LOCAL PHOTOGRAPHER'S IMAGES PRESERVE AIRBORNE LEGACY
The "Guinness Book of World Records" is linked to a La Grande photographer's most visible work.
Photographs donated by Fred Hill are the focal point of a permanent display at the one-of-a-kind, Guinness-record holding Tillamook Air Museum.
The display features 20 photographs taken of the 123rd Observation Squadron, the first Oregon Air National Guard unit. It trained at Gray Field in Fort Lewis, Wash., for two years before it was disassembled.
Hill views it as a privilege to help keep the squadron's legacy airborne.
"Absolutely. It's an honor,'' said Hill, who grew up in Elgin.
The Tillamook Air Museum is an ideal place to salute the 123rd. More than 70,000 people visit it annually.
The museum is housed in a building like no other. Just ask the editors of the "Guinness Book of World Records,'' which rates the Tillamook Air Museum as the world's largest wooden structure. The building, a World War II blimp hangar, is 192 feet high, 300 feet wide and 1,072 feet long. Its roof covers more than 11 acres, an area large enough for six football fields.
The blimps the museum housed during World War II were used to protect convoys of ships from attack by German and Japanese submarines.
Members of the 123rd Observation Squadron also went on submarine reconnaissance patrols in the Northwest. Squadron members flew from the Columbia River north to Hoquiam, Wash., looking for submarines. Hill, who was not a pilot, went on one of the missions. No submarines were spotted, but Hill has not forgotten the mission.
"It was a four-hour flight, and I rode in one of the back seats,'' Hill said.
Anyone who accumulated four hours of flight time received an extra $12 to $18 in their monthly paycheck. This was big money, for Hill was then making only about $40 a month.
Leaders of the 123rd understood how much the flight pay meant. They arranged for non-pilots like mechanics and cooks to go on reconnaissance missions just so they could get air time.
"They wanted everybody to get flight pay,'' Hill said.
Hill was at Gray Field when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Following the attack, all the men in the 123rd were moved off Gray Field "to Fort Lewis hinterlands in pup tents.'' One commanding officer was convinced that the next target of the Japanese would be "little Gray Field ... Not the Navy base at Bremerton, not the really big base next door, but little Gray Field.''
The Japanese never attacked Fort Lewis. But the 123rd was hit by tragedy when one of its planes crashed in August 1942. Fred Parish of Western Oregon, a friend of Hill's, remembers the night vividly.
"I happened to be at the dispensary when the crash gong sounded. That terrible night is now etched permanently in my memory as I took charge of dealing with the badly charred bodies of two officers I did not recognize,'' Parish wrote in an e-mail to Hill.
Parish and most of the people who had been with the 123rd were later sent to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. The men served from June 1944 to November 1945.
Hill was not with them for he had been transferred to the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron in Salinas, Calif. Hill accompanied the 17th on a two-year mission to the South Pacific where it was stationed in New Guinea and The Philippines from about September 1943 to October 1945.
Despite being separated from the men of the 123rd by the transfer, Hill's loyalty and devotion to the squadron is unwavering. He works tirelessly to document the legacy of the 123rd, through reprinting old photographs, collecting documents and maintaining correspondence with the other men.
Hill is one of about 200 men who were once a part of the squadron. Today about 20, including Parish, are still living.
Despite falling numbers, theirs is a legacy that may outlive the structure the Tillamook Air Museum is in.
Hill is making certain of it.
Hill served with Army Air Corps photo reconnaissance unit
The China-Burma-India Theater for the South Pacific Theater.
That is ultimately the switch Fred Hill made when he was transferred from the 123rd Observation Squadron in November 1942.
Most members of the 123rd, which was disassembled in 1943, went on to serve in the China-Burma-India Theater of operations from June 1944 to November 1945. Hill ended up with the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, which was stationed in the South Pacific in New Guinea and The Philippines from about September 1943 to November 1945.
Hill was with an Army Air Corps photo reconnaissance unit. The unit processed pictures taken by crews on reconnaissance planes that had made flights over islands occupied by the Japanese.
The pictures revealed hidden tanks, supply depots, troop locations and other information vital to American soldiers preparing to invade the islands.
The planes would usually arrive back where Hill was stationed at around 4 p.m. Hill and his team would then work until early the next morning developing prints. The cycle was repeated hundreds of times.
On one occasion the reconnaissance planes were called into combat. Some planes were used to attack a Japanese flotilla of supply ships because no other planes were available. Three aircraft were lost in the attack, but the mission was a success. Hill's unit received a Presidential Unit Citation and a commendation letter from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Hill's collection includes 800 color photographs
The 20 photographs Fred Hill has displayed at the Tillamook Air Museum are not the only ones in his World War II collection.
Not by a long shot.
Today Hill has more than 1,800 photographs he took while in the the South Pacific with the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Hill's collection includes 800 color photographs. These are like gold. Few color pictures were taken during World War II operations in the South Pacific, since the U.S. military was not using color film then.
The color film Hill used was sent to him by friends while he was in the South Pacific stationed in New Guinea and The Philippines. Hill said that friends and relatives sent him so much color film that he could shoot liberally without having to worry about running out of film.
Today Hill's collection of color photographs is highly regarded by people such as Jeffrey Ethell, the author of many World War II books. Ethell told the La Grande veteran several years ago that he knows of only two other people who have as extensive a collection of World War II photos. The photos in the other two collections are of action in Europe.
Today 44 of Hill's color photographs are in seven hardbound World War II books. Fifty of his black-and-white photos are in several other World War II books.