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World War II: Interview with U.S. Navy Photographer Jack Stewart

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Frontline photography began during the Crimean War in 1854 and has proliferated — in quality as well as quantity — ever since. World War II left a vast trove of photographic documentation, ranging from snapshots in veterans' albums to award-winning images that continue to speak to generations. The principal producers of this pictoral record were civilian photojournalists, roving specialists from the different armed services and photographers permanently attached to a particular unit. Among the latter was Jack Stewart, one of 18 cameramen operating aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Essex between 1943 and 1945. In a recent interview for World War II Magazine, he described his experiences in the Pacific.

World War II: Tell us about your early years.

Stewart: I was born in Sylvania, Ga., on January 16, 1926. Then we moved to Fort Myers, Fla., but I kept coming back to Georgia every summer after that. I was a farmer. I picked cotton, ploughed, did all the farm chores and went to school in Florida.

WWII: Were you there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?

Stewart: Yes, and I reacted just like all the young kids — even though we were juniors in high school, we wanted to go to war. My brother and I both joined at the same time.

WWII: Why did you pick the Navy?

Stewart: Most of the fellows in that area chose the Navy for some reason. Just a few of my friends chose the Army, and one chose the Army Air Forces — he was shot down over Japan. I joined in August 1943, and was sworn in at Miami. I hoped my brother and I would be together, but we were not — he went to the Great Lakes, and I went to DeLand, Fla. I was telling my grandson I walked four miles to school in those days, and my feet always hurt. So I got into the Navy, and the guy measured my waist and then asked, 'What size shoes do you wear?' I said, '7 1/2.' He brought out a 7 1/2, and it didn't fit, so he measured my foot and it was 8 1/2. I had an 8 1/2 shoe from then on.

WWII: Was it a problem for you, training with all those men from all over the country?

Stewart: No, not really, because I played sports. It was easier to adapt with people, and being a country boy, I think you can talk to anybody. You just have that knack; you don't have a shyness about you. But basic training was brutal, because I was so young, and I had a baby look. If you looked tough they didn't beat on you, but if you looked young they'd beat the hell out of you. Where others would go through an obstacle course in boot camp, I had to go twice. And then I got on a barge with some older fellows, and they said, 'Jack, what you need to do is get some sort of trade going for yourself.' And I said, 'I don't know anything.' I was an amateur, I probably had an IQ of 70, because education wasn't the norm back in those days — you just wanted to survive and go to work. But they said that they were looking for photographers. So after boot camp I was transferred to Pensacola and went through a crash program on photography — stills, aerial cameras, development, movies and all that. Leif Erickson, the old movie star, he taught us movies. After that they decided that I could be an aerial photographer off a ship. I had a crash course in .30-caliber machine guns and the .45-caliber pistol. After that we took a bus to New Orleans and boarded a troop train…just converted cattle cars. Then we arrived at North Island, near San Diego, Calif. I think we stayed a couple of days getting our shots and things like that, and then were put on a small aircraft carrier.

WWII: You were going to Hawaii to join the fleet. How was the trip?

Stewart: Basically, most of us were sick, because going out there [to California] in that damn train, and then getting into the cold barracks at night, and nobody was taking care of you, you just got a whistle or something as you'd go to eat, then you were told to get shots, and I think some of the shots made us sick. I had a 102-degree fever and was so weak I couldn't pick up my bag. I was on the hangar deck and had a mat or something underneath a fighter plane, and I couldn't eat. The worst thing was when I looked out from the hangar deck and didn't see land anymore. A lot of people got teary eyed. We didn't know what we were going to do, and war didn't mean anything until we got into it. The next thing we knew we were in Pearl Harbor.

WWII: What was Pearl Harbor like at that time?

Stewart: We really didn't see too much of it. We were immediately transported on big buses to a hangar that had thousands of cots in it. And then we were told to get a good night's sleep, because we were going to be put on a ship the next day. I was assigned to the light carrier San Jacinto — that was the one that future President George H.W. Bush flew off of — but at the last minute, they decided it had enough photographers, so they put me on Essex.

