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Interview with Max O. Palmer [11/11/2010]

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Good morning.

Max O. Palmer:

Good morning, Deb.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

My name is Deb Dubuc, and I am here with Max Palmer. He was born on February 18th, 1929. He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. His highest rank achieved was PHOM3/C. And we are conducting this interview in Des Moines, Iowa. We are conducting the interview as part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Good morning, Max.

Max O. Palmer:

Good morning, Deb, and other girls.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

The court reporter this morning is Julie Green, and our videographer is Amy Cooper. And we will be visiting with Max this morning about his experiences. First, Max, would you give us a few biographical details like where you were born and a little bit about your family.

Max O. Palmer:

I was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1929. My father was a mortician. And they were Iowa people, and he got -- had spread his wings and went up there about 1927. And then he wanted to get back to Iowa, so he came back in 1930 and went to work at a hardware furniture funeral service in Gowrie, Iowa, for a couple of sweet brother-in-laws that operated that. And neither one of them were licensed in funeral service, and he was their funeral director. So I grew up in Gowrie, Iowa. Got out of high school in 1946. Went into the navy in July on a two-year enlistment. They were doing two-year enlistments to fill the ranks of the World War II veterans who had gotten out. Now, I'd like to explain my activity as far as a World War II veteran. If you'll recall, the cessation of hostilities was over with the A-bomb in August of 1945. The legal part of World War II was not over until December 31st of 1946. I went in in July of '46, so that interim in there. I'm a World War II veteran -- all of us are World War II veterans even though there was no shooting going on. So when you look at my age there, I was born in '29, how could I be shooting in 1943 or '44. I wasn't old enough. That's why we're called World War II veterans because the legality didn't expire until December of 1946. I wanted to get that in there for clarification. I was sent to the Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida, for six months. Very educational. I became a navy photographer, and I served for two months on the USS Boxer, which was an aircraft carrier out of San Francisco, in the photo lab. And we were overcomplimented with photographers, so they transferred five of us off to VPP-1, which was Navy Photographic Squadron 1 on the West Coast. It was the only photographic squadron on the West Coast, and they had one on the East Coast. They were stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. At that time Alaska was a territory, so that was overseas. But they were mapping Alaska looking for oil in '46, '47, and '48 with B-24s, but you couldn't fly up there in the wintertime. So in September through April, they'd always come back to the United States to Miramar Naval Air Station. And that's when I went in there and was assigned there in September of '47. And we did training missions to go back up in the spring of '48. Well, I was getting out in July of '48, so I stayed back with about 25 other navy personnel at Miramar Naval Air Station processing films and that until I got out in July of 1948.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to enter the military, what influenced your decision.

Max O. Palmer:

Well, there was -- my father was not a veteran, and there was seven of us boys who graduated the same class from high school in '46, and we all went -- two of us went in the navy and five of them went in the army. And they were all going to go, so I thought, well, maybe I'd better go too. So I went in on a two-year enlistment, then. That's how I got there.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

And was there a particular reason you chose the branch that you did?

Max O. Palmer:

Well, I didn't want to be in the infantry and march all over. My other friend, he ended up being a cook, and as soon as we got to boot camp, we got split up. But it worked out fine, you know.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. And you said you did not have family that was in the military before?

Max O. Palmer:

No, no.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Blazing trails.

Max O. Palmer:

Yeah, yeah.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

And so you enlisted?

Max O. Palmer:

Yes.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. And tell us a little bit about the training that you went through.

Max O. Palmer:

