Recollections of Commander John Ford, USNR, Oscar-winning Hollywood producer and Chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), concerning his experiences making combat motion pictures under battle conditions. His film of the Battle of Midway subsequently became a popular movie feature.
Adapted from Commander John Ford
USNR interview in box 10 of World War II Interviews, Operational
Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center.
This is Commander John Ford, USNR. I am in command of the field photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services. This is a photographic branch among other things. Most of the people in our outfit - officers and men are from Hollywood. They are writers, directors, some actors, but mostly technicians, electricians, cutters, sound cutters, negative cutters, positive cutters, carpenters, and that sort of thing.
About 1932 my old friend Admiral Frank Scofield, who at that time, had the flag in the fleet and Captain Herbert Aloysius Jones, "Baldy" Jones, as he is known to the Navy, got me to return to the Naval Reserve and to organize a photographic [movie-making] section. He thought at that time that in the future, the future emergency, it would be of value; so I came back and organized this outfit. I was called into active service in August, 1941, and started planning. Before Pearl Harbor we had gone to Iceland, and made a complete [film] study there, a complete [film] study in Panama. After Pearl Harbor I was asked by the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War to go to Honolulu and give a factual photographic [film] account of the action there. So I left with a crew about January 4, 1942 and arrived there about 12 days later, and got to work.
We found Pearl Harbor at that time in a state of readiness. Everybody had learned their lesson from Pearl Harbor. The Army and the Navy, all in good shape, everything taken care of, patrols going out regularly, everybody in high spirit, was courageous, [in a] spirit of hope, [that] I have ever seen. I was particularly interested in our new blue jacket [US Navy enlisted men]. He was a man of unlimited education, background, he had evidently left a good trade. He was a fighting man. In a few months I was to see what a good fighting man he was.
The first task force I went on, I was called by Admiral [Chester W.] Nimitz [USN] on the phone, I knew him quite well, [and] he said, "Throw a bag together and come out here and see me." So I left immediately and went out to Pearl Harbor, [and] saw him. He told me to report to Admiral Bagley. I left there immediately and went down to the Harbor, got into the speedboat and caught a destroyer that was leaving. Got on board while it was in motion, while she was underway. Hadn't the slightest idea what I was doing, where I was going. I found out when I got on board that the destination was Midway.
After we had been out a couple of days, we picked up a flotilla of PT [high-speed wooden motor torpedo] boats, I think we picked them up at French Frigate Shoals, refueled them, and gave them food. It was the first time I had seen the PT boys. And that[,] gentlemen or ladies, whoever is listening, that is really an outfit, that is really a wonderful group of boys. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for them. We proceeded then to Midway. I think at the time there was some report of some action impending some place or some movement in the seas, [since] everything and everybody was on KV [a form of alert].
I proceeded to make a pictorial [film] history of Midway. I photographed the Gooney Birds, I photographed the PT's and all that sort of thing. I didn't believe much in the impending action, if it did come I didn't think it was going to touch us. So I worked, spent about 12 hours a day in work, had a good time up there, a wonderful station. On June 3rd, my friend, Massy Hughes, Commander Massy Hughes, asked me to take the [aircraft] patrol with him the next day. He said, he speaks in a southern accent, he said, "Well, it looks like there is going to be a little trouble out there - -" To resume[,] Massy Hughes, he says, "Well it might be some trouble tomorrow, you and I are too damned old for this war anyway, so we better take the easy dog leg." That was the northeast triangle [segment of the aerial patrol route]. So we got aboard, took off, it was very, very cloudy weather, didn't see anything for a long time, finally the radar picked up something, [and] we presumed it was one of our task forces. About 60 miles off we saw through a rift in the clouds as we started to go over[,] we suddenly saw a couple of cruiser planes coming for us. Taking a quick look, we realized they were Japanese. We hadn't any idea that we had seen their task force so Massey did a quick bank, got up in the clouds, stayed there for a while, finally ran out of clouds. We got down to about three feet from the water and really got some speed out of that old PBY (twin-engine patrol bomber seaplane, known as "Catalina"). At one time he said he thought he was doing about 89 miles an hour. We managed to get back.
