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In Cost-Cutting Move, Navy Shutting Down Combat Camera Units

Ted Banks opens the row of cabinets housing Navy Combat Camera's store of cam...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Ted Banks opens the row of cabinets housing Navy Combat Camera's store of cameras, February 20, 2018.

The Navy is eliminating its two Combat Camera units. The move saves the Pentagon money, but it eliminates a program with a history that goes back to the war in the Pacific.

The decision to cut the units has been a blow for Kurt Kinnamon, who joined Navy Combat Camera in 1958 and retired in 1985. He still works as a volunteer at the West Coast unit on Naval Air Station North Island. They dedicated their building to him in October, but the unit is about to disappear.

“I thought it was BS, you know,” he said, of the decision to eliminate the unit.

As he thumbs through his scrapbook, Kinnamon remembers setting up a photo lab in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Other photographers of his generation waded into the jungle with the Marines. Later they photographed the last helicopters during the fall of Saigon.

“It’s mostly documentary,” Kinnamon said. “To complete the job and have it satisfy whomever it was made for, that’s a reward in itself.”

Hollywood movies

Dangerous, in-your-face, shooting made Combat Camera famous in World War II. Their footage made it into Hollywood movies and war-time propaganda films distributed to theaters around the country. Today, their images are used for training and Navy public relations, though the photographers see their jobs mainly as documenting Naval history.

“When you look at the history, the accomplishments of what we have achieved over the years,” said Doug Houser, who commands Fleet Forces Combat Camera in San Diego. “I like to look at some of the old images because there is a story behind each photographer that took that image.”

Houser is still trying to wrap his head around being the last commander of Naval Combat Camera. Last year, the Navy cut the units’ budget by 60 percent. Unit members weren’t surprised when the Navy announced they will end Combat Camera, effective Oct. 1, he said.

'We will shoot you'

Each service has its own Combat Camera. The Army, Air Force and Marines are keeping their units. The Navy’s unit in Norfolk, Virginia often shot ground combat during the last two wars. The second unit, Fleet Combat Camera in San Diego, works mainly on board ships and with divers in the Pacific. The San Diego unit’s motto is “We will shoot you.”

The budget for Combat Camera’s final year was $2.5 million, Houser said. A Pentagon spokesperson said the Navy is eliminating the units to increase efficiency. Navy Public Affairs will continue to shoot photographs of events. Some sailors will be asked to shoot video of themselves with Go-Pro cameras.

What the Navy loses are sailors trained to embed with units. For example, when NASA recently asked Navy photographers to document tests of its Orion spacecraft, in the waters off San Diego, Houser said.

“They came to us looking for the high-end photographer who can get out there and embed with the folks who were on those RIB boats,” Houser said. “That’s what sets us apart. We become part of the mission.”

Arthurgwain Marquez is one of Combat Camera’s few remaining divers. He assembled his underwater camera in the dive locker in San Diego, while contemplating the future.

“It’s not good,” he said. “A lot of people hit me up, asking ‘How do I become an underwater photographer? I’ll tell them our training pipeline and everything, but unfortunately, with the closedown of the command it’s not going to be a thing anymore.”

'We’ve earned the right'

The Pentagon said that over the next several months, officials will decide the skills the Navy will need to keep. San Diego ran a Quick Shot training school so photographers could learn to fight as they film. That prepared the photographers to work with units like SEALs.

Ted Banks, a Navy retiree who handles equipment for Combat Camera in San Diego, said the SEALS “know our background. They know our history. They basically trust us. We’ve earned the right to be there on the ground.”

Over the next several months, the Navy will have to decide what to do with the boxes of cameras, lenses and spare batteries, Banks said.

The Navy concedes some of the documentary work handled by Combat Camera may have to be contracted out. But in spite of that, Navy officials say Combat Camera’s role in Navy history is at an end.

The storied unit shot through the depths of World War II and Vietnam but will not survive the digital age, according to the Navy.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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