WWII: That was the namesake of the newest, largest class of carriers in the U.S. fleet. What was your first impression of it?

Stewart: When we came aboard Essex around November 1943, we couldn't believe how big that thing was — until then, the biggest boat I saw was like a fishing boat, no more than 30 or 40 feet. When I got to the area where we were boarding the ship, it looked bigger than the Empire State Building.

WWII: How did the crew treat you when you first got there?

Stewart: Very good. It was not like boot camp — it was all business. Shortly after I was on Essex, they said we were going to be assigned duties. A lot of the older fellows picked out what they wanted to do, and — me being young — I was told my battle station was going to be the flight deck.

WWII: What exactly did the photo section do? What were your responsibilities?

Stewart: There were 18 of us in photographers' section V3P, and our sleeping quarters were five decks down and aft. We'd work long hours getting everything done. I'd say about 12 of us started sleeping in the lab. My mattress was probably three-quarters of an inch thick, with a pillow, and I don't remember ever washing it. A lot of times they would send the photo planes up, and we'd do mapping of a particular island. We documented everything — anything to do with the ship's history. My particular job was action pictures. I was 17 1/2, going on 18, and I was put in charge of aerial cameras on the plane. When the photo planes would take off, I had to make sure that they were working and there was film in the cameras, and when they came back I had to go up with a screwdriver underneath the fuselage, get the magazines out and take them down to the lab. I didn't do any of the processing. I would take the camera down and take the magazine out. You'd run out a couple of what we called dead exposures — I'd put the lens down and twist off a couple of exposures so we could save a good picture. Then if you didn't have enough film, they'd load some more film in there for you. You could probably take, say, 100 shots with a roll of film, and they'd just take out and process what you had. Then I'd take the magazines back for the cameras, go up in the cockpit and run off some exposures to make sure they'd work.

WWII: What kind of cameras did you use?

Stewart: I think they were called F17s, and the big ones for mapping were F24s. The large cameras were probably 24 inches high, and the ones that we had in the fuselage side were probably 18 inches. The camera was bulky — I'd say it weighed about 16 pounds, and that's a lot of weight — but you got to the point where you could hold it for, say, 12 good shots. The handle twisted with a click and back with a forward motion. I think the exposure was usually on f/10. You could probably take 12 pictures of, say, a Japanese plane flying up, and you knew it was coming down on the ship, so you'd take a series of pictures.

WWII: How did you decide what to photograph?

Stewart: We went out to the Marshall Islands on a shakedown, and I took pictures of this and that, and then we'd take it down to process it. And then I think our photographic officer showed me what I had to do. After that I learned how to line up the perfect shot. You didn't want to take just a picture of the sea and all, you'd want to have something cropped into it.

WWII: What would be a typical day for you as a photographer aboard Essex?

Stewart: When we were on our way to the Marshall Islands in January 1944, we had gunnery exercises to make sure we'd be familiar with that, and it seemed like only a couple of days later we had Japanese coming in at us. When General Quarters sounded, we had probably 15 seconds to get up there before it was automatically shut down, and all hatches were closed. I was on the hangar deck near the island structure. I had to grab my camera, which was at the door, and then go up three flights of ladders, and then I'd go out on the flight deck. I'd sometimes stay up there all day; I couldn't go until General Quarters was over. When I got a situation when I'd be there all day in that hot sun, I'd find a shady spot every now and then. I didn't have a helmet or any flash gear at any time in the war.

WWII: What was it like spending all day on deck?

