MCARA Notables > USMC Photo Reconnaissance Pioneers

Col. Hayne D. Boyden
Lt. Col. Ernest E. Pollock
Lt. Col Elliot Bard
Maj. Gen Louis Conti

Although the USMC flew aircraft with aerial observers in WW I the beginnings of aerial photo reconnaissance came in the 1920s during the Banana wars in Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama. In 1921, Col. Christian Schilt, later Director of Marine Aviation, who earned the Medal of Honor for rescuing trapped Marines, flew a de Havilland with a K-1 camera strapped into a frame in the rear seat to map coast and rivers of Haiti and Santo Domingo. That same year, Lt. Eugene Rovegno took aerial photos of President Harding’s yacht the Mayflower and somehow developed the film in flight and dropped prints aboard the boat before it docked minutes later at Quantico. This likely was a first in history.

But Col Hayne Boyden is given much of the early credit for early work in USMC aerial photo reconnaissance after becoming the first Marine officer to attend the Army school of aerial photography in 1923. Before WW II began he supposedly had taken more aerial photos than any other pilot and survived many crashes in the process. He filmed landing force exercises on the beaches of Culebra Island from 1924-1927 with Corp. Hubert Dogan as his cameraman, and mapped over 500 square miles of Nicaragua in 1932. Another early crewmember was Sgt. George C. Morgan who was an aerial observer during WW I and afterwards became heavily involved in aerial mapping including work during the Nicaraguan campaign in 1927.

By the late 1930s aerial photography like much of Marine aviation languished in the depression era budget doldrums although the Navy did establish a school of photography at Pensacola. There was no modern tactical aircraft available and aerial photography mission capability reverted to mainly use of hand held cameras from variety of old aircraft. As related by Capt. Robert Walker, a former enlisted pilot right out of Pensacola assigned to Base Air Detachment-One (BAD-1) at Quantico, typical missions in 1940 involved flying down to the Caribbean looking for German U-boats who were tracking British ships and taking pictures with hand held cameras. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then Capt. Ernest Pollock a pilot and OIC of BAD-1’s photo section, loaded all his units gear aboard a train headed for San Diego where he along with others would try over the next few months to establish a tactical aerial photo reconnaissance capability for the USMC.

At San Diego the decision were made to establish two photo squadrons with new designations, VMD-1 and VMD-2, in addition to commissioning additional observation squadrons or VMOs that were capable of aerial reconnaissance. VMO-251 was stood up first under Capt. Elliot Bard who shortly after was relieved by Lt. Col John Hart, a Navy Photo School graduate. Bard was made CO of VMD-2 a couple of months later. VMO-251 would deploy to the South Pacific in July, 1942 as the first USMC squadron with tactical aerial photo reconnaissance and full photo lab capability. It came as no surprise to these pioneers that currently available aircraft such as the F2A-3 Brewster Buffalos, SNJs, and S2F-3 Ducks were not going to cut it as tactical combat reconnaissance aircraft, but they had to begin training aircrews with them as a last resort. Pollock was soon posted to a key staff position in the South Pacific where he was able to put his photographic skills to good use.

By late Spring VMO-251 was given cast off F4F-3 Wildcats from the Navy which were modified to the F4F-3P variant with aerial cameras while retaining their guns, and deployed to the South Pacific in July. Unfortunately, the squadron would be tasked to provide base defense of Espritu Santo island and logistical support of operations at Guadalcanal some 600 miles to the North which was well beyond roundtrip range of their photo capable Wildcats. However, four enlisted photographers from VMO-251, (TSgts. Marcus Harper Jr., J. Morris, W.L. Peak and H.E. Collier) flew the first two reconnaissance flights over Guadalcanal just before the 7 August landing in hastily modified USAAF B-17s. VMO’s photographers continued to fly with the B-17s until VMD-154 arrived in late November. Later during the crucial defense of the island by the Cactus air force in October and November 1942, Capt. Carl Longley from VMO-251 and Majors Herman Hansen and Mike Sampas from the 1st MAW G-2 flew numerous photo missions in the longer range and unarmed F4F-7Ps from Henderson Field. Hansen was shot down and rescued and returned to duty. All received DFCs.

Back in San Diego a decision was made to equip the two renamed VMD squadrons (VMD-154 & 254) with new B-24Ds modified for long range reconnaissance and designated PB4Y-1Ps. Lt. Col. Bard led VMD-154 through a short but intense training period in the new multi engine aircraft and then led the forward echelon across the Pacific to Espritu Santo in late November where they would conduct sustained photo reconnaissance operations in support of the island campaign. Immediately after getting his planes operational, Lt. Col Bard flew a reconnaissance mission that discovered a new Japanese airfield at Mundra which would threaten Guadalcanal and it was quickly attacked and destroyed. Later he led one of the longest recon missions in history from Guadalcanal to the heavily defended Truk area early in 1943 and despite terrible weather was able to complete his mission. Under Lt. Col Bard’s leadership the squadron flew over 300 combat photo missions until being relieved by VMD-254 in November 1943. Many of these early missions were completed in the face of attacks by Japanese Zeros. Truk was revisited in February 1944 by two VMD-254 PB4Ys flown by Major Christensen and Capt. Yawn, who confirmed the status of the Japanese fleet and setting up a devastating strike by the U.S. forces. Their strategically important mission covered 2000 miles and was 12 hours long.

Earnest Pollock returned to CONUS and having been newly promoted to Lt. Col. took command of VMD-354 at MCAS Cherry Pt. in late 1943. In February the squadron received the first of the new F6F-3P Hellcats while continuing to fly the large PB4Ys. Sadly the next month Pollock and his PB4Y crew was killed in an accident near their base in Greenville , N.C. after returning from NAS Paxtuent River where he was testing flares for potential night photo operations. VMD-354 transitioned entirely to the F6F-3P Hellcats prior to deploying back to the Pacific in early May 1945 to support the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Then Capt. Louis Conti, on his second combat tour, was the squadron operations officer and later was assigned to head the photo detachment on Okinawa which conducted the pre-invasion reconnaissance missions. After the war, he completed photo interpretation courses and was a completed a tour as an aerial photo interpretation officer before leaving active duty. Recalled from the reserves in 1951, he served as executive officer and later CO of VMJ-2 where he transitioned to jets and then deployed to Korea where he was operations officer and executive officer of VMJ-1 flying F2H-2P Banshees until April, 1953, completing another 100 combat missions. His outstanding service in two wars covering all aspects of photo reconnaissance in both prop and jet aircraft, clearly makes this MCARA member one of our pioneers.

(Written by Col H. Wayne Whitten USMC (ret))