ALEXANDRIA, Va., Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Norman Hatch walks down a flight of creaky stairs. At 83, he moves slowly, each step a calculation. At the end of a short, narrow corridor, he flips back a sliding door into a small room. The soft strumming of a ukulele and the distinctive glissando of a steel guitar, the unmistakable soundtrack of the South Pacific, is playing on a stereo in a cool, dimly lit hideaway.
Stacks of books, paper and boxes lean against walls that hold aging military regalia, exotic objects and paintings. This cluttered room, Hatch's small private museum of artifacts, holds a lifetime of experience, the summation of his life.
And then there are the photographs, which look eerily familiar. Each one of the black-and-white images an accumulation of chaos. Twisted wreckage and truncated palm trees create a hazardous semblance of sharp, incongruent forms amid a background of blackened sand dunes. It's a treacherous landscape of terror for the small figures that traverse it.
The small stack of photos could easily be mistaken for any number of the grisly snapshots taken after last December's tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. However, as Hatch can attest, these sobering photos do not capture a natural disaster, but instead a man-made one. Photographers documenting WWII battles took them more than 60 years ago, when Hatch was a 22-year-old Marine Corps combat photographer documenting his first battle against the Japanese on the South Pacific Island of Tarawa.
Considered one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II, Tarawa was a Japanese air base defended by 4,700 troops, many of them hunkered down in a labyrinth of well-defended underground complexes. The Marines of the Second Division invaded Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943. When they captured the island nearly three days later, 3,000 Marines were dead and only 17 Japanese soldiers remained alive. All of it took place on a piece of land roughly one-third the size of New York's Central Park. "It was a hell of an introduction," Hatch said.
It was an introduction that would change his life. Growing up in Boston, Hatch never anticipated that his budding interest in photography would lead him to a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more than 7,000 miles from home. He had more pressing concerns, like getting a hold of an Argus C3 35mm camera.
"The brick," named for of its basic, compact design, was one of the world's first affordable, easy-to-use cameras. It gained immediate success and remained for three decades the best-selling 35mm camera in the world, as amateur photographers like Hatch found an outlet for their photographic ambitions.
Sometimes Hatch's ambitions were less than praiseworthy. In high school Hatch and his friends would skip school and travel to the Old Howard Theater, which at the time was Boston's leading strip club. Although cameras were prohibited, Hatch and his friends soon discovered that the Argus 35mm was just small enough to slip into the club without notice.
"That camera sort of revolutionized things for us," Hatch said jokingly.
After graduation from high school Hatch struggled to find job opportunities in an economy still paralyzed by the Great Depression. When a job performing manual labor didn't pan out, Hatch pondered joining the military, even as the war in Europe gained momentum. After the Navy informed him that it was full, he settled on the Marine Corps. It was a decision that would alter the course of his future.
"I joined the Corps because I needed a job," Hatch said. "I needed a place to live and a someplace where I could get three meals a day."
Hatch was working for the Navy's office of public relations when he noticed a bulletin-board advertisement for the Marital Times School. The newly formed school was created to train Marines in combat photography. Although the Army had been involved in combat photography for years, the Marines were just beginning to look for recruits. On his fourth attempt Hatch was accepted. He was still in training at the Military Times School on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Two years later Hatch found himself wading across a treacherous reef in waist-deep water with 90 pounds of camera equipment on his shoulders under a barrage of enemy machine-gun fire. Rumor had it that Tarawa was so well-defended that not even 1 million men could capture it. Hatch was about to find out.
When asked about the out-of-body sensation that combat photographers often experience, Hatch said: "Once you put the camera up to your eye, you are in another world. You are not part of the battlefield when you do that because you are concentrating on what you are doing."
Combat requires adaptation, and on Tarawa U.S. troops developed a survival strategy the young soldier became well aware of. According to Hatch, you were likely to come around a corner and run into the enemy. At this point a soldier's goal would be to get the first shot off regardless of his aim.
"Just the fact that they were being shot at would scare the living daylights out of them," Hatch said. "Then the second shot. And by the third shot you'd probably hit 'em."
Although Hatch and other combat photographers carried pistols and were often in the line of fire, he was never forced to use his.
"Why I didn't get hit, I don't know. Because there was fighting going on all around the place," he said.
Hatch often placed himself so close to danger that other soldiers unfamiliar with combat photography began to question his presence.
"It was so new the guys on the frontline would say, 'What the hell are you doing here? You don't have to be here,'" Hatch explained. "I would say, sure I've got to be here. I've got to be here just as much as you're here. I've got to document what you're doing."
The skepticism Hatch encountered was common during combat photography's infancy. Many soldiers were unaware of the critical role soldiers like Hatch played in the war effort. In fact, Hatch was the first link in a chain that stretched from a distant battle zone like Tarawa to the cities, towns and homes of the U.S. public.
"You've got to imagine that the media in those days did not have the plethora of people that they do today," Hatch said. "Covering the battle for Tarawa we had six correspondents. In Afghanistan a few years ago they had up to 70."
During a battle photo officers from different divisions would fly film from the battle to the United States at specific times, where it would go directly to Washington to be viewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The film was then sent to Hollywood, where it was edited for newsreels or films. This was considered Hollywood's contribution to the war effort.
The entire process was designed to take place while the battle was still in progress. Before the Internet transformed our ability to access real-time information, the media were solely reliant on individuals like Hatch who risked their own lives for the public's right to know. Hatch maintains that his responsibility extended to the military as well.
"The pictures we take of what has happened may show somebody later on what not to do the next time. That's the idea behind the whole thing."
The footage Hatch and other photographers shot at Tarawa was turned into a film called "With the Marines at Tarawa," which won an Academy Award in 1944 for the most outstanding documentary short. But the award carried a price. Of the 15 Marine Corps photographers at Tarawa, two were killed and another was wounded.
The film captivated audiences. Its gritty, uncensored depiction of battle challenged the public's romanticized notion of war, ultimately leading to a dramatic decrease in Marine enlistments. Hatch played a primary role. Almost 30 percent of the film's footage was his.
For Hatch the Academy Award was never as gratifying as assisting in the public's right to know. He said he risked his life for this ideal; he has never doubted its importance. As our military reach extends throughout the globe, he maintains that it is as important as it was 60 years ago, maybe even more so. He was an ardent supporter of the embed process during the United State's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"I was all for the embed process," Hatch said. "Right or wrong they should be there no matter what. Once again, the public has the right to know. If you don't let the public know what you're doing then they won't support you later on."
At the end of Hatch's stack of photos, one continues to stand out. Amid all the chaos and confusion there is a man in the middle of the photo, perched atop a shell-pocked sand dune. Compared to his fellow soldiers his posture is unusually erect and he's holding a dark object close to his face. This person stands out. It's Norman Hatch. He's 22 years old and already risking his life to tell a story. He's doing what every good journalist strives for on every assignment; he's making sense out of the chaos.
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