Pacific discoveries

The handwritten label — “Original Leyte” — on the negative envelope immediately caught my eye.  It was the second envelope in the box, just after the envelope labeled “Fort Benning.”  Leyte, an island in the Philippines, might possibly have a connection to Hugh Morton, who served as a photographer and film cameraman in the United States Army’s 161st Signal Photographic Company.  Morton’s tour of duty ended in the Philippines after being injured by an explosion near Balete Pass on the island of Luzon.

Marking its place, I pulled the “Leyte” envelope from the box, peered inside, and saw five negatives.  I pulled one negative out of its protective Kraft paper enclosure.  I couldn’t believe it—the very first item that I examined in the collection and I immediately recognized Hugh Morton’s face in the image: a copy negative of a photograph of Morton leaning over fellow signal corps photographer Conway Spanton!

Why was this so exciting?  Because I was not looking at an envelope in the Hugh Morton collection.  I was nearly 400 miles away from Chapel Hill.

Hugh Morton and Conway Spanton

Photograph of Hugh Morton (wearing sling) and Conway Spanton held by the United States Army Military History Institute in the Thomas L. Wood Photograph Collection. This photograph is the exact same pose as that in the Hugh Morton Collection. The negative in the Morton collection appears to be the original, but it has been trimmed along the left side and the bottom edge.

Early Tuesday morning of Thanksgiving week, I set off for Carlisle, Pennsylvania (about 190 miles east of my final destination of Pittsburgh), taking a busman’s holiday to conduct some research at the United States Army Military History Institute, which is part of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center.  Exploring its website and catalog the previous week, I discovered that the institute held several items on Camp Davis—where Morton was stationed before heading to the Pacific theater—and 1,982 photographs made by another 161st Signal Photographic Company photographer, Thomas L. Wood, who also served in the Pacific.  Given the dozens of photographers who traversed the Pacific islands, I considered the Wood photographs to be a long-shot, and held more hope of finding useful material on Camp Davis.

When I arrived Tuesday afternoon, I first looked at the Camp Davis items, which turned out to be either too generic or too specific for my purposes.  Next on my research cart was a document case containing envelopes and boxes of prints and negatives from the Thomas L. Wood photograph collection.  The Wood collection comprised two photograph albums and a box; because of their large size and storage location, however, the albums could not be brought out to the research room without approval.  While awaiting permission to use the albums, an institute staff member had pulled the box—the document case that held the negative envelope labeled “Original Leyte.”

“But wait,” you may be saying: a copy negative isn’t an original negative.  What was the original?  After the excitement of my initial discovery subsided, I removed the remaining four negatives.  One was a second copy negative of the Morton/Spanton portrait; the scene depicted in the remaining negatives (one original, two copies) I also immediately recognized from the Morton collection: a group of men, including Morton, seated around Spanton as he lies on a cot or a stretcher.

From the research room, I was able to check Wood’s negative against the group portrait in the online Morton collection.  Unlike the Spanton/Morton portrait, the group portrait was not the same image as the one in the Morton collection (below).

Conway Spanton group portrait from Morton collection.

Negative in envelope labeled "HMorton wounded with Photo Tean" (sic) from the Hugh Morton collection. The Spanton/Morton portrait was found in the same envelope when the collection was being processed. Hugh Morton is on the far right wearing a sling as a result of injury sustained on March 18, 1945 near the Balete Pass.

I wasn’t able to get too far into the collection before the research room closed, so I stayed overnight and returned Wednesday morning.  I methodically launched into the box of photographic material—starting on the opposite end from the Leyte negative with the photographic prints stored in Wood’s numbered and labeled original envelopes.  After reviewing all the material in the document case, I did get to see the photograph albums.  Lo and behold, in the second album . . .

Conway Spanton and group

Group portrait with Conway "Connie" Spanton from a photograph album in the Thomas L. Wood Photograph Collection, United States Army Military History Institute.

. . . a print of the group shot with an identifying caption.  Well, now there’s a problem . . . “Luzon” (in the caption) and “Leyte” (on the negative envelope) are two separate islands!  Two mysteries solved (Wood being the likely photographer and when he made the photographs), but a new mystery added (location).  Luzon makes more sense to me at this point, but more research will be needed to confirm that.

Some other place names on the envelopes and captions in the albums overlapped with places where Morton had ventured, but many more did not.  I was able to identify a previously unidentified Morton landscape photograph made in the Pacific from a different image in the Wood collection: Mount Bagana on Bougainville Island on what is now part of Papua New Guinea.  Using Google Earth, I was able to come pretty close to the spot where Morton likely made the photograph, and I recorded the latitude and longitude in the descriptive metadata.  Morton was not portrayed in any of Wood’s Bougainville photographs that were dated from December 12, 1943 going forward, including a New Year’s Eve party at the close of 1943.

