Whether soaring at 30,000 feet or ‘dicing’ on the deck, the 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group got the pictures Allied planners needed.
Compared with fighter jocks and bomber crews, pilots of the photoreconnaissance squadrons were among the unsung heroes of World War II. They flew below the radar, both literally and figuratively. One such American unit, the Ninth Air Force’s 10th Photo Recon – naissance Group, served as the “eyes of the Army” in Europe, flying some of the war’s most dangerous missions. My unit, the 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS), was one of six squadrons in the group. In the spring of 1944 we were tasked with a particularly important mission: photographing the beaches of Normandy prior to the D-Day invasion.
The group’s mount of choice was the Lockheed F-5, a stripped-down version of the P-38 equipped with cameras instead of guns. Flying at wave-top level above the English Channel in order to slip un – der German radar, the F-5 pilots photographed Normandy’s beaches at an altitude between 15 and 50 feet and an average speed of 350 knots. These low-altitude sorties, which the pilots likened to the roll of dice at a gambling table, were called “dicing” missions. One never knew how they would turn out.
Our commanding officer, Colonel W. Donn Hayes, wrote in his journal: “A total of eleven low-level ‘dicing’ missions were flown by the 10th PR Group over occupied Europe’s beaches from May 6 through May 20, 1944. The detail of photos taken on these missions was such that, in the two weeks prior to the invasion, a scale model of Omaha Beach was built, complete with natural features of the beach trees, houses and other buildings, obstacles built by the Germans, as well as other enemy installations known to exist at the time. Along with low and high altitude photography, the area was studied and memorized by the Combat Engineers charged with the task of clearing the obstacles for the landing craft and invasion forces that would follow.”
In order to minimize the chances of discovery, the F-5s flew these missions alone and unescorted. The pilots learned how dangerous it was to undertake a mission with more than one plane when they attempted a sortie with 12 F-5s. The Germans quickly recognized the P-38’s distinctive silhouette and opened up with a furious barrage of anti-aircraft artillery.
Colonel Hayes described the first dicing mission, flown by 1st Lt. Albert Lanker of the 31st PRS on the morning of May 6: “Lanker flew from Chalgrove [a U.S. Army Air Forces base near Oxford, England] to the other side of the Channel at the village of Berques-sur-Mer. Low tide made it possible for him to fly fifteen feet above the waves. Reaching the beach, he turned around a large sand dune to lessen his chances of being hit while turning. His photos later showed this dune to be an enemy gun position. Other photos in the run showed gun emplacements in the cliffs, details of beach obstacles and weak spots within the defenses.
“Racing just above the beaches, cameras on runaway, he encountered five groups of men at work on beach defenses. In each case he headed straight for the group just to watch them scatter and roll. He said they were completely surprised and didn’t see him until he was almost on top of them. He was fired upon repeatedly at point blank range by riflemen but was not hit. They didn’t realize his plane had no guns and didn’t even dream he was using a camera to photograph the terrain. Then he scaled the cliff at the end of his photo run, cleared the top by about six feet and returned safely to Chalgrove.”
During the second dicing mission, Lieutenant Allen R. Keith of the 34th PRS collided with a seagull, which shattered the glass of his windscreen and struck the bulletproof glass that had been installed behind it at the lastminute suggestion of assistant crew chief Lee Weigand. “The glass was covered with blood, swirling feathers and bird parts,” Hayes related. “It only took a couple of seconds to wipe the blood off his goggles, during which time Lieutenant Keith maintained control of his plane and returned with photos showing wood and concrete posts topped with teller mines connected with trip wires. They also showed gun positions located in the sides of cliffs and weak spots within the defenses.”
When Lieutenant Garland A. York returned from his dicing mission it was found that he had photographed the exact section of the Normandy beaches upon which the American forces would land. “He had photographed all of Omaha and most of Utah beaches,” wrote Hayes. “His photos showed the cliffside gun positions, defensive weak spots and obstacles placed so that any landing craft would be stopped within the killing zone of defensive German machine gun emplacements and steel hedgehogs as infantry stoppers.”
Lieutenant York’s May 20 dicing mission would be the last of the low-level flights; the rest of the photorecon missions were flown at altitudes ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 feet. For its performance in carrying out the dicing sorties, the 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation.
“Even though the ‘dicing’ missions were the most spectacular of our operations,” said Hayes, “I believe the reconnaissance supporting the Ninth Air Force Inter – diction Invasion Program…was the real bread and butter operation of the 34th. By constantly cutting all bridges and roads leading to and on the Seine and Loire rivers, the Allies were able to keep the Germans segregated on one battlefield.”
The pilots of the 10th Group learned from their fellow photorecon pilots in the Eighth Air Force and the Royal Air Force “to get the pix home, fly above the ‘ack-ack’ [normally about 30,000 feet] and whenever possible stay either above or below the contrail level so as to avoid being spotted by the enemy,” wrote Hayes in April 1944. “Much knowledge was gained from the British. They had the P-38 in combat before we did, and many of the techniques used in the RAF Spitfire PR squadrons contributed to the American training program.”
