Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: April 27, 2006

Bob Eustace US Navy Photographer

Speaker Photo

Former NAVY combat photographer who flew in SBDs, TBFs, PBYs, etc.
Most of his 2 1/2 years in the Pacific were flying of the CVE USS Suwannee escort carrier ("Taffy 3" in the Battle of the Philippines).
He also has a marvelous power point presentation of over 100 official combat photos he personally took in action--each with a story of course. * Born 22 August 1925 in Stockton, CA; Graduated @ 16 from Mission H.S., San Francisco
* Worked briefly at Eastman-Kodak, then enlisted in US Navy @ 17
* Trained in Pensacola, Washington DC, then assigned to San Diego flying in "Hudsons"
* Assigned to USS Suwannee, CVE-27, Escort Aircraft Carrier as a combat photographer
* Flew first combat missions aboard SBDs, then TBMs; also flew in PBYs
* Participated in eight (8) major battles in the Pacific, including Eniwetok, Truk, Palau, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam, Marianas & Okinawa
* During Battle of the Philippine Seas, Suwannee code-named "Taffey 3" & took 2 Kamikaze hits on 25 & 26 October 1944; over 50% losses
* After repairs, back in action for 87 straight days of combat
* After A-Bomb on Nagasaki, flew first photo-recon mission over devastation; spotted POW camps & sent rescue help; 2 weeks later at "ground zero" photographing; many GIs died later of radiation
* Took many hundreds of combat photos; selected over 100 dramatic photos for Power Point Presentation
* After WWII left Navy as Photographers Mate First Class, at 20, then spent 44 years with Kodak

Battles Before His Lens

Bob Eustace, US Navy Combat Photographer,

Aboard "USS Suwannee", CVE-27

By Col. John Crump

 Six decades after the negatives were first printed, a series of photographs taken by a combat photographer aboard a U.S. Navy escort carrier is again seeing the light of day. These photos, by Bob Eustace, tell the story of one man’s personal experiences on and off that carrier in the final year of the War in the Pacific.

In his time both aboard the USS Suwannee and in her aircraft, on raids against the enemy and in the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki, Eustace took many hundreds of photos. When he recently rediscovered boxes of them stored at home, Bob selected 160 of the most dramatic photos for his presentation at our April 27th meeting.

Bob Eustace was born 22 August 1925 on a houseboat in Stockton, California, the son of a commercial fisherman. During the height of the Great Depression, the Eustace family moved to San Francisco. Bob graduated from Mission High School in 1942, at the age of 16.

He worked for the Eastman Kodak Company for about ten months, repairing cameras, and when he was 17, enlisted in the Navy. Even though Bob was totally inexperienced as a photographer, the company forwarded a letter of recommendation on Kodak letterhead, and he says the Kodak logo pushed him past hundreds of more qualified applicants for photo school in the Navy. Eustace trained in Pensacola, Florida and then went to lithography school in Washington, DC. He recalls his training being a real struggle, but he had nothing to "unlearn, and so I learned the Navy Way."

During flight school, Eustace flew in SNJs and PBY Catalina flying boats. In SNJs, he recalls the losses of six aviators in a class totaling 36. There were Marine 2nd Lts and Navy Ensigns in the class, and Bob says many were feeling their oats.

"They pulled a lot of stunts. I think the most intriguing one I was in was the Milayno River. It was a river about 100 feet wide with banyon trees completely over the top of the river. But you could fly a plane down there. The only way out was under the Milan Bridge, about 40 feet high and 70 feet wide.

"We'd fly down there. I was in the back seat. And the banks were sucking at you, with the trees overhead. You'd go down the river, under the bridge and come on out, the other guy on your tail. It's a wonder we didn't lose more down there."

In the PBY, Bob recalls, "We had some very rough pilots. They all carried match sticks because they'd land so hard they'd pop the rivets out and then plug the little holes with match sticks."

"And they'd land so hard a number of times, you never sat in the radio compartment, because that's where the engines would come through from the wing.

By January 1944, Eustace was aboard the USS Suwannee, CVE 27, an escort carrier converted from an oil tanker that could steam at 18 knots. Bob says the Suwannee carried a mix of twenty-one fighters and nine TBM bombers.

Most often, Bob flew in the back seat of a Dauntless SBD dive-bomber, as slow and stable a camera platform as it was a dive-bomber.

" It was armed with a .30 caliber stinger I could use if I wanted to, but I didn't because I didn't know how to. There's a gun ring there and there's only room for you and the camera, but not the gun. So, in all my flying in the Navy, except for one time, I never fired a gun in anger."

On his first combat mission over Eniwetok, Bob says they were flying some 500 feet along the shore at an altitude of about 400 feet, much closer than he says they should have been. Bob was trying to take a stereoscopic picture.

