WWII Photo Lab commander returns to visit Multimedia Services Center

  • Published
  • By Rob L. Bussard
  • Peterson AFB Mulitmedia Services Center
Gone are the days of clunky cameras, oversized film enlargers, and wet chemical film processing.

Today's photo professionals use compact and efficient digital cameras, personal computers, and digital printers to convert light into pixels, instead of the silver halide emulsions used in film.

Here at the Peterson AFB Multimedia Services Center, we were reminded of just how much technical progression has occurred since the bygone days of black and white films by a visit from a former photo lab commander, retired 1st Lt. James R. Spence.

Arranged by Jeff Nash, deputy director/curator of the Peterson Air and Space Museum, Lieutenant Spence took a tour of the Multimedia Services Center along with his son Paul and daughter-in-law Carlotta.

"I knew a lot of buddies here at Peterson," Lt. Spence reminisced, "And I really enjoyed my tour here." Lieutenant Spence is now a spry 90 years young, moving about unassisted, clear-eyed, apparently robust, and a delight to talk to.

"I remember this fine camera; we used them during my days as a photographer," Lieutenant Spence said, when he saw an antique Graflex "Speed Graphic" camera from my collection. A behemoth of a camera, it requires 4" x 5" film sheets and weighs about four pounds.

"This is the camera we used to shoot that P-38 when it crashed on the airfield during Christmas of '44," he said. (Similar to the P-38 piloted by Lt. Peterson in 1942 when it crashed gaving Peterson AFB its name).

We took a picture of Lieutenant Spence and that camera. He handled the camera very well, kinda like riding a bike, I suppose.

Lieutenant Spence began his military career in the fall of 1939 as an enlisted man after a visit to the Army Air Corps Recruiting Station in San Diego. Initially stationed at Flight F/1st Photo Squadron at Gray Field within Fort Lewis, Wash., he began the arduous job of creating large mosaic maps in the darkroom for the Army Engineer Corps. Then in October of 1941, two years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he became engaged to Betty Schaad, a young and pretty high school mathematics teacher from Tacoma.

By this time a sergeant, Spence was accepted into pilot training school in the January of 1942, leaving his fiancée in order to report to Thunderbird Field near Phoenix, Ariz. But severe sinus-related headaches became an issue, and Sergeant Spence voluntarily left pilot training and reported to Luke Field, now known as Luke AFB.

The lab apparently didn't need another new non-commissioned officer, so the young sergeant languished there a month without much to do until he was accepted into and transferred to Miami Beach Officers' Training School.

On August 5, 1942, Spence graduated from Officer Training School and received his 2nd lieutenant bars in the Army Air Force. Classified as a photo lab commander, Lieutenant Spence was sent to what was then known as Peterson Field and assigned to the 6th Photo Squadron. Betty and her mother came to Peterson for a visit, and he and Betty decided to marry, exchanging vows on August 25, 1942. The young couple remained at Peterson for more than 30 months, with a promotion to 1st Lieutenant in July of 1943.

Later, in the fall of 1944, Lieutenant Spence and Betty were transferred to the 35th Photo Technical Unit forming up at Peterson, preparing to go to Guam under the 20th Air Force Headquarters. They left for Guam, with Lieutenant Spence assisting in the operations of Guam's new Photo Lab and Photo Interpreter Unit, processing the strike photos that would ultimately lead to the end of the war. In the 10 months that the unit was active, its personnel processed more than 1.5 million photos.

When the unit closed at the end of the war, Lieutenant Spence had spent six years in the Army Air Force and was eligible to return to civilian life. He and Betty settled down in San Francisco, Calif., and went to work at the Walter H. Gray Kodak Repair Service. After six years at Gray's, Lieutenant Spence bought out the owners and renamed the shop Associated Camera Repair, where he managed to grow his business into a profitable endeavor, allowing himself and Betty to begin raising their family.

Lieutenant Spence retired a few years back and made it a point to one day return and visit the area he remembered so well. We here at Multimedia Services were glad to meet, discuss and compare the photographic processes of yesterday and today with Lieutenant Spence, and we very much enjoyed his tour here, with us, a small and distant part of his legacy.