Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wartime Wednesday: First Photographs at Pearl Harbor

Wartime Wednesday: First Photographs at Pearl Harbor

I’m proud of my little museum here in Wolfeboro. David Wright, the founder, started collecting military vehicles from WWII until one day a friend of his supposedly said something to the effect of: “you’ve got to do something with them besides cluttering up the yard. You should start a museum.” 

So, in 1982, the E. Stanley Wright Museum Foundation was established. It would be another ten years before David and his wife, Carole, found the perfect location in Wolfeboro, NH. In the early days, it wasn’t much, but apparently, word got out about its potential and how special it was going to be because Army photographer Lee Embree who was the first photographer to snap pictures during the attack at Pearl Harbor showed up one day at the Wright museum and offered David his photos. 

Born in Iowa in 1915, Lee enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1936. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned
Courtesy of Wright
to the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron as an aerial photographer. By the time 1941 rolled around, he’d been promoted to staff sergeant. On the “day that will live in infamy, Lee had hitched a ride on one of twelve B-17 Flying Fortresses that was heading to Hawaii from California. He was headed to the Philippines along with a few other soldiers. 

The planes all held skeleton crews of five and carried bomb sights and machine guns but no ammunition. The 2,400-mile flight required all the gasoline the aircraft could carry. Because the B-17s were expected, the inbound Japanese planes that showed up on radar were assumed to be the Americans. 

As the pilots in the Flying Fortresses spotted the Hawaiian islands, they saw what they thought were burning sugar cane fields that bordered the air base. Not long after that, they noticed a group of fighter jets headed their way, and were glad to have escorts for the remaining miles to the field. To their dismay, the plans began to fire on them, and the bombers scattered. 

During the mayhem, Embree grabbed his camera and began snapping pictures, many of which ended up in Life, Time, and other important periodicals of the time. Copies are at the National Archives. In a 2001 interview, he was asked why he didn’t take more photos than he did. His response: “I can only answer that I was so flabbergasted at what I saw I forgot about the camera that was in my hand.” He went on to say, “They passed us so close on the left, I could see the pilots’ faces. They were grinning from ear to ear. We were just very lucky. The plane was hit several times, but we weren’t.” On the third circle over Pearl Harbor, Embree’s plane was out of fuel and forced to land (still in the midst of the attack).

Following the attack, Embree remained at the base as an aerial photographer until February 1942 when he was stationed in Fiji for nine months. He became a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps and served in many places through the Pacific, including New Caledonia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Guadalcanal. After the war, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserves where he retired as a major in 1957 and continued to work in photography. An interesting aside is the fact that the camera shop where Lee took his film to be developed refused to return the negatives, instead sending them to Washington, DC at the orders of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. According to Embree, “The next time I saw one of my photos, it was on the front cover of an Australian magazine.” He eventually got his negatives, returned to him years later in a brown envelope covered with Army postmarks from across the Pacific Ocean. 

He passed away at the age of 92 in 2008.


Estelle's Endeavor

Will a world at war destroy a second chance at love? 

Estelle Johnson promised to wait for Aubry DeLuca, but then she receives word of his debilitating injuries. Does she have the strength to stand by him in his hour of need? 

Aubry DeLuca storms the beaches at Normandy, then wakes up in the hospital, his eyes bandaged. Will he regain his sight? Will the only woman he’s ever loved welcome him home or is he destined to go through life blind and alone? 

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