Since F-5 pilots flew unarmed and unescorted, they had to rely on the speed and maneuverability of their aircraft, their flying skills and their wits if they were intercepted. “Pilots who trained and served strictly as photo recon pilots were inclined to dive away from an aggressor or find cover in the clouds,” said Hayes. “Pilots coming into the unit who had prior experience as fighter pilots would often turn into the enemy, forcing a confrontation.” Most Germans had a healthy respect for the P-38’s nose-mounted armament, and would break off an attack rather than risk being shot down in a head-on gun duel. But the unarmed F-5s could only get away with this tactic once or twice.
Another evasion tactic relied on the combination of stability and maneuverability conferred by the twin-engine F-5’s counterrotating props. Hayes explained: “If a situation developed, the pilot would attempt to lead the enemy to a lower altitude, then bank severely to the right at treetop level. Ultimately, during the pursuit of the F-5, the torque from the single engine of the aggressor plane would force it to snap roll into the ground, eliminating the problem for the photo pilot. “In short,” summed up Hayes, “the performance of Lockheed’s Lightning allowed unarmed photo recon pilots to get out of trouble faster than they could get into it.”
Colonel Charles Hoy, who joined the 34th PRS as a replacement pilot, described his indoctrination into the group: “We never knew why we were drafted out of fighters into photo. Actually, with a promise that we’d get back into fighters soon! But we never looked back. Seeing our mission as ‘Photo Joes’ got in your blood quickly when you understood the mission and could visualize the results. I’d honestly never even heard of photo reconnaissance…much less expected to enter the war as a singleton. I thought I’d be a wingman for someone for a while. To suddenly be the navigator, the photo operator and alone…was mind-boggling.
“Donn [Hayes] had me go to the photo lab after my first mission and follow my film. I’d never seen a photo lab. But there was an Army brigadier general and British air vice marshal looking at the wet negatives, then laying on missions from a field telephone. Wow!”
The 34th PRS was a completely self-contained unit that traveled ahead of the troops. In addition to the pilots, the squadron included the Photo Laboratory, my section, consisting of 70 men who developed the film removed from the planes by Camera Repair. The film was then delivered to Plotting. Plotters were expected to determine where the pilots had taken the photos and outline that coverage on a map. They then sent their material to Photo Interpretation/Intelligence, which studied sorties covering specific areas so that positive targets could be identified. After carefully examining the photos to determine target condition, activities in the vicinity, etc., they were then sent on to the brass. Communications, Engineering, Head – quarters, Medics, Quartermaster Supply, Transportation and Personal Equipment (parachutes) made up the rest of the outfit.
The Photo Lab men sometimes worked three shifts, 24 hours a day, making prints for an entity dubbed the “Blue Train.” This was a hushhush operation that collected the output of all six photorecon squadrons, collating them for General Staff intelligence purposes. In those days before computers or digital cameras, one of the Photo Lab’s most outstanding accomplishments was to furnish 200,000 prints, made in three eight-hour shifts, to Photo Intelligence. That all-out effort was necessary because General George S. Patton’s Third Army was moving so fast.
Two other Photo Lab men, commercial artists Joseph Adams and William Walker, numbered and dated each negative by hand with the help of Charles Wernicke. Joe Adams also did the artwork and cartoons for the squadron newspaper, Monkey Chatter, and Bill Walker created the 34th PRS shield for a Christmas card sent out by the members of the squadron in 1944. Adams designed the squadron’s official patch, showing the 34th pilots’ mascot, a monkey named Moose, and an aerial camera superimposed on an F-5.
The Ground Camera crew, an adjunct of the Photo Lab, consisted of Ben Rosen, Jack Quinn and me. In addition to our other duties, Rosen and I—commercial photographers in civilian life—took pictures of the pilots and other squadron members, shot accident record photos and documented public relations events.
Furth, Germany, was the squadron’s last base before most of the men were sent home. Even after Germany surrendered, the 34th PRS remained busy collecting previously unavailable photos of Iron Curtain countries showing centers of command, control and communication.
In September 1945, the Army Air Forces public relations department organized an exhibit under the Eiffel Tower featuring all the aircraft that had contributed to the Allied victory in Europe. Among the displays was an F-5 aerial camera installation. The sign above the 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group’s exhibit read Les Yeux Des L’Armées (The Eyes of the Army).
Roy Teifeld began his photographic career in 1941 as a 17-year-old apprentice with Chicago’s Kauffman-Fabry firm. Bernice Crown Teifeld has been a freelance writer since 1972. Further reading: Aerial Recon – naissance: The 10th Photo Recon Group in World War II and Patton’s Eyes in the Sky, both by Tom Ivie.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.