by Norm Hatch, Major USMCR (Ret)
An exemplary Marine officer, Col. Wallace M. Nelson who served for 30 years with honor, passed away recently at age 97. His military service will be well defined in other journals but there is one thing that he accomplished that will outlast all of his awards and those of his contemporaries also! He was the originator of the first Marine Corps Photographic Services in Quantico in 1941! Following is that story.
In 1940 Captain Wally Nelson was stationed in San Diego with the 2nd Bn 15th Marines, an AA unit. During training with 90 mm guns he was impressed with the theodolite motion picture cameras that documented the accuracy of fire on target sleeves. This led him to think about the application of motion pictures to military training films and he took time to visit Disney Studios and Technicolor in Hollywood to further this interest.
During one of the visits Wally, was asked during a discussion on the possibility of us becoming involved in the war in Europe, if the Marine Corps was prepared to document, on film, the combat activities of the Corps. This was almost two years before Pearl Harbor and though there was reluctance by the public to consider going to war the President was preparing to do so by varying means. Lend Lease of ships to Great Britain is a case in point.
The question posed by his friend caused a considerable turmoil in Wally’s thoughts. He had been to China, Hawaii and multiple duty stations in the US but could not remember seeing, in all that time, more than a half a dozen still photographers who may or may not have been official photographers. Also he found no reference in official orders or plans any mention of a photographic requirement. It became apparent that there was no official photographic organization within the Corps. There also was no office of Public Affairs within the Corps as that was all handled by the Navy Department. In Philadelphia there was an organization entitled “The Publicity Bureau” that was mostly concerned with Recruiting and they did have several photographers, movie and still, who spent most of their time in obtaining photography for A Frames and the occasional movie clip of maneuvers in the Caribbean for the theaters. It was extremely evident that no capability existed or was in planning for organized photographic operations in case of war!
So Wally sat down and wrote a letter to the MG Commandant, Thomas Holcomb, recommending that an organization be formed to make training films and to prepare photographers for combat duty that would document the activities of the Corps for training, public release and historical purposes. It should be mentioned that we used Army training films that were not well suited to Marine Corps needs thus making our own would be more advantageous. General Holcomb apparently was impressed with the recommendations as indicated in his responding letter that ON OR ABOUT 1 MAY 1941 YOU WILL PROCEED TO WASHINGTON, DC AND REPORT TO THE COMMANDANT, MARINE CORPS FOR DUTY IN THE DIVISION OF PLANS AND POLICIES. (NEVER VOLUNTEER)
That was the start. Wally had to learn how to work the intricacies of the Manpower, Intelligence, Operations and Supply functions at headquarters in order create this new command. He also visited the Army Signal Corps at Ft. Monmouth, NJ where their were photo schools and training film production studios. He worked with the Army on a training film at Carlisle Barracks to gain experience. In addition the Army had a film processing laboratory at Ft. McNair in Washington that provided further indoctrination. All of this took time but after about four months he recommended to the Commandant that he be ordered to Quantico to put a unit together. The request was granted and on or about 1 October, 1941 he reported in to the Commandant of Marine Corps Schools as the Officer in Charge, Marine Corps Photographic Section.
During the following 7 months Wally was in Hollywood making a recruiting film at 20th Century Fox, enlisting qualified technicians from the motion picture industry, finding and procuring production and hand held camera equipment, whether new or second hand. There was a severe shortage of new equipment because of the huge demand by all of the military services. One must remember that Wally had no training or first hand knowledge of the discipline of the uses of photography or the equipment related to it but he threw himself into this massive puzzle and slowly his dream began to evolve and the 1st Division was supplied with a combat photo team including appropriate NCO positions and an OIC. Training films were now being made in the building, known as Barrett Hall, that was our living quarters, office, studio and laboratory facility. Potential and new cameramen were being sent for training at the March of Time, in New York, and at 20th Century Fox. The still photographers to the wire services and newspapers in New York for advanced training. From a small beginning of approximately 20 men the organization grew to a little more 600 people with a major studio at Quantico and Camp Pendleton and the manning of six divisions and five air wings.
As I mentioned earlier Wally was a line officer and didn’t intend to spend his military life in this field so he found that there was a reserve Major, Franklin “Pete” Adreon with the 6th Marines in Iceland who was a director in Hollywood, and so ordered him to Quantico. Pete Adreon carried the load efficiently at Quantico for the rest of the war. Wally was ordered back to HQ, Plans and Policies in May of 1942 to have staff supervision of all Marine Corps Photographic activities. He was transferred in April of 1943 to the ACAF Norfolk and once again was back in the line.
Had he not been as thoughtful, intuitive and persisting in understanding the need the Corps would have for a complete photographic service it is doubtful that it would not have been available when we needed it the most for WW II. Film shot by our combat cameramen, and now women, from that time to the present, have been used constantly for training and by producers, news organizations and historians to tell the Marine Corps story and most importantly to keep the public informed! The new Marine Corps Museum in Quantico exemplifies this fact in its use of photography!
He told me that his proudest moment was when he learned that a film we made after the war with LCol. Victor Krulak entitled “Bombs Over Tokyo” depicting Marine Corps activities from the first landing in the Bahamas, the wars in between, and all through the Pacific war was stated by the heads of the House & Senate Armed Forces Committees, along with the Consolidation committee established by President Truman, in 1946, that the film was instrumental in their decisions to recommend that the Marine Corps be kept as an independent force. That ensured the Marine Corps in the National Security Act of 1947 as having three divisions and 3 aircraft wings. Photography is important and should always be at the scene of the action!
Col. Wally Nelson left an indelible legacy that will continue in perpetuity to the benefit of the Corps. From my standpoint that is equally as important as firing a weapon. I was proud and honored to know him and to have been involved in the initial phases of his dream!