Navy Ends Combat Camera Units

Oct 7, 2018
Originally published on October 7, 2018 11:43 am
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

You may never have heard of the Navy's Combat Camera unit, but you've probably seen their images. Since World War II, its photographers and videographers have documented the work of the Navy under the most difficult conditions imaginable. But now their work has come to an end, as Steve Walsh of member station KPBS reports from San Diego.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Kurt Kinnamon joined Navy Combat Camera in 1958 and retired in 1985. He continued working as a volunteer at the West Coast unit on Naval Air Station North Island. They dedicated the building to him last year, but his unit is shutting down.

KURT KINNAMON: I thought it was B.S. I mean, you know?

WALSH: As he thumbs through his scrapbook, Kinnamon remembers setting up a photo lab in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Other photographers of his generation waded through the jungle with the Marines and shot the last helicopters arriving on an aircraft carrier after Saigon fell - anonymous cameramen capturing history.

KINNAMON: It's mostly documentary to complete the job and have it satisfy whomever it was made for, OK? That's a reward in itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For week after vicious week, the most devastating air-sea battle of all time wore on.

WALSH: The kind of dangerous, in-your-face shooting made Combat Camera famous during World War II. Their footage made it into Hollywood films like this one from the Battle of Okinawa.

DOUG HOUSER: When you look at the history of accomplishments and the things we've achieved over the years.

WALSH: Commander Doug Hauser is still trying to wrap his head around being the last commander of Naval Combat Camera. Last year, the Navy cut the budget by 60 percent. They weren't surprised when the Navy announced that they will end both of its Combat Camera units effective October 1

HOUSER: I'd like to look at some of the old images and the things and - because there's a story behind each photographer that took that image.

WALSH: Each service has its own combat camera. The Army, Air Force and Marines are keeping theirs. Houser says what the Navy loses are sailors trained to embed with units, like when NASA recently asked them to document tests of the Orion spacecraft in the waters off of Southern California.

HOUSER: They came to us looking for the high-end photographer they can get out there, embed with the folks that are on those rib boats. That's what sets us apart and we become part of what they're trying to achieve in the mission.

(CROSSTALK)

WALSH: Mass Communications Spc. 1st Class Arthurgwain Marquez (ph) is one of Combat Camera's last divers. He assembles his underwater camera in the dive locker in San Diego while contemplating the future.

ARTHURGWAIN MARQUEZ: It's not good. A lot of people hit me up, asking, how do I become an underwater photographer? I'll tell them, like, our training pipelines and everything. But, unfortunately, with closedown of the command, you know, it's not going to be a thing anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In those years when the storm clouds of war were brewing on the horizon of history, these combat men and women stood the watch.

WALSH: At a dissolution ceremony for Fleet Combat Camera in San Diego, the Navy's Vice Chief of Information Rear Adm. Robert Durand said the Navy is still deciding how to tackle some of the most hazardous assignments, like deploying with Navy SEALs, now that Combat Camera is gone.

ROBERT DURAND: Combat Camera folks were just exquisitely talented, exquisitely trained. And I think like anyone else, if I had my way, I'd have 10 times more of them. But when you have to face hard decisions, you have to figure out how you can do things with fewer people.

WALSH: Combat Camera's final budget was &2.5 million, a drop in the bucket for the Navy. A Pentagon spokesperson says the Navy wants to increase efficiency. Navy Public Affairs will continue to shoot events. Some sailors will be asked to record themselves with a GoPro. But Combat Camera's role in Navy history is over. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.