War and Peace

The memories, lessons and epic adventures of combat photographer Bill Gibson


The stories. Hundreds of stories, it seems, coming end over end, faster than we can keep them straight. It’s as though they begin tumbling down the stairs as soon as we open the screen door and Bill Gibson, gray-haired and stocky, beckons us up into the kitchen of his Bitterroot home. We ascend past rows of framed medals—a dozen and a half of them, including a Distinguished Flying Cross—into an upstairs lined with books, videotapes, and much of the accumulated memorabilia of Gibson’s 77 years, some 60 of them spent seeing the world from behind his camera. Our heels lovingly attended to by two curious dogs, we sit down and Gibson begins opening folders and envelopes, emptying their contents onto the yellow countertop.

The photographs. Every one of them a window into adventures by the score. Gibson with his friend Albert Schweitzer in the jungles of Gabon. Gibson at the Olympic ski jump in Holmenkollen, Norway. The pillowy wreckage of a blimp crash he survived during World War II. Bullfighters training with real bulls on the plains of central Spain.

“I got gored that day,” Gibson muses. “A guy gets in there with a lance and he tips the bull over, and there’s another guy up on the hill giving grades. And the bull turned around and charged me instead of the guy with the lance.”

Here’s a color print from Vietnam (“I got there the night of the Tet Offensive,” Gibson recalls. “Talk about your bad timing.”). Another of Gibson in a brown snowsuit running around a slender post sticking in an endless field of white. It’s the South Pole—the South Pole—and Gibson is demonstrating a trick he calls “Around the World in Eighteen Seconds.”

“Third man to stand on both the North and South Poles,” he says mildly. “A friend of mine was a reporter for the National Science Foundation and he wanted to take a picture of me. We got through with it and he asked me how it felt to be the third man to stand at both poles, so I told him I was proud to be a member of the same club as Amundsen and Scott. And then he asked who was the third man to fly solo across the Atlantic. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Lindbergh was first.’ And my friend told me, ‘That’s right. Now who the hell is going to remember the third guy to stand at both the North and South Poles?’”

The stories. So easy and effortless, yet every one of them a hydra-headed ganglia of threads leading to dozens of others. Too little time, too little tape to put more than a dent in an oral history of Bill Gibson: director, photographer and combat cameraman whose six decades of exciting and dangerous assignments read like a minor compendium of 20th century events. There’s nothing to do but sit back and let them roll.

“You Should Be Dead”

Gibson, a New Jersey native, first caught the film bug as an usher in a movie theatre in Saint Petersburg, Florida during the 1930s.

“I fell in love with the newsreels,” he says. “I just got chills. I used to hide in the corner in my usher’s uniform and watch the newsreels over and over again, and I told myself that one of these days I was going to be that cameraman filming Hitler and Mussolini and Roosevelt. Then I found out that there were only 55 newsreel photographers in the world. Impossible to get in. So I wrote a letter to John Ford and told him I was interested. He wrote me back a letter telling me there was no way I’d never break into that group, but that I’d have any camera at my disposal if I went into the Navy. So then I kind of told a little fib to the Navy—that John Ford recommended that I be a photographer.”

Gibson completed his basic training in August 1941 and was immediately assigned to what would become one of the most storied ships in the American Navy: the USS Hornet. It was on that ship that Gibson, still a “barely-old-enough-to-shave kid,” met Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, the aviator who soared into the Pantheon of American military leadership by leading a squadron of 16 B-25s on a white-knuckled raid over Japan in early spring of 1942.

“It was a suicide mission,” Gibson says, laying out a sobering, stark print of Doolittle’s B-25 swooping off the Hornet and over a churning April sea en route to Japan. Gibson’s cold assessment is hardly an exaggeration: Doolittle’s B-25s were never designed to take off from a carrier deck, but the squadron successfully spanned the 650 miles between the Hornet and Tokyo, peppering the Japanese capital and a handful of other cities with bombs before crash-landing in China. Troops of the Japanese occupation captured some of Doolittle’s airmen; one died in prison and three were executed after a show trial in which they were charged with bombing civilian targets and strafing a school.