Stewart: Everything's bottled water today, but we didn't have any of that. The only thing I can remember was the Spam sandwiches. Our only source of supply for the most part was the supply ship. During the Philippine campaign, horsemeat was added to our menu — stringy, but better than Spam. I don't remember eating many good meals. We would not get the food supplements that the officers got. I think that was one of the big mistakes — I think an officer should eat in the same mess halls, at the same tables and eat the same food. In the photo section we had a hot plate and a frying pan, on which we'd make 'V3P omelets.' Also, the lab had a record player and a cracked recording of the Andrews Sisters — state of the art?

WWII: What about hygiene?

Stewart: Our downstairs accommodations had a locker room smell; that's why we'd go upstairs. I don't remember washing in a bathtub. I can remember taking showers when we'd run out of water. For a while we took saltwater showers, but if you didn't get that salt off, you would feel it all day long.

WWII: You must have been in a unique position, because you could wander around, whereas a number of crewmen down below probably had no idea of what was going on. But how did you handle your camera during enemy air attacks?

Stewart: I shook every now and then, so I think the first series of pictures wasn't too good for me, but after that, you got to the point where you got used to it.

WWII: What kind of things were normally happening on the flight deck?

Stewart: Well, I had to get the hell out of the way when the planes were landing. I'd find a secure area, behind the 5-inch guns, and watch 'em come in and land…every now and then I'd sneak around and take a picture of one coming in. They'd land, and then the repair crew would take them from the front to the back and sometimes down to the hangar deck and refuel them and rearm them.

WWII: When the crew was at battle stations, how did the men react to your being there and taking pictures?

Stewart: It didn't faze them at all. They didn't even notice me, because they were busy concentrating on what they were doing.

WWII: Didn't you lose your hearing at one point, because you were too close to one of the guns you usually stood behind?

Stewart: Well, once they documented 250,000 rounds of ammunition — that was the 20mm, 40mm and the 5-inch — that were fired while I was at my battle station. It got so I could have guns going off, and I didn't get scared or anything — I'd just walk up to my station and take my pictures. But I was caught behind a 5-inch gun one time when they were shooting over the deck, and I think it really did me in, because I was just 20 feet from it.

WWII: Do you remember when that occurred?

Stewart: No, I don't. We were in about 68 battles. Off the Philippines in the autumn of 1944, we went for 79 continuous days of action — a record up to that time. And our air groups destroyed 1,531 enemy planes. On December 3, 1944, an article in the Honolulu paper had the headline: 'Essex — Fightingest Ship Plus Aces Abound.' Among them, Air Group 15's Commander David McCampbell had 34 confirmed kills, and movie star Lieutenant Wayne Morris had seven.

WWII: Were there any air attacks that really unnerved you?

Stewart: What bothered me most was hearing what they called 'torpedo.' The bugler did a certain sound, and when you heard it, you'd wet your pants. I'm serious, it's that scary, because what you know is that you've got torpedo planes inside your task group, within 20 miles, and they're homing in on you. And then you'd get up on the deck, and you could see him — just right off the starboard bow. They were shooting at him, and you'd have to be careful that they weren't shooting you. So we learned a routine — when their planes were low, we got behind something. When they were out in the distance, I could get up forward on the deck, and that way I could take a picture all around.

WWII: How many alerts like that do you recall?

Stewart: I would say we probably had half a dozen real scary ones, when the captain was turning the ship on a dime. We had torpedo planes coming in from this side and that, so he would be turning the ship in order to lessen the angle, turning in the direction of the torpedo.

WWII: So the Essex-class carrier could turn pretty quickly when it had to?

Stewart: Yes. I had to lie down on the deck because the deck was at such an angle that I could not stand up. All the ships had some system — they didn't go in a straight pattern all the time, because they were worried about submarines. And when we were under attack we would zigzag. Another scary time was when we were being attacked by so many Japanese planes at one time, all our guns were shooting up in one direction, hoping they'd hit them as they were coming in, and we were doing pretty good at that. But that's an awful sound. As you can imagine, that's a lot of firepower going off.

WWII: What was your opinion of your officers during that time?