"What you do is take one picture, then another that overlaps, and when you put those under a viewer, the trees come out at you. It's like the stereo wheels.

"We went further down around the island and then all of a sudden the plane took a tremendous jump, and I almost lost the camera over the side. And I looked up and there were bombs coming over the top of us. We had gotten in the dive-bombing run of the TBMs. We got a little too close and too low and if the pilots hadn't seen us, they would have gone right through us."

Bob was armed with an F-56, a rugged 18-pound camera for capturing images of combat at sea. Over Kwajalein, he found out how heavy that camera could be.

"I always wanted to take a picture over the tail where the bomb hit. So here I was in a steep dive… and do you think I could lift that thing when we came out… no way. So we climbed back up to about 8,000 feet to make one more run. I had a little Kodak movie camera with a strap on it, and I held it over the side all the way down until we pulled up and I bent the handle right out of shape."

Speaking of handles, Photographers Mates were admonished they could lose the camera, but they better well bring the handles back. The F-7 camera had two removable handles, which could be unlatched to allow fitting the camera into the bottom of the plane for mapping.

Bob remembers one instance where a camera was taken up without the handles being properly latched, and the photographer leaned over the side, had both handles, but the camera fell. Returning with the handles, the officer never said a word about the incident.

Along the way, Bob saw action in eight major battles in the Pacific, including Eniwetok, Truk, Palau, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam, the Marianas & Okinawa. Here are some of the images he captured:

(image - 40mm Gun Gallery.jpg)

A 40mm twin Oerlikon antiaircraft position. Bob identified crew positions and their team responsibilities for operating the guns - -

1. Gun Captain, with headset & binoculars, decides on targets and electrically fires guns

2. Gunner, with left eye to computer sight. To his left is an ‘iron’ ring sight for backup.

3. Horizontal traverse mechanism

4. Vertical traverse is on right side (out of sight) of gun from horizontal position

5. Loader (1 per side) drops ‘clips’ of 40mm shells into the breech mechanism

6. Supplier (1 per side) lifts ‘clips’ of shells from gun galley on far right of picture

Note also, the stowage of 40mm ammo in 4-round clips against the gun tub wall.

(image - SBD Douglas Dauntless Dive Bomber.jpg)

‘Slow But Deadly’ is what Navy aviators called the SBD, heralded as a reliable bombing platform. Bob rode in the aft end of the aircraft, where two .30 caliber machine guns had to be stowed so he could wrestle cameras around to take photographs.

(image - Collision with Sangamon.jpg)

"It happens, don't it! Two carriers, broad daylight, calm seas, signal flags flying…" The USS Sangamon and Suwannee collided, the bow of the Sangamon entering the captain's quarters on the Suwannee. When the ships were eventually parted, plumbing from the Suwannee's captain's quarters was left dangling on the bow of the Sangamon, leading to the observation that, "the captain's lost his head."

The two ships were patched up and continued operations without further incident.

(image - Hangar Deck Burial at Sea.jpg)

A funeral at sea aboard CVE Suwanee. The chaplain at the left leads the service while the ship's crew is at attention. Eustace says if you can imagine a line dividing the crew present in this photo - - in two days of combat, one-half of the ship's crew was lost. They were mostly young men, 17-20 years old,

(image - Roi Island Invasion.jpg)

An aerial image from about 8000 feet altitude of a Japanese blockhouse (rightt, center of image) exploding. Eustace says even at that altitude he could feel the concussion from the blast.


(image - 4 seconds after Kamikaze 1)

Bob took this shot as smoke billowed from the hangar deck after a Japanese pilot crashed his plane into the Suwannee flight deck, near the aft elevator.

(image – Kamikaze 2a.jpg), (image – Kamikaze 2b.jpg)

These were the last two in a sequence of three photos Bob took of a Zero that crashed into the Suwannee forward elevator on October 26th, 1944.

(image - Cooling beer.jpg)

Cooling bottles of beer with CO2 fire extinguishers... Bob remembers in the aftermath of one on-shore R&R, he saw some sailors with a 1000 yard stare as they awaited transport back to their ships.

On June 21, 1944, during the invasion of Saipan, the big carriers of the fleet had gone up to the Marianas Turkey Shoot and left the invasion beaches to us. Eustace says it was a pitch black night and the phosphorus of CVE-27’s wake pointed right to the ship. Bob was at his battle station, forward of the bridge, when he saw a Japanese plane heading toward the carrier, hurtling within 100 feet of his head.

"It went parallel to the flight deck and then went out. I could see the flames from its exhausts on the fuselage and the red meatball there. I ran down behind the island to the signal bridge and hid behind there and all of a sudden I heard ‘Boom".

"Turned out he’d dropped a torpedo, but dropped it too close and it didn’t arm. It went right down where I’d run, about thirty feet away, and put a ten foot dent in the hull of the ship. The guys on the ship said they could hear the boom… boom… boom… down the length of the ship as it still ran, but didn’t go off."