It's too bad we just saw the task force for a moment, it was so far away, otherwise I might have gotten a good picture of the disposition and so forth, but we did get a pretty accurate, just in a flash, we got a pretty accurate view, you could tell pretty much what was there.
The next morning - that night we got back and evidently something was about to pop, great preparations were made. I was called into Captain Semard's office, they were making up plans, and he said "Well, now Ford, you are pretty senior here, and how about you getting up top of the power house, the power station, where the phones are?" He said, "Do you mind?" I said "No, it's a good place to take pictures."
He said, "Well, forget the pictures as much as you can, but I want a good accurate account of the bombing," he said, "We expect to be attacked tomorrow."
And he told me to do the best I can, get out, lay out my phones. I had some wires, two phones with the wires leading to the command dugout, and then I had a sea phone, stationed those, got everything ready. Tried them out, went to bed that night, upstairs, got a bedroom there, went to sleep and early the next morning everybody had breakfast. There were about eight Marines in the power house with me. I think the alarm, of course, I haven't any notes, but the alarm went off, I imagine around 6:20. So everybody took their stations and Midway became sort of a deserted island.
I imagine the Japs when they attacked thought they had caught us napping, there was nothing moving, just a lazy sort of a tropical island. Everything was very quiet and serene. I had a pair of powerful binoculars with me and finally spotted the Japanese planes. I picked them out to be Zeros [Japanese fighter-bomber planes], by what in picture identification we thought would be Zeros. They evidently were. The first flight I saw there were about 12 planes. They were coming at about 10,000 feet, so I reported this to the command post, told them that the attack was about to begin. Everybody was very calm. I was amazed, sort of, at the lackadaisical air everybody took. You know everybody sort of took to the line of duty as though they had been living through this sort of thing all their lives.
Suddenly the leading Jap plane peeled off. As he peeled off, evidently the Marines [fighter planes] who had left earlier got the rear plane which went down in flames. I photographed that, but my eyes were sort of distracted by the leading plane, the leader of the [Japanese aircraft] squadron who dove down to about five thousand feet, did some maneuvers and then dove for the airport. We have all heard stories about this fellow who flew up the ramp on his back, but it was actually true. He dove down to about 100 feet from the ground, turned over on his back and proceeded leisurely flying upside down over the ramp. Everybody was amazed, nobody fired at him, until suddenly some Marine said, "What the Hell," let go at him and then shot him down. He slid off into the sea.
But by this time, of course, everybody had been watching this fantastic thing and by that time Hell started to break loose around there, and, of course, the high altitude bombers started to come in. The Zeros evidently - what I took to be Zeros had evidently some sort of small caliber bombs. They started to plaster the ramps or the airfield. They did a very neat job. They went up and down and got the outside area. They didn't touch the field itself - I imagine their idea was to land there later that day themselves. They didn't drop any bombs on the landing mat itself, but did a thoroughly good job of dropping, I would say 200 pounders [bombs] up and down outside. Of course, I mean the [American] planes had all been pretty well scattered and they didn't get any and as I was saying about this time the high altitude [Japanese] bombs started dropping. This I reported to Captain Semard.
Forgot to try to count [Japanese] planes and [do] photography. I got a pretty good estimate, I estimated about, that I saw with my own eyes, I would figure there was from 56 to 62 planes.
By this time the attack had started in earnest. There was some dive bombing at objectives like water towers, [they] got the hangar right away. I was close to the hangar and I was lined up on it with my camera, figuring it would be one of the first things they got. It wasn't any of the dive bombers [that got it]. A Zero flew about 50 feet over it and dropped a bomb and hit it, the whole thing went up. I was knocked unconscious. Just knocked me goofy for a bit, and I pulled myself out of it. I did manage to get the picture. You may have seen it in [the movie] "The Battle of Midway." It's where the plane flies over the hangar and everything goes up in smoke and debris, you can see one big chunk coming for the camera.
Everybody, of course, nearly everybody except the gun crews were under ground. The Marines did a great job. There was not much shooting but when they did it was evidently the first time these boys had been under fire but they were really well trained. Our bluejackets and our Marine gun crews seemed to me to be excellent. There was no spasmodic firing, there was no firing at nothing. They just waited until they got a shot and it usually counted.