Well, we had boot camp for 16 weeks, and that was primarily -- that was in San Diego. And as a sideline, you know, I had never been out of Iowa, other than when I was a baby up in Michigan. But the summers were hot in those days because there was no air-conditioning, you know, and it was miserable. So we -- when they sent us to San Diego for our boot camp, got out on what we called the grinder. That's where you marched on the blacktop. And first day I thought, what in the world, you know, it's hot, but I'm not perspiring. I couldn't figure this weather out. And after a couple of days, I decided this southern California weather must be kind of like heaven is. You know, you don't perspire like I was doing back in Iowa. I thought, boy, I could handle this in good shape. Well, then after boot camp was over with, why, I had a 10-day leave and came back. And they sent me down to Pensacola, Florida, and I don't suppose our barracks were 100 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. And that summer down there was just like Iowa, you know, it was hot and humid and now I'm right back with weather like at home, I'm not going to stay here. But we struggled, you know. And then the training program was -- we had two weeks of aerial photography, and then we flew and we started with these Stearman biplanes, and they were little two-engine -- bi-wing -- 2-wing airplane with -- two-seaters. And we -- the photographer flew in the front and the pilot flew in the back. And we flew at, like, oh, I suppose 2,000 feet with aerial cameras. And we had various targets out there at 75 miles away. There was a brick kiln and a railroad depot in Warrenton, Alabama, and we'd fly over those, and the pilot would say target approaching on the right side, target near, ready, go, shoot. And they'd take the plane and bank it up like that (indicating). Then we'd have to shoot down over the side. We stood up and the edge of the plane was about as high as this (indicating) and we're on an angle, and I thought sure as the world I'm going to fall out of this thing. But we had straps on it. So we had two weeks of this, and then we had another four weeks with SMBs doing flat aerial mapping, airplanes with cameras. They were just six-seater job. And then at the end of that six weeks, why, we had to decide if we wanted to go into aerial or ground, and I decided I'd sooner be a ground photographer. So then we had five months of ground photography. The total program was six months. So I was a ground photographer. And eventually I got assigned to a photographic aerial squadron. You know how things go backwards. That's what happened. Then I did aerial stuff. That was pretty much how the training was.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. I think I heard you say SNB in there.

Max O. Palmer:

SMB.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

What's that?

Max O. Palmer:

That's a particular airplane, twin engine Beechcraft airplane that we had. And in relation to our training, in those days, everything was black and white. There was not any color. Until we were about halfway through photography school, Ansco Photographic Corporation came out with color film. So that was a big deal for us. We started shooting color. Nobody knew anything about it, and doing the processing, that was really involved in those days and things were all on slides. Now, you know what a slide negative is like. Well, these were 4 by 5 sheets of film that were transparencies, and you had to hold them up to the light to see them. You could print off of them, but they weren't very good quality prints in those days. But eventually that all developed into more color and more color, and black and white eventually went by the wayside pretty much, yeah.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. So we have heard that you've had a lot of photography training. Can you tell us a little bit more about what those schools were like, those photography . . .

Max O. Palmer:

Well, they were -- there was 45 of us in our class, and I think there was 27 marines that were assigned from the marine base of the 45. And they had a regular schedule, so many weeks of this and so many weeks of that. And we had classes that we had to learn academic things related to photography, and then we had to shoot so many pictures. And we were assigned Speed Graphic cameras. That's the old 4 by 5s that you used to see, and the flashbulb was on this side here (indicating) and they weighed about 7 pounds. We were all assigned those for our personal use to take wherever we wanted to. But we had assignments of go over and take pictures of the water tower from four different angles, you know, so you could get a perspective on how light would be on the same object coming from the four different directions, educational things like that that didn't, you know, make any sense, but it taught us values of lighting and things like that. And then we had some portrait work. I really didn't care about that, with lights and everything. But nevertheless, we had portraits to do. Because we had to take portraits of -- sometimes of individual officers when they got into involvement with the various companies and things, you know, a new officer come in, you got to have a new portrait of them. So we had quite a little portrait work. But most of it was all outside, just was assignments.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. Tell me what it was like to adapt to military life after having been -- things like the physical regimen you went through, the barracks, the food, the social life, stuff like that.

Max O. Palmer:

You met people from all over the country, and that -- coming from a small town of a thousand people, that was the biggest cultural thing I had to accept was, you know, grown men wet the bed. I had never seen that, you know. And I guess that was the biggest thing. So when we were standing watch, why, in boot camp, why, we had to wake those bedwetters up every hour to go and relieve themselves. You know, this doesn't make sense, why were we spending time doing that. But eventually when you get woke up every hour and have to get up, you learn to quit. So that was my biggest cultural experience that I remember was that, and it was a problem, you know, a health problem for those people too. But nevertheless, living in quarters where 50 people in a dormitory room at night, you know, it was altogether different. I was just a little boy without any brothers or sisters. I didn't have to share anything either, you know, when I was growing up. But it was fine. It was -- you know. And then the guys who were in photographer school who were all pretty adept to living and understanding and educating and things like that. So we got along well that way, yeah.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. So after your training was over, where did you go first to serve?