On October 25th, 1944, the Suwannee was in Leyte Gulf, and Bob was on the bridge when bullets began rattling off the steel of the bridge as an enemy plane came down, pursued by an F6F Hellcat trying to blast it to pieces. The Japanese plane, with its 500-pound bomb and fuel load, struck the Suwannee just forward of the aft elevator and exploded on the hangar deck below.

"The reason we took such a high rate of casualties is right underneath where he went through was the battle station where there was an armament gang and all the cooks and bakers handling ammo. It exploded right in the middle, killing all of them.

"It went down through the hangar deck on the main deck, where the engine and the pilot’s skull remained."

Eustace says that 90 minutes after the kamikaze strike, Suwanee’s deck had been patched and aircraft were landing. That night was a full night of tending to casualties. There were many burns, which for the most part could only be tended with zinc ointment and bandages and shots of morphine.

"All I did all night long was shoot morphine into kids, before they died," Bob tragically recalls.

The next morning started like the day before had ended, with enemy aircraft racing towards the invasion fleet.

"I grabbed my helmet and camera. I was right below the flight deck and I headed up to check things out. I forgot my life jacket, so I lost about a minute going back to get it. In the meantime, I no sooner hit the catwalk - - I would have been at the bridge by then - - when this Zero comes down, straight at me."

On the forward elevator was sitting a TBM that had just landed, its gunner still sitting in the turret and firing up at the plunging Zero. After a few quick photographs of the plummeting kamikaze, Bob scrambled off the bridge.

"He’s probably at less than a thousand feet by then. But with this K-20 camera I could take up to about two pictures a second… He hit just where the bridge was, right where my battle station was. It collapsed everything up there… either killed or wounded everybody on the bridge. I would have been there and been gone, but I was delayed by the lifejacket.

"The flames and exploding cartridges were ‘floating’ down the flight deck and I couldn’t get my head up to see. So I went down to ‘officer’s country’, which was pretty calm, and went up a ladder. I no sooner than had one foot on the flight deck when something went off in my face.

"About 150 feet from me there was a big explosion that picked me up, threw me down the catwalk and broke my camera. About that time I was getting shook up…"

Eustace says he thought he’d go back to the lab and get another camera, and as he turned and started sliding down the railing, a shrapnel cut through the railing and hung him there ‘like a piece of beef.’ The explosion had been a depth bomb that cooked off in the fire after the kamikaze had come through the flight deck.

Given the smoke and flames, Bob said he’d better crawl out to the ship’s fantail for some fresh air. His head quickly cleared, Bob made his way to the lab and camera locker for another K-20. He was loading it, when there was a big flash, which exposed the film he was loading in the dark.

The flash was from his division officer, who was looking for damage, and who thought Eustace had been killed when the plane hit the bridge. He told Bob to go topside and help fight the fires.

"I regret that to this day, because my job was to get pictures. And I didn’t get pictures."

The aftermath of the kamikaze striking the Suwanee in a ball of fire was captured by a photographer onboard the Suwanee’s sister ship Sangamon, and the photo was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the Invasion of Okinawa, the USS Suwanee was in combat for 87 straight days, the longest sustained period of carrier operations, which earned CVE-27’s crew the Presidential Unit Citation.

After the second atomic bomb was dropped, Bob was sent to take aerial photos of Nagasaki. He says the weather wasn’t too bad as they flew down the narrow valley that led to the targeted city.

"Nagasaki was not a very good target to hit, in a way. There was an aircraft factory there, but it was a Catholic town. The Jesuit fathers, when they first settled in Japan, that’s where they did their trading.

On the flight, Bob and his pilot discovered POW camps and they radioed back for help to be sent to the Allies in the camps.

Two weeks later, Bob returned to Nagasaki, this time on the ground as part of a team of observers documenting the devastation, and undoubtedly some souvenir seeking.

"I stayed on the truck because it was a good photo platform. They got down and grubbed in it, looking for things. I don’t know if anyone’s alive today. They all got cancer, or something like that. "

"The bomb itself was dropped away from the harbor, and downtown was not hit by the blast but by radiation. I went into a photo shop there and got a piece of photographic paper. I brought it back to the ship and printed a picture on it, 11x14. It was all fogged - - you could see the picture but the whole thing had grey fog, right to the edges.

"That picture right now is in the Atomic Museum at Sandia Labs, New Mexico."

Eustace says there are other pictures he took in 1945 that are now in the custody of Sandia Labs. His photos are filling a relative void created because Nagasaki did not hold the photographic interest that Hiroshima apparently did.

After WWII, Bob Eustace left the U. S. Navy as Photographers Mate First Class, at the age of 20. He continued his passion for photography, working 44 years with Kodak.