How to Research: Photographs Relating to WWII Marine Corps Units

In this fourth and final post of How to Research WWII photographs, we will provide an example of how researchers can search for and identify images related to a specific US Marine Corps unit.

As is true with the WWII Army, Army Air Forces, and Navy photographs, prior to beginning your search in Still Pictures, it is important to gather as much information as possible about the USMC unit of interest. With that said, the basic information you should have includes:

  • The location(s) and dates where the unit served;
  • Names of personnel attached to the unit;
  • Important facts about the unit, such as battles the unit participated in and the type of equipment they used;
  • and the hierarchical structure of the unit (including any changes).

For the purpose of this blog post, we have chosen to search for photographs related to Marine Observation Squadron Six (VMO-6). Much of the information gathered for this post was found through the use of war diaries, as well as a published history of VMO-6. The following timeline covers the locations, dates, and hierarchical structure of VMO-6 (please note that this is not a comprehensive timeline):

January – February, 1945 – Deployed to Guadalcanal and reassigned to Aircraft, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.

February 10th, 1945 – Arrived and disembarked at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Attached operationally to the 15th Regiment of the 6th Marine Division.

March 1st, 1945 – Reassigned to 2d Marine Aircraft Wing.

March 27th – March 31st, 1945 – Underway for Okinawa.

April 1st, 1945 – VMO-6 came ashore during the Battle of Okinawa and commenced operations from Yontan Airstrip.

July 1945 – The squadron departed for Agaña, Guam where it remained until the end of the war.

The following is a partial list of personnel that were attached to VMO-6 at various times during WWII:

  • Captain Joe W. Fitts, Jr.
  • Captain Donald R. Garrett
  • 1st Lt. Thomas G. Alderson
  • 2nd Lt. Lester E. Bartels
  • 2nd Lt. James A. Calhoun
  • 2nd Lt. Charles Hanmer
  • 2nd Lt. Richard F. Hoffman
  • 2nd Lt. Glenn R. Hunter
  • 2nd Lt. Emanuel Noyses
  • 2nd Lt. Donald H. Rusling

Important facts about VMO-6:

  • As an observation squadron, VMO-6 flew and maintained OY-1 Sentinel aircraft. OY-1 airplanes were referred to as “Grasshoppers.”
  • Grasshoppers were not only used for observation, but they were also used by VMO-6 for medical evacuations.
  • The unit received a Presidential Unit Citation for their activities on Okinawa.

Having gathered all of the pertinent information, the first place to begin WWII Marine research is in Record Group 127, series GW (127-GW): Photographs of World War II and Post World War II Marine Corps Activities, ca. 1939 – ca. 1958.

Unlike the Army, Army Air Forces, and Navy, which provided NARA with a card catalog index that includes caption cards and photo numbers, the Marine photographs in 127-GW are organized by location and subsequently by subject. As a result of not having a caption card index, researchers must physically go through the boxes of prints, reading caption information attached to photographs, in order to identify photographs related to their research subject. Captions vary in detail and specificity. So, while some captions are vague, some will include the unit information. However, more often than not, a researcher will need to use details about the unit and historic context to determine if a photo is relevant to their unit.  

Based on our research, we know that VMO-6 was very active during the Okinawa Campaign. Therefore, we decided to first review the 127-GW boxes that cover Okinawa. However, within 127-GW, there are 14 boxes dedicated just to Okinawa, and each box contains hundreds of photographs. Further, within those 14 boxes, there are photographs that document the activities of many different units. Recognizing that it would take quite some time to review each photo, we wanted to make our search more concise. In order to narrow our search, we reviewed the finding aid (available in the finding aid drawers in the Still Picture research room) and identified several subject headings that appeared to be relevant to our unit. Researchers should note that each subject listing is assigned a divider number. Additionally, the same subject heading might appear more than once.

Here are the photographs we located that are relevant to VMO-6 and their work on Okinawa, which we have organized by the divider number/subject:

127-GW-Divider 519: Camp

While this photo does not specifically list VMO-6 in the caption, it does state that it is a camp for Marines of the 2nd Air Wing, which VMO-6 was assigned to while in Okinawa. Additionally, the photograph shows Yontan Airfield, which is where VMO-6 operated during the Okinawa Campaign.

127-GW-519-117903 (127-N-117903).jpg
Local ID: 127-GW-519-117903

127-GW-Divider 529: Scouts, Observation

In our review of divider 529, we were able to identify VMO-6 photographs because several of the captions included the names of VMO-6 personnel, as well as information about the aircraft (OY-1 Sentinel Grasshopper) that VMO-6 flew and maintained. However, there was only 1 photograph within divider 529 that actually listed the unit information in the caption.

127-GW-529-117519 (127-N-117519)
Local ID: 127-GW-529-117519
127-GW-529-117769 (127-N-117769)
Local ID: 127-GW-529-117769
127-GW-529-120606 (127-N-120606)
Local ID: 127-GW-529-120606
127-GW-529-121235 (127-N-121235)
Local ID: 127-GW-529-121235
127-GW-529-125956 (127-N-125956)
Local ID: 127-GW-529-125656

 127-GW-Divider 557: Maps

Again, the caption for this map does not include information that specifically lists VMO-6. However, VMO-6 was part of the 6th Marine Division.