The Doolittle raid accomplished little in the way of decisive damage; the bombs caused mainly confusion and speculation among a slightly baffled citizenry for whom the raid was never officially explained or acknowledged. But they rang loud in the halls of the Japanese high command, where the gaggle of clumsy bombers under the command of the man whom Gibson affectionately refers to as “Jimmy” made a clear lesson of the vulnerability of the home islands. As a sort of lagniappe to Americans still smarting from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and grappling with their own preparedness for a lengthy Pacific conflict, for them the Doolittle raid demonstrated precisely the same thing.

Doolittle returned from China following the raid and became fast friends with the young photographer. His cleft-chinned visage appears in many of Gibson’s treasured prints. We see the two crouching over a jaguar bagged in a night hunt in Venezuela during the ’60s, poking around the wreckage of South American aviation pioneer Jimmy Angel’s flying crate, and generally enjoying the tangible bonds—tangible even on film—of two old soldiers who lived to tell about it. The two remained close until Doolittle’s death in 1993 at the age of 96.

“Probably one of the greatest men who ever lived,” Gibson says. “Did you know that he was the first man to fly solo or take off blind using only instruments? He completely designed a couple of instruments, he was the first real aerodynamic engineer in the world, he was the consultant to six presidents. And when we’d go on any kind of job, as soon as we’d pull up to the hotel he’d help the driver with the luggage. I’ve got shots of him carrying my camera.”

Still leafing through stacks of photos, we are joined by Gibson’s wife Harriet, who smiles fondly at the mention of her husband’s late friend.

“You couldn’t take your eyes off him,” she says. “He was a little guy, shorter than I am,” she holds the blade of her left hand at about ear level (perhaps 5-foot-3-inches), “But he would walk into a room and, whoosh, every head in the room would turn to look at him. I don’t know whether it was who he was or what he did or if it was just his special persona, but he had it. I adored him.”

Quick and handsome, with a closely-cropped strawberry blond pageboy, Harriet Gibson perfectly mirrors her husband’s surefooted composure—it’s the satisfied stamp of a life lived full to bursting. Even as she darts around the kitchen mixing ingredients for a curry of artificial crab meat, she also acts as his editor, deftly clipping his sentences with the gentle reminder that he is speaking on the record and that, his candidness notwithstanding, certain matters of a more delicate military nature should be withheld from the clutches of lay journalism. Bill takes her lighthearted admonitions perfectly in stride, and presently a moment of respite is reached in a dizzying flurry of war and peacetime tales. The conversation veers off into cameras and photographic equipment, and before we know it Bill and Chad, the photographer on this expedition, take their leave to talk shop in Bill’s video room.

Handing me a second glass of water, Harriet shakes her head sympathetically and tells me she almost feels sorry for me, trying to reduce even a slim handful of her husband’s adventures into just a few thousand words. Weakly, I admit that I almost have to agree with her. A richer but hardly exhaustive account of Bill Gibson’s photographic assignments will appear later this summer in a 200-page volume published by Scarecrow Press. No Film in My Camera, written by Gibson, compiles six decades of the author’s assignments from combat cameraman in World War II, through his days in Korea with the Air Force, and on to Vietnam as a civilian on assignment with the U.S. Marines. According to the advance press release, Gibson’s book also “offers up riots in Indonesia, uprisings in Africa, and coverage of world leaders that reads like a twentieth-century who’s who: FDR, Harry Truman, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Charles Lindbergh, Albert Schweitzer, DeGaulle, John F. Kennedy, Reagan and many others. He also provides insights into the frustrations and triumphs of America’s space program, from his vantage point as a consultant to NASA on the photographic coverage of Apollo 11. In No Film in My Camera, Gibson brings all these scenes to life, not only through his camera, but with detail and emotion.”

Harriet, who has shared many of these adventures, is careful not to give too much of the book away prior to its August publication—including the choice of title, which sounds absurd in light of her husband’s contributions to combat photography. She is delighted, however, to relate the reaction of certain people upon learning of some of the tight spots Bill has squeezed through.

“‘You should be dead,’ they tell him.”

There have been times when Gibson has wondered himself. A mordant wit simmers just below his placid demeanor as he tells about the time he found himself sitting on a strip of irradiated beach in the Bikini Atoll in 1946. Three weeks earlier he had photographed the evacuation of Bikini natives and the first round of postwar atomic testing, using a remote tower with nine cameras set up to capture the sea-shattering blast of the Baker Test. The absolute last of 42,000 American military personnel to be evacuated from Bikini, no sooner had he left than he was called back to photograph the removal of contaminated vessels from the fallout-dusted atoll.