The planes started falling, some of ours, a lot of Jap planes. It seems when you hit a Zero plane, it almost immediately goes into flames. At least that was the impression I got. One [Japanese] fellow dove, I think he was going to [attack] the clubhouse. He dove, dropped a bomb and tried to pull out and crashed into the ground. The place that I was manning, I didn't realize, the power house, but they evidently tried to get that. I think we counted 18 bombs, some big, some 200 pounders, some 500 pounders, that dropped around that. I would say that the Jap high [altitude] bombing was bad. I don't know whether they hurried or not, but they were not hitting their objective. Of course, incendiaries set fire to the wooden buildings. It seemed as though they were doing a lot of damage, actually they were buildings that had been used since the Pan American [Airlines, which had previously had a trans-Pacific seaplane fueling outpost,] gave up there. They hit an oil tank, but it was an old unused oil tank that hadn't any oil in it and then there was a fake plane in the center of the field and they really wasted a lot of time blowing that up. They strafed [machine-gunned] it and finally dropped a 200 pounder [bomb] on it. They really - they lost about three planes trying to get that fake plane, as it came into a cone of [American] fire that was pretty dangerous.
During this, I suddenly saw the PT boats which were circling around, open up [begin firing]. They did a tremendous amount of damage. The Japs couldn't figure what the Hell they were and they really gave the place a wide berth. I would say the PT's were responsible for about three planes and they drove the fighters and low bombers - they pretty well drove them off, because that 13 boats out there were [with] those multiples 50's [.50-caliber heavy machine guns], that is too much fire power, they put up an awful blast.
The raid wasn't over, still a few bombs dropping now, but of course, you couldn't restrain the bluejackets. I mean they would run out when a plane would fall. There was about 50 bluejackets around it [the crashed Japanese plane] trying to haul the Jap out of the plane, getting souvenirs, and you would see some ensign or j.g. [lieutenant junior grade] screaming, "Get the Hell back there" and the fellows would look and they would go back. They were all pretty jolly about it.
The Marines with me - I took one look at them and I said, "Well this war was won." They were kids, oh, I would say from 18 to 22, none of them were older. They were the calmest people I have ever seen. They were up there popping away with rifles [Marines at that time were armed with bolt-action M1903 .30-caliber rifles], having a swell time and none of them were alarmed. I mean the thing [a Japanese bomb] would drop through, they would laugh and say "My God that one was close." I figured then, "Well, if these kids are American kids, I mean this war is practically won."
I was really amazed, I thought that some kids, one or two would get scared, but no, they were, they were having a time of their lives. Each one of the eight claimed he had brought down a [Japanese] plane with rifle fire. They certainly fired enough at them, they had a good time. Of the 18 [Japanese bombs] dropped around the power house, one finally grazed the corner off and filled the place full of smoke and that caused these kids to start looking for me. They came in and bandaged me up and said, "Don't go near that Navy doctor, we will take care of you, this guy over here, Jones, is a swell doctor." Talking right under fire like that, it was very interesting.
Well, finally the attack was over and we went around counting heads. What made it unfortunate, they made one hit on a dugout, that a Marine detachment was in on Sand Island, I think they killed about 16 men there. Of course there were quite a few casualties, dead and wounded but that was a lucky hit, and that was just too bad. Otherwise the bombing didn't mean anything. As we know now, I guess it's no secret, Midway was not really protected at the time, I mean, it was sort of a peacetime station. We had very few 20 mm [anti-aircraft guns], had no 40 mm's [anti- aircraft guns] and even at that time there were quite a few 30 caliber machine guns there, which strangely enough they did very, very effective work. The Marine gunners and our Navy gunners were really excellent, I have never seen a greater exhibition of courage and coolness under fire in my life and I have seen some in my day. Those kids were really remarkable, [and] as I said before, I figured "Well, this war is over, at least we are going to win it if we have kids like that."
