The Reel Catch-22, Part 1: Lt. Wilbur T. Blume, Combat Cameraman

Today’s post was written by Burton Blume, a brand consultant/creative strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. He contacted us last year when we featured footage shot by his father, Lt. Wilbur T. Blume. We were intrigued by additional information Burton Blume was able to add to previously unexamined motion picture records. In this series of posts, Burton Blume relates stories of his father’s experience in the 9th Combat Camera Unit and of making a training film in Corsica that starred Catch-22 author Joseph Heller.

My Journey into My Father’s Past

When I was growing up, my father’s references to his military service were anecdotal; he never boasted about his exploits. He did, however, indulge my older brother and me in our fascination with WWII aircraft, particularly the B-25. There was an old black binder with a few prints from his days with the 340th Bomber Group but the motion pictures were nowhere to be found. We also inquired about Joseph Heller’s great antiwar novel, Catch-22, which we knew was inspired by the author’s wartime experience flying B-25s out of Corsica. Dad said he recognized some of the situations and characters in the book, but it was years before he came to appreciate Heller’s wise-guy sense of humor. When Dad passed away in 1989, he took his memories with him.

Lt. Wilbur T. Blume poses with a 35mm motion picture camera.  Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

My personal journey into my father’s war began in 2008 when I read an article in the International Herald Tribune about Corsican historian Dominique Taddei and his book about the American bomber squadrons, USS Corsica. We began to write to each other and soon I was on the trail of Dad’s wartime photos.  I knew about the old black binder, but where was it now? And were there any others?

I finally located a small storage room in Seattle where my brother had put some of my parents’ possessions. It didn’t look promising. We removed everything to have a closer look. There, in the deepest corner, we discovered treasure: two boxes containing documents, prints and over 200 4×5 negatives carefully folded in black paper and inserted in glassine envelopes. They were in perfect condition and revealed a whole world in crisp, black & white images.

Dad flew 34 missions as a bombardier and frequently doubled as a combat cameraman. Just 24 and a talented photographer, he had volunteered for the Army Air Corps after graduating from Ohio’s Miami University in June 1943. After completing flight school in Midland Texas, he returned to Oxford to marry his college sweetheart, Mary McQueary, in July. (Her wedding dress, which she made from a damaged silk parachute my father sent her, was featured in Life magazine.) The two of them moved to Greensboro, South Carolina, where Lt. Blume awaited his deployment.

In early March 1944, he received his orders. His flight hopped up the eastern seaboard to Newfoundland, crossed the cold Atlantic to the Azores, then made for Casablanca and Algiers. He arrived on Corsica on April 21st.  Liberated from German occupation in October 1943, the island provided several forward bases for U.S. Army Air Corps. Four squadrons of B-25J medium bombers were camped along its east coast to provide close support for the allied armies that were pushing north up the Italian peninsula and cut off the retreating Axis troops by bombing bridges. Dad was assigned as a bombardier flying out of Alesani field.

In addition to combat missions, he functioned as a PRO (public relations officer) He shot photos of officers, visiting VIPs and everyday life on the base. He photographed the formations of B-25s taking off, landing and returning from missions over Italy. He photographed bomb patterns on the targets below. In the early hours of May 13, 1944 the Luftwaffe conducted a night bombing raid on Alesani destroying 60 planes. The next day, Dad was out photographing the damage.

Combat Weekly Digest was a newsreel produced for the Army Air Forces from 1943-1945. This issue features “Blood Goes to Battle,” a story shot by Lt. Blume that details blood bank operations  in Naples. (Local Identifier: 18-CWD-71)

From a historical point of view, one of the most remarkable things about the Second World War was the degree to which it was documented on film. Veteran Hollywood directors and cameramen, including John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler and Frank Capra volunteered for service. In addition, hundreds of young men with an aptitude for photography and cinema were identified, and pulled together to form “combat camera units” that were active in every theater of the war. Aerial combat photography contributed to bombing precision and accuracy while motion pictures had an increasingly important role in training, public relations and propaganda.

In June 1944, my father was reassigned to the newly formed 9th Combat Camera Unit. This opportunity changed the life of this aspiring young filmmaker. In his youthful enthusiasm, he designed an insignia for the 9th CCU, but I believe the only one that ever existed was the oversize patch he had made for his flight jacket.

Life in Corsica was more authentic than anything Lt. Blume had seen in Hollywood movies. His camera was his calling card on and off the base. He loved exploring the island in his free time, shooting photos of the local people and places he visited. Intrepid and resourceful, Lt. Blume knew how to get things done:

2nd Lt. Wilbur T. Blume, C.O. of the 9th Combat Camera Detachment here is currently making a movie film about the Red Cross distribution of doughnuts and coffee to our crews after their missions. He has film footage of our formations going out to the target, the bombs dropping over the target, the target area covered by smoke and the men eating and drinking during the interrogation. Production of one scene showing the Red Cross girls actually handing out the victuals was held up more than a week because the photogenic Red Cross girl was unavailable. Lt. Blume obtained two good-looking Red Cross girls in Bastia by having them sent down here on detached service to film the sequence. Fraud! Fraud!….. In a few days he will start on a film depicting the various types of training undergone by 340th air crews in between missions.

                           —The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, July 19, 1944

By the end of July 1944, Dad had flown 22 missions and had been decorated for heroism in aerial combat over Ferrara. The commanding officer, Col. Willis Chapman, assigned him to plan and produce a short documentary that would be called Training During CombatThe objective was to show the disciplined training exercises that contributed to the success of the 340th. Bombing accuracy had increased steadily through successive Mediterranean campaigns and earned the unit numerous citations.

Lt. Wilbur T. Blume works on the script for Training During Combat, a film that starred Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

There was considerable rivalry between various Groups under the 57th Bomb Wing. Each was vying for higher ratings in efficiency and bombing accuracy. Like other fields of human endeavor, promotions and careers were often linked to the success of these missions.

Produced under the Colonel’s watchful eye, Training During Combat was a more ambitious film than anything Lt. Blume had done before.

Join us tomorrow for part two, in which Burton Blume discusses finding Training During Combat and how Joseph Heller’s inspiration for the novel Catch-22 can be seen in the footage.