“They sent me back to Bikini to get pictures of the last ship being towed out of the harbor, the last contaminated ship they were moving up to the Aleutians or somewhere. They dropped me off on Bikini and took off, signaling to Kwajalein to have me picked up later. So here I’ve got my camera and my tripod, sitting on this “hot” beach. I wait, and I wait, and after a couple of hours I get panicky. It was no Robinson Crusoe situation, either: I couldn’t eat fish, I couldn’t eat coconuts. I was telling Harriet that what I thought I’d do was take my dog tags and bury them where the Navy would never figure out where the hell I was when I died, and then just wade out in the water with the sharks just to get back at them for leaving me there. But just before sunset, the most beautiful sound in the world: a seaplane zhooming over. They’d lost the message, and it was just luck that they found me. Yeah, heh heh, luck.”

Gibson has had some close scrapes and, without a doubt, seen things that would curdle the blood of anyone unused to combat. Pressed for his views on how to strike the proper balance between “never forget” and putting the horrors he saw behind him, Gibson recalls a particularly grim and personal chapter: the sinking of the Hornet during the Battle of Santa Cruz. A shaky photograph of the Hornet’s last moments lies on the countertop between us now, a staggering ship bracketed by spouts of corrupted seawater.

“As the Hornet sank, people were on the fantail of the ship collecting bodies. Someone got some mattress covers and they were putting the bodies in the mattress covers. The chaplain on the ship, a man by the name of Harp, had but one or two words to give them, words to the effect of “Forgive them, they know not what they’ve done,” and then over the side of the ship. I had my camera and I was about this close—and that’s a no-no, photographing your own dead, but no one had ever taught me any different—and the chaplain looked at me as if to say, you know, get away. And I wondered: what is my job? I was really confused. Is my job to tell a story, or just tell part of a story?”

"What Is Out There To Do?”

Gibson made it through the war with no worse than a temporarily collapsed lung and returned to hot spots—most notably Korea and Vietnam—throughout the following two decades. His work with NASA resulted in Footprints on the Moon, with bona fide rocket scientist and good friend Wernher von Braun.

“That was my big movie,” he says modestly. “I helped design the video camera that was on the lunar excursion module that landed in 1969. My camera is still up there, too.”

By the 1970s, Gibson had visited all seven continents and produced countless training films, technical films, park service films, films for law enforcement agencies and the armed forces. His output has tapered off in recent years, but he still works on projects in his fully-appointed video room.

“How many?” he echoes the question. “Oh, I haven’t the slightest. Hundreds. In fact, before we got here,” he nods vaguely around the Bitterroot overlook which has been the couple’s home for the past 11 years, “Harriet and I were the single largest contractor to the government. Park Service, Air Force, Navy, you name it. You can really turn ‘em out that way, you know.”

Judging from the stills he shows us, one of the funnier films Gibson has produced is The Armchair Traveler, which was originally financed as a promotional reel by a Peruvian copper king with big plans to open his own airline. Funding dried up when the copper baron’s venture failed to get off the ground, but Gibson completed the film anyway. It consists entirely of scenes of an unassuming highback chair which Gibson hauled around the world from one ripping good time to another. Here’s the chair water-skiing and scuba diving in Mauritius; there it is zipping past the Arc de Triomphe in sunny Paris.

“The chair swelled in Mauritius,” Gibson recalls. “We had a special box for it, but we couldn’t get it apart. They wouldn’t take it through as baggage on the airplane because it was too big, so we had to buy a first class ticket for it.” Gibson chuckles. “We charged it to the producer.”

The couple have fewer treasured memories of a more recent project: producing a music video for sneering British rocker Billy Idol. Bill Gibson gamely croaks a few lines from “Hot in the City” while Harriet imitates Idol’s ridiculous antics during the filming.

“That was one of the most miserable days we have ever spent in our lives,” she says emphatically, rattling off the short list of character flaws that made Idol especially intractable to work with.

Rather a far cry, I think, from the experience of sitting on a sizzling slice of beach, wondering if the rescue plane was ever going to come. I repeat a question which had earlier gotten marooned by a lengthy and involved tangent: When the end of the war came, and its survivors looked on a new world reborn from the ashes of the old one, what kind of future did Gibson imagine for himself?

“World War Two was the hors d’oeuvre. All I could think about was: What is out there to do?”


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