal" Sloan of Green Bay, Wisconsin, another enlisted man in love with photography.
Cal grew up with an artistic bent. Armed with a Zeiss Contax 35mm camera, one of the finest of the late '30s, Cal quickly established himself as a budding professional photographer.
With World War II upon him, Cal enlisted and shipped out to England with the 1066th Signal Company, then had his wife, Gertrude, send the Contax over. She bought what Kodachrome she could find in drugstores, one or two rolls at a time. Cal ended up with more than 200 images, each shot with careful precision using a Weston light meter.
"I had an eye for this," he recalls. "I wanted to shoot for the future, to create a record of what I was seeing." Cal sent me his originals without hesitation. Opening his box of slides was another archaeological experience.
Bill Skinner of Boonton, New Jersey worked for a camera store in 1938 when he got his first Kodak Bantam for $25. By the time he was flying Spitfires with the 31st Fighter Group in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, his mother had sent him a Bantam Special. When she could find it, she bought Kodachrome and shipped it off to him four or five rolls at a time.
Bill sent it home undeveloped with men rotating back to the States, so he didn't see the results until he returned himself. The slides surprised him. "If I'd known how good I was doing, I'd have taken more!"
His color record of life in the mud, sweat and sand of the Mediterranean looks as good today as it did then.
Fred Bamberger, Tamarac, Florida, discovered 35mm color for his Contax in 1936 when he was already being paid to shoot photos for Acme News Pictures. His shots of the Hindenburg disaster established his niche.
After joining the Army, he went through the service's first photo school for officers, became the base photo officer at Randolph Field, then went over-seas with Colonel Elliot Roosevelt's 90th Photo Recon Wing.
Serving as photo officer for the 12th Air Force in Italy, Fred had an unlimited pass to take his personal camera everywhere. He shot close to 1,500 color slides in his off-duty hours! I was dumb-founded during my first visit with Fred as we spent hours watching his slides.
A most exciting discovery was thousands of wartime color transparencies in the National Archives. Some of these pictures were well known, but I had a hunch there were more.
Through the generous permission of Betty Hill, chief of the Still Picture Branch, I began to dig with fellow historian Stan Piet and my daughter, Jennie. In a short time, hundreds of transparencies, misfiled in the wrong years, began to turn up. With the help of Archives research assistant Dale Connelly, we uncovered color photos virtually hidden for decades. Many of these historic pictures are shown here for the first time.
The images these historians and veterans have shared for this book are real, just as they were taken by the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in the middle of it all. These pictures have not been colorized by Ted Turner...there are no re-enactors dressed in period uniforms with props gathered from museums.
Their value to history is almost immeasurable, and the impact of finding the only known color images of this historic era was overwhelming to me.
In this collection are photos of the famed all-black 332nd Fighter Group, which fought the Germans and segregation...Bob Hope and Frances Langford entertaining the troops in 1943...FDR, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta...Mt. Vesuvius erupting in 1944...Women Airforce Service Pilots...and most all of it comes courtesy of the veterans who were there.
That these veterans trusted me to share their pictures in this book is an honor...and I hope it will change the perceptions of many. Please sit back and enjoy this rare color trip into the World War II years, the era of victory.