There are no incidents that I can report, I mean there is nothing particularly - Oh, I did see, I did see one of our kids jump in a parachute, I think it was a Marine flyer. It was quite a distance away and I had, that is, I couldn't photograph it - I had to look at it through my [field] glasses. This kid jumped and this Zero went after him and shot him out of his [parachute] harness. That was observed by about eight people. The kid hit the water and the Jap went up and down strafing the water where he had landed [and] even sunk the parachute [and] filled that full of holes, which I thought wasn't very chivalrous at the time. I only prayed to God that I could have gotten a picture out of it. That was verified. A lot of people did see it.
Pretty soon the Marines [fighter pilots] started back, a lot of them badly shot up, some had to make emergency landings on the field. And, well, we all went about our job, taking care of the wounded and getting things ready and putting out fires, which was very, very quickly done. Then, of course, after that, I mean things were exciting for the next two or three days. Planes kept coming in and going out. We got reports of the [naval] battle and the submarines came in and after the battle, after a few days we went back to the peaceful routine.
That night, I forgot to say, a [Japanese] submarine came in and started shelling the island. He came up, I imagine, about a mile away and I heard the first rumble and I ran out there and saw him fire. He fired about six times. I think he was firing at the airfield but his shots were way over. One Marine five-inch [coastal defense artillery gun] let go and I am positive he got a hit on the submarine because there was a yellowish greenish flash out there, and from then on we didn't hear any more from the submarine. It was very amusing - a very amusing incident occurred there, this Marine Sergeant was sound asleep, really tired and one of the kids ran up and said, "Hey, Sergeant, wake up, wake up, God Damn it, we are being attacked," and he [the Sergeant] started pulling on his mattress. And he said, "Where, where, what is it?" and he [the young Marine] said, "A submarine" and he [the Sergeant] said, "Oh, shaw!" and went back to sleep.
Interviewer: Commander, I understand you must have been very busy, because they gave you a citation for the reports you sent it, and you yourself said you were quite busy taking pictures.
Commander Ford: Well, evidently the reason that Captain Semard and Captain Logan Ramsey sent me up there, they figured I was a motion picture man and naturally should have a photographic eye so I made a pretty good choice, because I knew what I had to do and that was to count planes which I immediately did. One of the Marines stood by me and checked and we double-checked, and so I think that my count of the [Japanese] planes was official. As far as the citation was concerned I think it was more for being wounded in an exposed position and not leaving my post, well, Hell, you couldn't leave your post, there was no place to go.
But my report was pretty good and as I say I have a photographic eye and we are used to that sort of thing, reporting, taking battle scenes, and mob scenes and notice every detail and that's why I probably would notice a lot more than the layman who is not trained for that sort of thing. Like the chap that did the flying upside down and was noticing the Jap that shot that kid out of his harness. Things of that sort immediately photograph themselves on my memory.
Interviewer: Commander, from your account I take it there were no planes on the ground except that decoy plane you spoke about?
Commander Ford: No, they [the American planes] had all pulled off early in the morning. The PT's had flown back to French Frigate Shoals. After all these [Japanese] planes were picked up coming in the radar, they were picked up on the radar and so we had about , I think, nearly a half hour's warning. Of course, the Marines took off about 20 minutes before [Japanese] planes arrived and as a matter of fact as we know, they attacked the first five planes coming in and did a Hell of a good job. So there was nothing on the ground for them [the Japanese attackers] to hit, so I presume when the Japs came, they thought the planes were on the ground well dispersed to the side of the field, covered with camoflauge. That's why they did such a good job of blasting that portion of the field. They did a very good job of systematically plastering both sides of the runway. Oh, there was one other plane on the ground, that was Captain Semard's duck and that caused them a lot of trouble. They blew that up. But the thing that really caused them the trouble was that fake plane. I mean they really went for that thing. I imagine they have put that in use since so it is pretty well exposed.
Interviewer: Did anyone get the Jap that had strafed the man, our man in the parachute?
Commander Ford: That I can't say, Sir, I don't believe so, because he went to the clouds later on. I would like to meet him myself some day, Sir.
Interviewer: So would I.
Commander Ford: You're asking about the African invasion. We were in England, assigned to Admiral Stark's staff there, requested by the Army to cover this operation, for them. They evidently hadn't enough cameramen at the time. And, of course, we wanted to go along to cover it from our own Navy standpoint.
