Ventura County is home to three men who made history during World War II. The men were not really aware that what they were doing was special, but, as combat photographers, they documented moments in the conflict that otherwise might have been lost.

In later years, the men learned that some of those moments had great historical significance. Some of those photos have become iconic. But the names of the photographers were not important to the military, and many of their photos have disappeared in the passage of time.

All three of these men reached back into their memories to vividly relate their experiences as combat photographers of World War II.

 

JERRY COLE: PHOTOGRAPHER AS ARTIST

 

Jerry Cole of Oxnard loves to tell a story. He knows how to charm a listener with details which make the tale come to life. But his most elegant story was told without words. Jerry was a combat photographer during World War II.

Cole’s best known photographic work is a color photo of aerial artwork created by the contrails of soaring war planes. But Jerry’s name has never appeared on the photo.

“I know I took the picture,” Cole said. “It was my first mission, and I thought they were German fighters, but they are P-47s getting ready to go back to England. They had a few extra gallons, and they were feeling frisky, so they shot up and then went back to England.”

This particular photo was almost delegated to obscurity because it had what Cole believed to be a fatal flaw in the picture. Cole said he walked past the clerk’s office where the photos were being sorted. The clerk was holding the photo of the contrails in his hands and gazing at it. However, it had a large streak of light across it, and Cole thought the photo was ruined. But the clerk did not agree that the photo was worthless.

“What I didn’t know was that he sent it to the wire services,” Clerk said. “The first place it actually showed up was in Time magazine in 1943. [The streak] was airbrushed out. That’s how it got published.”

Cole said his enlistment in the military had to wait until he turned 18 in 1942.

“I didn’t go out of patriotism or anything like that, I went for adventure,” Cole said.

Not satisfied to just be a photographer, Cole made certain that he had other military skills in order to be transferred to more action.

“I became a ball turret gunner of my own volition,” he said. “That also wasn’t out of patriotism, it was to get out of the damn photo section.”

 

PROJECT APHRODITE

 

Many years after the end of the war, when Cole was a civilian, he learned the magnitude of one somewhat strange assignment.

It began when Cole saw a P-51 crash land. The pilot was pulled from the wreck, which was then abandoned. Cole knew a movie camera was embedded inside the plane’s wing to automatically film the action in the air. Figuring no one would be the wiser, Cole dug the camera out and kept it even though he had no idea how it worked.

Cole said he was working in the radio room at a base in England when he was told that “the brass” in the photo section wanted to see him. Since Cole had bragged to others about his newly acquired, but contraband, movie camera, he figured he was in big trouble.

To the contrary, they wanted him to film something. Cole was assigned to a B-17 and the pilot was to tell him what to film. What Cole saw made no sense to him. What Cole did not yet know, and would not know for many years, was that he was about to document a highly secretive operation called Project Aphrodite.

“I see a forest and I see a big, round circle in the forest,” He said. “It was actually a crater. I thought the Germans had dropped a thousand pound bomb in the forest by accident. I didn’t know a plane had exploded. When we got back, the guys grabbed my film like a bunch of thieves, and they were gone.”

That was the end of the assignment. Many years later, Cole learned that the crater was the result of one in a string of disastrous missions led by Maj. Gen. James H. Doolittle. The idea for Project Aphrodite was to turn B-17s beyond their usefulness into flying bombs.

The planes were stripped of everything not necessary for flight and then loaded to the hilt with explosives. The planes were to be piloted by a two-man crew for a portion of the way. At a certain point, the crew was to bail out over England and a mother plane would then remotely guide the drone into German targets. Unfortunately, the technical aspect was not advanced enough to accomplish this mission.

Cole witnessed one of the failed drones’ crash sites. Both crewmen were killed and the pilot’s remains were incinerated in the crater.

The most famous pilot to die in Project Aphrodite was Joseph Kennedy Jr., the oldest brother of President John F. Kennedy. The exact circumstances of his death were clouded in secrecy for many years. Project Aphrodite became known as a costly failure in which most of the crews paid with their lives, a price far in excess of any damage inflicted on the intended targets.

