Edward Steichen and the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit
by Dave Bradford
Like so many American civilians who set aside their successful professional careers to support the war efforts in WWI and again in WWII, Edward Steichen’s contributions reached far beyond his immediate area of expertise.
By the time Steichen was given command of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in 1941, he was 62 years old and had accumulated a lifetime of achievements and accolades both professionally and as the commanding officer of the Army’s photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Beginning in 1917, he would serve 16 months in that post and be awarded the rank of lieutenant colonel (with a citation by Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing) and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
As it turned out, it was just the beginning of “Steichen’s Boys'” impact on the very future of America. Their photographic record of Naval Aviation’s combat heroism would become one of the most powerful American weapons the Japanese war machine would have to face in WWII.
Into the Breach
1941: The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declares war on Japan as she swarms across the Pacific Ocean toward Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.
It was a defining time for the U.S. Navy. It had sustained near crippling losses to the Pacific Fleet and the carrier-based air wings at Pearl Harbor. Naval Aviation was in dire need of new pilots to be recruited and trained as the “tip of the spear” that would defend against Japan’s incursion eastward.
Enter Capt. Arthur W. Radford, commander of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics and head of the Navy’s pilot recruitment effort. Radford believed there was competition between the Navy and the Army Air Corps for a limited talent pool, and that attractive, top-rate photography in the press (as well as the design of both posters and leaflets) would help the Navy reach its quota of 30,000 new pilots each year. Although Steichen was approaching retirement age, Radford reached out to him with orders to assemble a team of crack photographers to help with that effort. That Radford would reach out specifically to Steichen for this mission was not surprising. What was surprising was the autonomy given to Steichen in assembling and deploying his team.
Lt. Barrett Gallagher, who joined the unit in 1944, had reported aboard USS Intrepid (CV 11) –then the flagship of Rear Adm. Gerald Bogan–and asked to join his staff. Bogan asked what the lieutenant’s orders were, to which Gallagher is reported to have said, “Sir, my orders are to go wherever I want, stay as long as I want and to return home when I feel like it.” After the admiral had time to review the orders and determined that was exactly what they said, he welcomed Gallagher to his staff. Such was the freedom of movement given to the entire team through the efforts of Radford, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief in the Pacific, and special letters of recommendation from future Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal.Before Steichen was done, he and his team had gained passage aboard USS Lexington (CV 16), USS Yorktown (CV 10), USS Intrepid (CV 11), and USS Ticonderoga (CV 14). They had photographed battles from the raid on Truk Islands to the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”
In late 1943, Steichen was aboard Lexington when she took a ‘fish’ in her stern after a five hour Japanese air attack. Steichen was positioned off the port stern in the netting that extends out over the water so he could capture both the aircraft landings and the landing signal officer (LSO) directing them safely aboard. A Grumman F6F Hellcat had been unable to abort its approach, missed the arresting gear and crashed into the ramp. Both the LSO and his assistant dived into the net on top of Steichen to escape the fiery crash. He still got the shot.
“The Fighting Lady,” 1945
In addition to leading the Naval Aviation photographic team, Steichen was given the assignment to direct 20th Century Fox’s Academy Award-winning 1944 film “The Fighting Lady.” Extensive use of gun cameras and footage provided by him and his team gave the film the unmistakable feeling of reality. Even though the plot was entirely fictional, the filming locations were anything but. Filmed almost entirely aboard Yorktown and in Technicolor, the on-deck action sequences were deadly reality and produced some of the most riveting combat scenes of the Pacific campaign.
Born Eduard Steichen (he would later refer to himself as ‘Edward’) in Luxembourg in 1879, and naturalized in the U.S. in 1900, Steichen settled with his family in rural Michigan, eventually moving to Milwaukee, Wis. At 15, he entered into a formal lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee, and taught himself to draw and paint in his free time. Along with his other interests, Steichen would discover Pictorialist photography, launching his career behind the camera.
In 1900, Steichen set out for Paris via New York City to see the Rodin Pavilion outside of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and to pursue his fine arts education at the Academie Julian.
Passing through New York, he visited the famous Albert Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer, publisher, gallerist, impresario, and founder of the Camera Club of New York. Steiglitz purchased three of Steichen’s photographs on that first visit–his first actual fine art sale–before leaving for the continent.
His association with Stieglitz had such impact, however, that he would promptly abandon his painting studies at the Academie Julian to pursue photography and the new gum bichromate process, the precursor to colored photography.
Between 1900 and 1917, Steichen enjoyed a meteoric career as a portrait photographer capturing timeless images of such greats as Rodin and J.P. Morgan. He was featured prominently in Stieglitz’ Camera Work (a famed quarterly photographic journal published by Stieglitz from 1903 to 1917) and many of his exhibits that featured the best pictorialist photographers of the period.
At 38, and eight years past recruitment age in 1917, Steichen joined the U.S. Army and completed a distinguished tour directing its aerial photographic unit.
In the years following his separation from the Army, Steichen was hired by the Conde Nast magazine group to photograph for Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1920s and 1930s. His work also appeared in Life and The Saturday Evening Post. He worked with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency where his work won international acclaim. He became the highest paid photographer in the world, known for his celebrity portraits of Hollywood stars Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Gloria Swanson, among others.
By the time Capt. Arthur W. Radford reached out to establish his photographic team in 1941, he could hardly have found a man better suited to the mission–or the times–than Edward Jean Steichen.