Stewart: Oh, I thought they were top-notch on our ship. Every now and then I'd get scuttlebutt that some of the senior people weren't doing too well, putting people in harm's way, and that's a sad thing.

WWII: I understand you weren't too impressed with General Douglas MacArthur.

Stewart: He didn't get too many good reviews on our ship. He was a fancy Dan and trying to get another star for his rsum for later on.

WWII: Did you ever get the opportunity to go up in one of Essex's planes?

Stewart: They wanted some of us to go up in the planes to photograph one of the islands, and they asked if I wanted to go up, and I said no. When you see somebody shot, you don't want to go up and take a chance at being shot. I kept to my battle station, which was probably just as dangerous, but you don't realize that. Even when our own fighter planes would land, sometimes their guns would go off, when the pilots accidentally squeezed the trigger on the control column.

WWII: Did Essex's pilots often have trouble landing on the flight deck?

Stewart: We didn't have the real seasoned veterans later on in the war, and the new pilots had very little carrier landing experience. A lot of times they were waved off and would circle around and come back again. Sometimes they would go into the barriers.

WWII: In 1945 Essex acquired VBF-83, a squadron of Vought F4U-1D Corsairs. Weren't they a lot more difficult to land than the average carrier plane?

Stewart: I think the first three F4Us that took off went in the water.

WWII: What did you consider the best carrier plane of the war?

Stewart: Probably the F4U, later in the war. We started out with Grumman F4Fs, and they just could not compete with the Japanese early on. But as we got the Grumman F6Fs and then the F4Us, we had an advantage, and of course we had been shooting down the seasoned Japanese pilots, so we were getting far superior to them. I'd say from the Philippines going up to Okinawa we really started turning the war around.

WWII: What did you regard as the worst planes aboard Essex?

Stewart: The torpedo planes, because they were so slow. They really carried bombs and torpedoes. In the bomb runs I think they had a better chance.

WWII: Could you describe what happened on November 25, 1944, when a Yokosuka D4Y3 dive bomber made a suicide attack on Essex?

Stewart: One of my partners took that picture from nearby. General Quarters sounded, and as I was coming out on the flight deck, I looked up, and there was a plane about 100 feet away. I could see the pilot as he was coming at me. At about that time the repair crew was running for cover, and they jumped on top of me, but I could still hear the explosion, and when I jumped up I could see it. After that, I could see the repair crewmen going around with their hoses. We were fully loaded on the back — if the kamikaze had hit one of those planes in the back, loaded for takeoff, he would have blown the whole ship up. But he hit us just forward of the No. 2 elevator, and he wiped out a battery there. They were our mess hall people, the black boys, manning the 20mm guns, and he wiped eight of them out — some others were injured.

WWII: What was the response when the kamikaze struck Essex?

Stewart: It was no different than one of our own planes crashing on the deck. We had a job to do, and that's why it was done. One of the crews, I think it was Repair Crew 8, ran out and manned the hoses, and they had the fire put out and a steel plate over it in 45 minutes. Admiral William Halsey sent us a message: 'Ole girl, you've licked your wounds again — congratulations!!!'

WWII: Did you meet any of the U.S. Marines assigned to Essex?

Stewart: Marines on the ship were more or less out of sight. They were in the island structure, taking care of the admirals and captains and all that. But we had Joe Rosenthal aboard — he was a real nice person, full of life, and he had a knack for taking a picture. The Speed Graphic was his prime tool — he'd be running up and down taking the pictures of the gun crews and some of the planes coming in. He sent most of his stuff back in a pouch, probably to San Francisco. Every now and then he would take pictures and process them aboard ship.

WWII: Do you recall how Rosenthal made it ashore on Iwo Jima in February 1945?

Stewart: Joe kept talking long before that about not [seeing] enough action. So he was talking to my good buddy Tony Mantia and talked to our photo officer about getting off the ship — he wanted to get in some pictures of the landings on Iwo Jima — and he got off.