The location common to both Wood and Morton that proved to be the most rewarding was Noumea, New Caledonia.  One print of Noumea with Mount Dore in the background labeled “Our camp upon hill” was taken from practically the same vantage point as a Morton negative featured in a previous blog post.  Wood’s photograph identifies the central portion of the photograph as the headquarters of the 161st Signal Photographic Company.

Thomas Wood's envelope #42: "Tent 14 - Noumea - N.C- " (New Caledonia)

A print of the Spanton/Morton portrait was in Wood’s envelope #42 (both shown above).  Envelope #43 — “Tent 14 – Miss/N.C.” — contained a group portrait of Wood, Spanton, and two others.  From the images in these envelopes, it seems that Wood and “Connie” were good friends and tent mates.

Thomas Wood (left) and Conway Spanton (to Wood's left) at Noumea, New Caledonia.

Thomas Wood (left) and Conway Spanton (to Wood's left) at Noumea, New Caledonia. Thomas L. Wood Photograph Collection, United States Army Military History Institute.

Another photograph in the envelope, labeled “New Caledonia/June 44″ on the verso, shows Thomas Wood (easily recognizable by that point in my research) and two other men.  I knew a completely unidentified print of that photograph was in Morton collection (below).

Thomas L. Wood and two others at 161st HQ Noumea

Thomas L. Wood (left) and two other soldiers pose in front of the 161st Signal Photographic Company headquarters at Noumea, New Caledonia.

In the second photograph album, however, there was an even more interesting group portrait . . .

161st Signal Photographic Company, New Caledonia, probably Noumea in June 1944

Group portrait of members of the 161st Signal Photographic Company in New Caledonia, probably Noumea in June 1944. Hugh Morton is second from the right first row; Thomas Wood is third from the right, middle row. United States Army Military History Institute, Thomas L. Wood Photograph Collection.

This group portrait, presumably members of the 161st Signal Photographic Company, places Morton and Wood in Noumea at the same time.  There appear to be differences in the foreground landscaping, so the date may not be the same as the portrait of Wood posing with two others.

After finishing with the Wood collection, I had very little time left to look at photographs in the institute’s Signal Corps Photograph Collection.  The views of Camp Davis predated Morton’s assignment there, so I moved on to a group of images arranged by location.  I had asked the staff to pull images from a handful of locations, but the clock was poised at less than five minutes until closing time on the day before a holiday.  I chose the folder labeled “Balete Pass.”

Inside was the biggest find of the trip.

Hugh Morton photographing near Balete Pass

Hugh Morton, on right, making a photograph just moments before he was injured by an explosion. Notice the Signal Corp number in the lower right corner of the 8x10-inch print that is part of the United States Signal Corps Photograph Collection, United States Army Military History Institute. That number is NOT on the much smaller print in the Hugh Morton collection.

In the Hugh Morton collection, there is a photograph with the following caption:

A US Army Signal Corps Photographer is shown photographing infantrymen of the 25th Infantry Division as they are in process of knocking out a Jap pillbox position near Balete Pass, Luzon. The enemy is fiercely defending Balete pass because it is a key route to Baguio. The Japs set off an explosion which wounded both Infantry men and Cameraman shortly after this picture was taken. Photographer: Allen”

That caption does not name the photographer in the scene; the descriptive metadata we had for this image online did not include that caption.  Both of these shortfalls have now been corrected.  Who is the photographer in the scene?  The faded but legible caption on the back of the print at the United States Army Military History Institute states: “Hugh Morton.”

A previous View to Hugh post, Saved by his camera, tells a bit more about that day.

A special note: Leyte is where General Douglas MacArthur famously proclaimed, “I have returned.”  Many thanks to the staff at the Army Military History Institute for their assistance during my visit.  I shall return.

3 thoughts on “Pacific discoveries

  1. Hi …
    It is great to see these original photos resurface. My uncle fought in the war for Australia against the Japanese on Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately by the time I was old enough to understand this, he had contracted Alzheimer disease and his wife had died, so much of the information about his life was missing.

    The conditions our troops met there were abysmal and many died. A photograph or a few photographs of the events and hardship they endured would make it a lot easier to understand some of what they went through. Thank you for you story. Bruce

  2. Stephen,

    I’m glad to see someone going into the archives at the United States Army Military History Institute and pulling these images for the world to see! Wish I could do the same! A hobby that I do is WWII Combat Camera in which I do a Signal Corps Cameraman impression (from the 167th Signal Photo Company) for public display at various WWII living history events in Washington state. I saved most of these images you scanned on my laptop so I can show them in a slideshow when I’m displaying my camera equipment. Thank you for sharing the story and the photos! Have a Happy New Year!

    Very Respectfully,
    Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class,
    Bryan Ilyankoff
    U.S. Navy Reserves

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