 

JOHN GULICK: COAL MINER’S SON

 

John Gulick has a gentlemanly countenance and gracious manners which are also reflected in his modest, but welcoming, Simi Valley apartment. He speaks quietly and does not brag about his extraordinary experiences during World War II in Europe. Although Gulick bears no resemblance to the Hollywood version of a spy, his military service in Italy required that he become one.

Gulick grew up in a small coal mining town, Port Redding, N.J., as one of 12 children. His parents had emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the U.S. in 1912. Gulick’s father worked in the mines.

“Everybody in town worked at the Roundhouse, as they called it,” Gulick said. Until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Gulick had no reason to believe his life would swerve into another world as a military spy photographer in Italy.

However, as the U.S. entered into the conflict, Gulick enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

“In a little town like that, you become a little more American than in cities,” He said. “Everybody wanted to join the Army. I was fortunate enough to make the Air Force.”

Although Gulick’s dream of becoming a pilot did not materialize, he found his niche when he was asked if he knew anything about photography.

“I said, ‘Well, I had a camera once, a small one, a little Kodak,’ and that did it,” Gulick said.

During his training, Gulick learned his craft as a military aerial photographer, a skill which would prove valuable later on in the war. While stationed on the home front, Gulick’s assignments included photographing President Franklin Roosevelt signing war documents.

“I was not too far away from his desk, from the president, when I took that. I think he was forming the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) with some of his cronies,” Gulick said.

In 1944, Gulick was finally sent overseas to Scotland. From there, he was transferred to southern England for even more training. Then he was given his first assignment in Europe. It was a historic turning point in the war.

 

D-DAY

 

It was early June and Gulick was assigned to photograph Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as he spoke to the troops on the eve of their invasion of the Normandy coast. D-Day. In that famous speech on June 6, 1944, Gulick captured Gen. Eisenhower speaking these words:

“You are about to embark on a great crusade … good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of the Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

Within two days, Gulick was flying over the D-Day invasion, photographing the invasion of the Normandy coast in France.

Soon after the invasion, Gulick was assigned to a special unit attached to the Royal Air Force. The combined effort was called Operation Carpetbagger.

By 1944, Gulick was well-schooled in military daytime, nighttime and aerial photography. His job in Operation Carpetbagger was to fly missions in which he would take pictures of the landscape behind the German lines to provide vital information about enemy troop movement to the Allies.

“We were coming up through Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and they were not that well-occupied there,” Gulick said. “They couldn’t occupy all of Europe.”

During these missions, Gulick’s crew came upon a surprising scene in Klaggensfort, Austria.

“We just happened to be flying over what turned out to be an Allied POW camp,” He said. “The people were waving towels and whatever was white. They’d never seen a B-24 there, all they saw were German planes.”

The prisoners were soon rescued after their location was pinpointed by these photographs.

Gulick was assigned to the 859th and was based in Brindisi, Italy, where he captured photos of famous and notorious leaders of Italy. One especially famous photograph of Pope Pius XII was snapped as he was being carried on a palanquin through Rome.

During Gulick’s posting in Brindisi, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was captured and then executed in a nearby town. The dictator’s body and that of his dead mistress were hauled into town, where Gulick photographed the gruesome scene. Townspeople then hung the bodies upside down from meat hooks and took out their anger and hatred by mutilating the bodies. Gulick took photographs of the aftermath in which the corpse of Mussolini was unrecognizable.

Even after the war in Europe had ended, Gulick’s mission continued for the OSS. German soldiers were still scattered throughout Europe, and Gulick’s mission changed from being purely photographic to dropping supplies to the Italian partisan fighters.

“They had to claim their country back, and they had a hard time,” Gulick said.

Gulick was finally shipped back stateside in the summer of 1945. He moved with his wife to California in 1949 and worked as a studio portrait photographer for a while. But Gulick wanted to do something entirely different. So in the mid-1950s, he started a septic pumping business in Simi Valley called John’s Pumping Service. He has lived in Ventura County for more than half a century.

