May is National Photography Month. It was officially recognized by Congress in 1987 as a month-long event, and the American Photography Association is one of the primary organizations continuing the tradition. Throughout the country, this month is marked by photography contests, festivals, exhibits, and other activities.
This month we are highlighting a special photography collection here at the Marshall Foundation: Howard Hammersley Photograph Collection.
Howard Hammersley entered the Army Air Corps in 1942 and graduated from its photo school. He served thirty-eight months in England, Africa, and Italy as the Chief Photo Officer of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF) from 1942-1945 and flew during 40 combat missions.
While serving with the MAAF, Hammersley was in charge of Combat Camera Units (CCU) in the 12th and 15th air forces and three men dedicated to still photography. Hammersley said: “My job was to see that the American public, through photographs, got an idea of what the airmen were doing to fight the war.” The CCU had been created because “war correspondents didn’t like flying.”
Hammersley mounted electronic cameras in fighter and bomber planes that would take pictures automatically for purposes of reconnaissance and accuracy of bombing. The large K-3B cameras could be mounted vertically at the back of the bomb bay doors to capture the release of bombs and the ground below. Handheld K-20 cameras were used on planes by the CCU.
Hammersley documented Operation Strangle, the precision bombing of middle Italy to cut off Nazi supply routes. “Our bombers had to operate with the skill of a surgeon to spare the treasures of art and history and religion in cities like Pisa, Sienna, and Florence.” He also photographed the bombing of Cassino and Rome, capturing images showing the differences between tactical and strategic bombing. Cassino’s famed Benedictine Abbey was destroyed while Rome’s cultural monuments were spared.
Hammersley had a staff of 32 who processed and developed reconnaissance pictures 24 hours a day. Photos of combat missions, people, and features photography were sent to a Hollywood Film Unit in California to be handled by the War Department.
Howard Hammersley founded the photography department at The Roanoke Times and worked as a photographer there until his retirement in 1980.
You can see some of his World War II combat photography in the newest exhibit From Machine to Man in the lower gallery of the Marshall Museum, Tuesday through Saturday 11 am to 4 pm.