We left Greenwich about noon one day. [We had] A very interesting journey up the Clyde [in Scotland] to see these ships in full daylight pulling out, [and] the factories along the side started their horns atooting and people yelled and screamed, and I sort of had the premonition, then "Well, the thing is about to start, I think we are going to take over this war." Seemed like old days.
It was the first emotion I had seen displayed in this way on the part of the [British] civilian population. It was really quite a wonderful sight if you know the Clyde. It's not very wide and as we ploughed, it's banks were lined with people, factory whistles blowing and a few people out with flags, I remember particularly one, someone, had a small American flag waving it like the dickens there. It was quite an inspiring sight. The outfit I was with was mostly, well I should say about 85% British, parachutists, commandos, different combat units, then we had a signal corps unit under a Colonel Dobbs, which was a very, very good unit.
We proceeded out, continued down the coast, headed around Ireland, and down the - I think we went due west for about a day and a half and then suddenly we went south and made for Gib[raltar]. Strangely enough, there was nothing seen all the way down. We didn't, I mean we might just as well have been on a pleasure cruise. Lovely weather, sun was shining, everybody stripped down and getting tanned. [We] Hit Gibraltar one night and proceeded to go through it [i.e., the Straits of Gibraltar]. Nothing happened at all, didn't even pick up Italian submarines. [We] Got there [and] loaded into L.T. [landing craft tank?] boats and went ashore. I had a particularly easy time. Our landing wasn't contested at all. As a matter of fact, I didn't hear it, but there was a report that a very indignant French official came down[,] the French always came down[,] and bawled somebody out for being three hours late or something. I didn't know anything about that, I didn't see it so I don't know[,] but that was the report that was going around.
I remember one funny incident happened, we were groping around in the dark, I had my camera equipment and I ran into a fellow and we started talking. He said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm a photographer, I don't know what the Hell I am doing here in the middle of the night trying to photograph." He said, "What about me? I'm a psychiatrist." So that was that.
Then we came in - there was a lot of sniping going on and they [the Allied forces] took over the town. I think everything went according to plan very beautifully. It is more interesting. We left Algiers with these tank landing craft, with the 13th Tank Landing Regiment and we went up the coast to Bone, we traveled at night, hide up in the daytime. Usually about half an hour after we would leave a port, the German planes would come over and blast Hell out of the town, evidently looking for us. By that time we would be sneaking along the coast. We saw a flight of Italian planes near sundown, [but] they just couldn't quite figure out what we were. We had no protection with us, [but] we had a fishing schooner, that is acting as a guide, a fishing schooner with an auxiliary motor. Of course, the tanks had the machine guns pointed up. These Italians, I don't imagine, they quite knew what we were and so they didn't make an attack.
We landed at Bone. Of course, there was no opposition there, some aerial activity. The Germans were making sporadic [air] raids there. About every hour or so they would come over in waves of 10 to 25 and, but I thought their bombing was very bad. They would come over and let go and try to get away and the place was jammed full of shipping and occasionally they would hit a French fishing smack or a tugboat or something, but they never seemed to get these landing craft that the tanks were on. I thought their bombing was bad, they would do a lot of damage in the town, burn down a lot of places.
From there we proceeded with the 13th right on through as far as Medjez el Bab, where we contacted the enemy. We stayed with them [the 13th Tank Landing Regiment] a couple of weeks. It was very, very interesting. My Chief Petty Officer, Ronald J. Pennick, Jack Pennick, who was quite a well-known picture actor[,] happened on an old Marine pal. He [Pennick] was with the Pekin [Peking, China, U.S. Marine] Legation Guard in 1912. He's been with me for 20 years. He did a good job, proved he was a good soldier, did quite a stunt up there, was decorated by the Secretary of the Navy with the Silver Star, for gallantry. We saw quite a bit of action. Finally, by that time, the Signal Corps cameramen started to arrive so we were ordered out, came on back. I think the experiment of learning how to use landing craft was very good. I think it was a good thing we went in there because we found out the deficiency of a lot of the stuff. They take the personnel barges in and you couldn't get off quickly enough, the next wave would beat them out so they were just helpless[,] starting to broach. I think they have fixed that since then, I know the one we went in on, I sat alongside the kid [the coxswain who steered the landing craft] and told him to ride it like a surfboard. He jammed her right up on the beach so we did all right. But it was a great experiment. I think it helped our ultimate success in Tunisia and Sicily. [That is] The experience these lads got out of handling these boats.