 

HAL GEER: LIVING LARGE

 

Hal Geer of Simi Valley has had two careers that are so large and so different that two men could have lived his life. Geer retired in 1987 from Warner Bros. after 40 years. He had a prolific track record editing, writing and producing Looney Tunes as well as many other genres of filmmaking. Whether it was cartoons, feature-length live action crossover with animation, television shows or commercials, Geer mastered it. He proudly wears a shirt embroidered with Bugs Bunny and has dedicated a large wall in his family room to displaying framed animation cells of Yosemite Sam and the other Looney Tunes characters. He even organized the drive to give Bugs Bunny his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1985.

But the film of which Geer is the most proud is called China Crisis. It is a documentary about the dire supply crisis in China following the Japanese invasion. He made the film in 1945 while serving as a war photographer in China. Geer served 34 years in the military and reserves. The former U.S. Army major flew 86 combat missions with the famed Flying Tigers in China and became the most decorated combat photographer in the Air Force.

Yet, Geer remains enthusiastic when relating stories of his wartime exploits. He is soft spoken and barely takes a breath when setting the scene of his World War II experiences. Whether Geer talks about an historic military event or a family reunion (he is distantly related to the late actor Will Geer), his intensity and attention to detail remains the same. He is a compelling and entertaining raconteur.

Geer signed up with the military just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He intended to be in the Army Engineers because he grew up in the construction business and had his own contracting company. The Army was thrilled to have someone with his special skills.

“Oh boy, they needed me,” he said. “I knew how to use dynamite, just what they needed. But when they called me to active duty, they put me in the Air Force.”

After extensive testing for every kind of military tech school, Geer was asked if there was something in particular he would like to do. Geer had been interested in photography since he was 10 years old and requested photo school.

“Halfway through photo school, a guy hands me a movie camera and says see what you can do with this thing,” Geer said. “So, without any training, I went out and made a movie. I ended up in the first motion picture unit in Culver City.”

A unit was formed to go to China with Sgt. Maj. Hal Geer in charge. They were later absorbed into the U.S. 14th Air Force with Gen. Claire Chennault in command. The unit was called the Flying Tigers. Their fighter planes were painted with large, toothy, colorful faces of sharks, making the Flying Tigers the most recognizable of any individual combat unit in World War II.

Geer’s personal experiences in China helped shape his documentary, China Crisis. He recalls how desperate the villagers were after the Japanese invasion. As the Japanese arrived in villages, the Chinese burned their town and then fled as refugees. Geer remained in one town after nearly all the residents had left. The engineers were waiting for Geer and his still cameraman to evacuate before blowing up the only bridge into town. But there were still two others who had not left.

“There was a little old lady sitting in the doorway of her house,” he said. “The idea was that this was the face of China after seven long years of war.

“As I was getting ready to pack up, a little shoeshine boy approached me and asked if I need my shoes shined,” he continued. “So the only two people I saw in town were that little old lady and that shoeshine boy waiting for the Japanese to come in and get them. We got down to the bridge, the engineer blew up the bridge behind us.

That experience had a profound effect on Geer.

“That little boy, you don’t know the feelings you have when you have to go and leave a kid like that to die,” he said. “After that, I was to see thousands of people die, refugees fleeing on foot as far as they could go.”

Geer was behind Japanese lines when the war ended and had to walk out on his own. He was finally discharged from the military, only to be called back into service six weeks later. He was to photograph the atomic bomb blast at Bikini Atoll.

“I headed for Bikini, and I wasn’t on the flight list for the first bomb drop, and I was mad,” he said. “I was assigned to do a very secret project. Drones, B-17s, were going to fly through this atomic cloud and take samples of the dust. Camera guys are crazy. I talked the guy into letting me fly solo in the drone. So, according to the technicians, I am the first man to ever fly solo entirely by remote control.”

Recently, Geer returned to China for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. He was told by a U.S. Embassy official that he could tour Chinese universities, show his film China Crisis, and speak to the students about the role of the U.S. in the war. Geer had just one reservation about his new assignment.

“I said, if you keep me out of a Chinese jail, it’s a deal,” he said.

Although the memories of the war are still crystalline, this generation of erstwhile warriors moved on with their more ordinary lives and are now in their sunset years. The photos will last as evidence of a global conflict. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances rose to the challenge and beyond. Much of the destruction of war has long since been wiped clean and new cities now stand in its place. But the photos will remain as witnesses to the horrors and heroism of World War II.