127-GW-557-30255 (127-N-30255).jpg
Local ID: 127-GW-557-302255

127-GW-Divider 569: Coastline, Beach

We have included this photograph because it was taken on April 1, 1945, which is the same day that VMO-6 came ashore on Okinawa.

127-GW-569-117242 (127-N-117242)
Local ID: 127-GW-569-117242

127-GW-Divider 637: Aerial

Given that VMO-6 operated from Yontan Airfield, we felt this aerial was relevant to the history of the unit.

127-GW-637-127797 (127-N-127797).jpg
Local ID: 127-GW-637-127797

127-GW-Divider 638: No Subject- Aircraft

The date and location of this image indicate that VMO-6 would have witnessed the invasion.

127-GW-638-123414 (127-N-123414).jpg
Local ID: 127-GW-638-123414

After their activities on Okinawa were complete, VMO-6 traveled to Guam. Therefore, for the next step in our research, we decided to search through the 127-GW Guam boxes. Since there are only 6 boxes dedicated to Guam, rather than selecting and sampling subjects, we tried a different approach and reviewed all of the photographs within these boxes (with the exception of subjects that covered civilian activities). Our research paid off because we did locate a group photo of VMO-6. The group photograph was found filed under 127-GW-Divider 1404: Relaxation. Had we done a sampling of subject headings, as we did with the Okinawa boxes, we likely would not have found the image. It appears that the group photo was filed under “relaxation” due to the information provided in the caption, which reads: “Guam…With combat operations on Okinawa behind them, these Marines of Marine Observation Squadron-6, 6th Marine Division, pose for a photograph during a rest and relaxation period.”

Local ID: 127-GW-1404-A332834

Beyond 127-GW, there are other Marine photographic series that may enhance your research. For example, another place to look is within 127-GR: Photographic Reference File, ca. 1940 – ca. 1958. This series has been digitized and made available in the NARA catalog here.

Prior to being sent to NARA, 127-GR was a series of photographs that were selected and maintained by the USMC in order to provide a concise, representative collection of images documenting their activities and personnel. While some photographs can be found in both 127-GR and 127-GW, there are some photographs that were chosen for inclusion in the reference file that may not be easy to find in 127-GW, or may not exist in 127-GW at all.

Like 127-GW, 127-GR is organized by location.  A search through the Okinawa boxes in 127-GR did return a few additional images related to VMO-6 that we did not find (or we accidentally overlooked) in 127-GW:

Local ID: 127-GR-95-121039. Caption: Marine pilots of the little “Grasshopper” observation planes on Yontan airfield, Okinawa, have a sign over the entrance to their bomb shelter which tells how rapidly they take cover when it is necessary. Left to right: 2nd Lt. Donald H. Rusling; Captain Donald R. Garrett; 2nd Lt. Lester E. Bartels; and 2nd Lt. Glenn R. Hunter.
Local ID: 127-GR-103-121629. Caption: RESULT OF AIRBORNE INVASION — This is the wreckage of one of the Japanese bombers converted to a transport for the attempted suicide invasion of Yontan Airfield on Okinawa. One the moonlit night of May 24th, the desperate enemy air invasion was thwarted.
Local ID: 127-GR-103-123728. Caption: On a “go” signal from the traffic control man, a cub plane takes off from the road-runway with a Marine casualty on board. From this improvised airbase near the Okinawa front lines at the town of Itoman, a squadron of the tiny planes shuttled the wounded to rear aid stations.


Key Points to Take Away:

  • As illustrated through our findings, captions can and will include pieces of information that, taken out of context, do not mean much. However, combining the historic context with all of the pieces of information included in a caption, including dates and locations, may help a researcher identify photographs that they may otherwise overlook.
  • Research can be as narrow, broad, or in-depth as you want to make it. 127-GR and 127-GW are by no means the only two available series for WWII Marine research.

The following links will guide users to descriptions of notable photographic series relating to WWII Marine Corps research:

  • 127-GC: Photographs of Marine Corps Activities taken in the United States and Foreign Countries, ca. 1939 – 1958
  • 127-GR: Photographic Reference File, ca. 1940 – ca. 1958
    • This series has been digitized and made available in the NARA catalog here.
  • 127-GS: Photographs of Marine Corps Training and Activities, 1939 – 1958
  • 127-GW: Photographs of World War II and Post World War II Marine Corps Activities, ca. 1939 – ca. 1958
  • 127-MM: Photographs of African Americans and Women in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1943 – 1969
  • 127-MN: Photographs of Navajo Indian “Code-Talkers” in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1943 – 1948
  • 127-PG: Marine Corps Officers, 1804 – 1945
  • 127-PL: Logbooks for U.S. Marine Corps Photographs, 1943 – 1981
  • 127-PX: Indexes to Photographs of Marine Corps and Noted Civilian Personalities, 1927 – 1981

The United States Marine Corps History Division is a great resource that can be used to gather pertinent unit information prior to beginning photographic research. For researchers specifically interested in USMC activities during WWII, the following websites and publications may be of interest:

Looking for another branch of the Military? The following links will take you to previous posts in the “How To Research” series:

  1. WWII Army Units
  2. WWII Air Force Units (Army Air Forces)
  3. WWII Navy Ships and Crew




One thought on “How to Research: Photographs Relating to WWII Marine Corps Units

  1. Thank you for taking the pain of gathering all these photos, digitizing them and putting them up on your blog. These rare unseen photographs are not just interesting to look at, but they glorify our past. The history associated with them is just magnificent.

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