FIRST MOTION PICTURE UNIT
by Al Saldarini (dec.)
1st Combat Camera Unit, 450th BmGp, 15th AF;
(shared with his encouragement and permission)
A group known as the First Motion Picture Unit was set up in July 1942 by someone who learned to fly under Orville and Wilbur Wright. If you haven't guessed, that was none other than "Hap" Arnold, himself. It seemed that Hollywood was having trouble turning out recruiting and training films for the military. The first recruiting film had been turned out by Warner Bros. with Jimmy Stewart playing the lead role. Arnold was impressed by the film and ordered it to be shown in all theatres in America. It was entitled "Winning Your Wings." It was quite a success and as a result the F.M.P.U. (was/is pronounced 'fum-poo') was born.
The flying arm of the post was headed up by then Major Paul Mantz, who borrowed an A-29 from Lockheed as a camera ship.
The First Motion Picture Unit, with Jack Warner as boss, cranked out a film entitled "Rear Gunner." This little gem was designed to dispel the then-persistent rumor that a tail gunner's life was just three seconds. Many of the first films were shot at the defunct Vitagraph studios in Hollywood.
Later, Hal Roach (when he as inducted into the Army) closed down his studio in Culver City, FMPU. moved in at $1.00 rental per year. Soon the post began to be known as "Fort Roach" and the training combat crews as the "Culver City Commandos". Locals often regarded the group as a bunch of Hollywood Goldbricks. Nevertheless, General Ira Eaker considered the training, orientation and combat documentary films as helping save lives and training thousands of recruits.
The post was well populated by famous personalities, (present company not included) such as Capt. Ronald Reagan, Lt. Clark Gable, Sgt. George Reeves, Cpl. Alan Ladd, Pvt. George Montgomery, Lt? Van Heflin, outstanding flyer Paul Mantz, Craig Stevens and Arthur Kennedy. There were others, but I do not recollect them.
Volunteers for the combat camera units were trained by Hollywood professionals to use many motion picture cameras. Both 16 and 35 millimeter units were used, while the 35 mm was the general standard. For sound movies, some Mitchell studio cameras were used, but the most ubiquitous machine was the 35 mm Eyemo. This was a handheld cine unit, used to film most of the war documentaries you've seen.
After a thorough indoctrination on cameras, the combat crews were shipped to a "rough" area, Beverly Hills, where if you peered through the trees you could spot Errol Flynn's and Rudy Vallee's homes. Judo was a daily 3 hour exercise and many of us had persistent headaches for that time. Our instructor, Orun Haglund, I was told, was an Olympic champion. The trail to get to the camp was called Laurel Canyon Drive, and we did it quite often from Culver City to the Boy Scout camp. It was a fair hike with full packs and a continuous Queen Anne drill show for the amused locals.
I know it sounds like a picnic for the most part, but our combat courses, particularly under our leader, the physically rugged Major Reagan, left many a husky GI completely bushed. A few, less rugged individuals passed out from the demanding combat exercises. Marines may have had a more rugged course, but not the infantry; I had already been through that.
During the time the First Motion Picture Unit was in existence many experienced still photographers were to pass through its doors, and be subjected to intensive training in motion picture skills. All of these men had volunteered for Combat Camera Units, and after a thorough indoctrination on cameras, were subjected to further rigorous training in combat tactics. Training in Judo, hand combat, rifle, grenades, .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, desert survival, etc. were part of the curriculum.
Flight physicals, whirling chairs, depth perception, eye charts (Some memorized by anxious recruits like myself), and a series of arm wrenching shots qualified them for flights above 30,000 feet. Col. Paul Mantz would take them on hair-raising aerobatic flights designed to get them used to keeping fighters in the Eyemo camera viewfinder, only in this case it was the Mount Wilson Observatory that stayed still and camera men who did the gyrating. Tours in the decompression chambers at Santa Anna and these aerobatic flights eventually qualified many men to operate a 35mm motion picture camera and hold it on target to record aerial combat, which they did in all theaters of the war.
Combat camera units generally comprised 23 men and officers, 15 of which were on combat/flying status. Camera repair men were equally important, keeping the delicate cameras in running order. At high altitudes the oil in cameras congealed to stone, a fact all-to-apparent to the cold, weary cameramen on his return home. If you flew as a substitute gunner, time passed; otherwise you worried about your films.
Not all cameramen returned home. As a matter of fact, the cameramen suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any service in World War II.
Discovery Channel and A & E, have certainly made use of the films produced by F.M.P.U. and the Combat Camera Units. Although, the media seems to have made one trip to the archives, grabbed a few hundred feet of "representative" film, and used these to depict almost all phases of the war. Many times a scene is misrepresented in a media style documentary.