Interviewer: Commander, in the first landings were our soldiers - did they have full marching order equipment? Did they have than on them or were they light so they could take care of themselves in the water?
Commander Ford: Well the outfit, of course, the men that I landed with were British and they were in very, very light battle gear, very light battle order. Their stuff came from the ships later. I understand a lot of the boys got weighted down with the equipment. As I said, we had no trouble, our fellows landed in, I think the British refer to as light battle order. They are in battle dress and carried canteen, rifle, ammunition, but no overcoats or blankets, or any heavy gear of any kid. They were pretty mobile when they landed.
Interviewer: The general system is to land the personnel at one point and the equipment at another. Is that right, Sir?
Commander Ford: I don't know.
Interviewer: I noticed some of the later operations, they reported that they do that. Commander, I don't recall that you mentioned the name or type of the ship that you were on when you went down the Clyde.
Commander Ford: Well, I forget the name of the ship, she was one of the - she was a Duchess boat. Wasn't the Duchess of Athol, or Duchess of Richmond, I forget what it was. She was one of the old Duchess boats that runs from - run from Montreal to England, some very fine boats. Food was especially good, accommodations were good, it was a very, very neat boat. I can't remember the name of the boat, I have been on so many. I would have to refer to my diary, to my notes on that. There were quite a few Duchess boats. As a matter of fact, I think they were three or four in that particular convoy. All boats are similar types, I would say passenger ships from 18, oh, about 14 to 18 thousand tons.
Interviewer: You were in some action there on land?
Commander Ford: You mean at Algiers - Tunisia? Oh, yes. Yes, we were there about three weeks under heavy dive bombing and artillery firing all the time, [German Luftwaffe] Junkers 88's [bombers] and that sort of thing.
Interviewer: Howe did the marksmanship of the Germans compare with the Japs?
Commander Ford: I thought they were pretty much on a par. You were referring to their bombing, Sir?
Commander Ford: I thought their bombing was pretty bad. Of course, those dive bombers, the German dive bomber, has a lot of guts, they would come right on through and try to do their stuff. But I thought their bombing as a - generally was bad. It seemed to be hurried, they tried to do it and get away with it. But I don't think they had the precision that our fellows had. I know the only thing that interested me, when they piled all our gear on the center of the - of the field one day and I asked Pennick, "Well, where's our stuff?" And he said, "In that pile." And I said, "Good heavens they are going to take that for an ammunition dump." He said, "Aw, well, that's just what I told `em." Just then it went up, that was the best shot they [the Germans] made. We lost all our gear. But their bombing is hurried, I don't think it compares with ours, only that's my own opinion, Sir.
Interviewer: Commander, these pictures that were taken at Midway, and Africa, where do they eventually end up? I mean, is there any arrangements made so that these pictures can be taken care of for future generations?
Commander Ford: Oh yes. That is very thoroughly and systematically done. Those [motion] pictures are censored, sent on to a common library for the services and processed so that they will be preserved for centuries. Very, very well taken care of. Each picture will reach its proper destination eventually.
[Producer John Ford (1894-1973) was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He took the professional name, John Ford, when he got into the movie industry in 1914, and directed his first film in 1917. He was the winner of six Academy Awards for such films; his work includes such films as The Informer, Young Mr. Lincoln (with Henry Fonda), Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man. But Ford's specialty was the western adventure; he collaborated with John Wayne to make the famous "cavalry trilogy" of films (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and later The Horse Soldiers and The Searchers. Commander John Ford, USNR, commanded the OSS Field Photographic Branch from 1942 until 1955. Ford died in 1973. Chief Petty Officer "Jack" Pennick, USNR, was a well-known character film actor whose body of work spanned the period from silent films to the 1950's, and included many John Ford films.]