WWII: What did you think when you first saw Rosenthal's famous picture of the Marines raising the second flag atop Mount Suribachi?

Stewart: He took a lot of pictures, you know, and he wasn't sure what picture they were fussing over, because he took a picture of the small flag, and then they decided that that wasn't big enough, so they went out to a landing craft and got a bigger flag. Then they brought him back, and he took a picture of that. They all say he posed that picture, but he didn't pose it. It just happened.

WWII: Was Rosenthal the best cameraman you worked with?

Stewart: Yes. We had a couple of good ones on the ship — John Strack and Bill Hicks. Bill Hicks took good pictures in the Philippines. He had a natural ability.

WWII: What was the general mood aboard Essex when it began launching carrier strikes against the Home Islands in 1945?

Stewart: Oh, great. I think after we got hit by the kamikaze, you could almost feel the change, that we were really starting to sock 'em. Word came down from the intelligence people and pilots coming down to the lab that we were sinking a lot of their ships.

WWII: Do you remember how you felt when you learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945?

Stewart: I remember that everybody was crying. He was well liked. But we were in action — they just announced that the president had died, and the flags were at half-staff.

WWII: What did you consider to be your best day?

Stewart: Probably the day the war was over. It was a big thrill, knowing that they'd dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. We were probably 300 miles off of Japan, and I wanted to fly over and take pictures. My senior officer later saw Hiroshima, and he said he would never forget it, because of all the destruction.

WWII: Did the crew celebrate?

Stewart: No, we knew we were probably going home, but we'd settled into such a routine, like going to work every day.

WWII: What was your homecoming like after the war ended?

Stewart: After steaming 200,000 miles, Essex came into Bremerton, Wash., in March 1946 — and there was an earthquake. The ship tilted in the dry dock, and we were called to General Quarters — we thought we were under attack again. Coming back to Bremerton, I remember going out to a line of boats, and we were told to hurry it. We had a choice, either to stay in or get out. So, after two years of war, I mustered out and got $219.81. And I hitchhiked from Seattle to Florida.

WWII: Did you continue your photographic career after the war?

Stewart: I went to photography school in New York City, but I could not concentrate, and the facilities were pushing so many photographers through that I lost interest. But about that time I met a member of Frankie Carle's band, and he said: 'How would you like to come with us? We need someone to help us, because we're going on an extended tour.' So I toured five years with the band. I was the assistant to the manager, I helped with hotel reservations, transportation, setting up the band. I was in all the states. We played the Rainbow Room, Birdland, the Capitol Theater on Broadway, the Café Rouge at the Statler Hotel, the Paramount Theater and the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. I met movie stars and starlets — I was big time. It helped me more than anything else, because most of the fellows there were twice my age, and I picked up a little maturity. Then Frankie Carle had a heart attack, and I went back to Washington, D.C. I got a job at a Safeway supermarket and then Food Fair. Grand Union bought them out, and I became a manager there in two months. I worked 18 years at that, and in the process I got married. Gwyneth Jones was from Swansea, Wales, and she was an Army widow. During the war she had to do mandatory work in a munitions factory and then at the Rolls-Royce factory in England. She had heart problems, and in order to be with her more, I decided that those long hours in grocery stores were too much. So I started to work at a bank and worked myself up to vice president in two years. But you know, in all that time, they didn't know I was a veteran. I'd just back off from that.

WWII: What would you say were the highlights of your wartime experience aboard ship?

Stewart: When you got in there, you'd want to serve. Everybody's in there, we're all in the same thing. We'd have to pull together as a team, otherwise you might have a problem — somebody's going to get hurt. You'd feel for the guy when he got hurt — like when those eight black boys were killed, I cried like we were all brothers.

WWII: How do you feel when one of your pictures turns up in a book about World War II or a television documentary?

Stewart: Well, that is a thrill. Especially when a picture Joe Rosenthal took of me appeared in the television series Victory at Sea.

This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.



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