The photographs fill two albums, images of bombing missions, planes taking off and landing on the aircraft carrier, day-to-day life on the USS Steamer Bay.
They are memories on photo paper, and Harold Faler lived them all through the lens of his camera.
“I took the pictures, I developed the pictures, I printed the pictures,” he said. “I did the whole thing.”
Years before war, when Faler was a sophomore in high school, Pinedale got its first movie theater. He worked there one night a week and spent another at the Big Piney theater 36 miles away.
After Navy boot camp Faler filled out a form inquiring about his interests. He’d like to run those movies at the theaters, he wrote.
“That’s how I got into it,” he said. “There was an opening.”
He hadn’t handled a camera before. His first was a Speed Graphic, learning to shoot stills. Next he trained in aerial photography, flying outside of Boston while patrolling for submarines.
A small contingent of photographers moved to a new base in Maine, where they shot photos from torpedo bombers. In Pensacola, Fla., and in Anacostia, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood, Faler learned to operate a 35mm motion picture camera.
Two photographers were supposed to serve onboard the aircraft carrier USS Steamer Bay. But the chief photographer got in trouble and was sent back to the States. Faler had the photo lab to himself.
A picture in one of the albums shows him inside, sitting at a desk with a pipe in his mouth, looking away from the camera. A large picture of his wife rests on the desk. You can see the tattoo on his left arm, a heart with a banner running across it that reads: Beulah.
They met when Faler was in Washington, D.C., for training. He heard music coming from the Statler Hotel and went inside. She was a hostess. They married before he shipped out for 15 months.
“I got a letter a day from her, all the time I was overseas,” Faler said.
The Steamer Bay joined the Third Fleet as an aircraft replacement carrier. It took 75 days to reach the Admiralty Islands.
Faler shot with three cameras, 16mm and 35mm movie cameras and a Speed Graphic. There was no way to process movie film on ship, so he turned it over to the government. Mostly, he shot stills.
Faler photographed everything he could. He took snapshots of a luau thrown for the sailors in Hawaii, wrestling matches held for recreation, men scraping barnacles off the ship’s side. He snapped images of a ship refueling and a crash landing on board, the plane standing upright on its nose. He photographed the people who lived on the islands he visited: men pushing a fishing boat to sea, women making jewelry, a Christmas Mass, a portrait of a baby on Okinawa.
He has photos of planes and photos of bombs dropping out of them.
Once he was told to grab his camera and head to sick bay. From atop a ladder, he photographed an appendectomy.
Flip through the pages of the first album, and a series of images sticks out from the rest. In one photo, sailors crawl across the deck on their hands and knees. In another, one man is dressed like a bride, and one wears a mop for a beard.
In a third photo, men climb ropes at the back of the carrier. They’re covered in jam.
“Now,” Faler said, laughing. “OK.”
“This is the initiation that they put you through when you cross the equator the first time.”
That morning, the captain made an announcement. He was leaving ship, and while he was gone, the sailors would receive their rite of passage.
Faler still has his “official subpoena” for that day, May 22, 1944. It’s written from Davy Jones to the USS Steamer Bay: “Be it known that we hereby summon and command you, Faler H.P., to appear before the royal high court to be examined.”
All day, the sailors were put through nonsensical challenges. In one test, the officers would ask a candidate questions he couldn’t answer. They’d push the sailor’s head down until his face was planted in a three-gallon bucket of jam.
Faler tried to duck and dodge by taking pictures. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “it was rough.”
Before the chief photographer was dismissed from ship, he told Faler there were two things he had to do.
One: Put extra cartridges in his life jacket in case of emergency. Two: Store grain alcohol in the photo lab.
Say it was for photographic purposes only, the chief said. No one would question it.
Faler would visit the hospital aboard ship and ask for the five-gallon cans. Then, he’d host a party in the photo lab for a half dozen closest friends, the men he could trust not to rat out the group.
“That actually will take your breath away,” Faler said of the grain alcohol.
When food supplies came aboard ship, Faler worked with the hospital crew to sneak smoked ham.
He has pictures of the photo lab celebrations, men smoking, drinking grain alcohol, listening to music on a record player. In one image, a man hoists up a slab of meat.
Faler’s second photo album shows the other side of war, January to July 1945, when the Steamer Bay participated in major operations.
It includes photos of shot-down planes, bunkers where the Japanese hid, dead men on the ground at Iwo Jima, where a good friend of Faler’s died.
“Now we’re getting into it,” Faler said.
In the Invasion of Lingayen Gulf, the ship’s squadron flew 1,343 hours, releasing 117,000 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition, 560 5-inch rockets, 48 3-inch rockets and 71 tons of bombs, according to information included in Faler’s albums.
On the way there, Faler photographed the sinking of the carrier Ommaney Bay. The Steamer Bay had traded places with the ship not more than 45 minutes earlier. It was hit by a kamikaze.
And in the Philippines, the Steamer Bay providing air cover and escorting fleet units, Faler experienced his first attack. The fighting lasted for 36 hours, and the sky lit up like the Fourth of July.
Faler’s battle station was in the superstructure, on a platform about six feet above the captain. He pulled a camera to his eye and quickly jerked it down. Through the telephoto lens, it looked like the Japanese were right on top of them.
“After that, boy, everything was OK,” he said.
On April 2, 1945, the commanding officers spotted an approaching torpedo.
“I remember that very well,” Faler said. “It was almost dark when they sounded general quarters.”
“The wake of the torpedo was right alongside the ship, close enough that it went out of sight,” Faler said.
The torpedo disappeared under the overhand of the flight deck catwalk. The torpedo moved quickly, but the Steamer Bay evaded it.
The Steamer Bay supported the Fifth Fleet against Japan, coming close to the mainland. On July 25, it headed for San Diego, and the next day, fresh produce, milk and frozen food arrived onboard.
“You could have all the ice cream you wanted,” Faler said. “What a deal.”
All the while he was at sea, Faler would print a couple photos and give them to the officers. Often he was left alone to shoot as he pleased. He printed copies for himself.
For years he has held onto them.
“I’m proud of them,” he said.
They served with honor
Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.
“They Served With Honor” is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.