Max O. Palmer:

Well, then I went on the USS Boxer, and that was an aircraft carrier. It was what they called the CV, and that designated the style -- at that time that was the largest aircraft carriers they had. They had three CVs. And we had -- including squadrons, personnel when they would come on board, I think there were around 4,000 men on there. And I had never been on a ship before and that was an experience. So we went on about midnight from the training station, and I got up the next morning and then I was assigned to a division, which was photographers and yeomen. And they sent me up to the fo'c's'le to get my lashings. Well, that's terms I didn't know what they were talking about, you know, coming from Iowa. And he'd say, son, go up to the fo'c's'le and get your lashings and bring them back down to the deck -- to the lower level deck 3. That was where we slept. Well, the lashings were our mattress. And what we had were frames -- a pipe and then just a piece of leather with strings that held it onto those pipes around it. That was what our bed was. And then we had a little pad for a mattress and about this much room (indicating) between each of those different racks for sleeping and they were five high. And that was a different experience, living like that. But the photography part of the -- on board ship was interesting. We didn't have an awful lot to do except we had to -- what we did as far as the total ship goes, we qualified pilots. All navy pilots have to qualify carrier landings once a year. We had to take pictures of every landing and every takeoff. So they would assign one photographer up on the gun mounts here, which is off the flight deck about 10 feet. And the planes would, for instance, be going this way on the takeoff (indicating). They had to take every picture of a takeoff, and we had another one that was up over here on the gangway around the flight deck, and then another one further up here. So we got three different views of everybody taking off and the same thing when they landed. We had to have three different photographers. And just a sidelight of an interesting experience. The AD-6s were attack dive-bombers. They were a two-seater dive-bomber plane, and we qualified the squadron the first week of ADs. And they were a clumsy thing, just single engine, but they're big and clumsy. So when the planes come in, they'd land and a hook would go down on the tail and a hook would hook a cable that ran across the flight deck and that would stretch itself up and stop the airplane. And two deckhands would run up, unhook the hook and the plane would taxi up out of the way. The cable went down, the next plane came in, and the same thing happened again. Well, we got those done that week. Second week we had F8s. Now that's a fighter plane, and they were a lot lighter weight. So the skipper, the commander of the squadron, is the first one to always come in. So he landed first and hooked it, rolled up there, and the two deckhands ran out. And they got behind the plane on the aileron and they were going to unhook the cable, and they were lighter weight and more tension. And the plane came back faster than the deckhands were anticipating, knocked the one kid down, came back over the top of him and stopped right over the prop. He was laying under -- the prop was right over him. He was laying right under it. And, of course, the skipper was kind of a hot dog, and he was "rrrr", "rrrr", roaring his engine, and the plane was going back and forth. And they were trying to holler at him from the deck to cut his engines. Of course, he couldn't hear it, the deck officer. And we were standing up on our places taking pictures, and we just stood there with our mouths open and never got a single picture of that. Fortunately it didn't get close enough to bother the kid, but I bet he thanks his life that he's here today. But those kind of things, we could have had some great pictures and missed it, you know.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Darn.

Max O. Palmer:

Yeah.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay, so from there?

Max O. Palmer:

Well, then, like I said, we were overcomplimented in the lab, so they sent five of us to Photographic Squadron 1 from the aircraft carrier at San Francisco. They flew us down to Photographic Squadron 1 at Miramar, which -- at that time was an auxiliary naval air station north of San Diego. It had been a marine air base during the war, and the navy took it over right after the war. And they were making that a larger air base because of the -- their main air base was right downtown North Island and too much local traffic and buildings for planes to come in, so they were moving it about 20 miles north out to Miramar. And there was only 700 people there when our squadron was in there. But eventually it developed into a sizeable air base. I don't know if it still goes or not, but it did for many years. And then one of the other activities I got involved with was they sent a plane of us up to Spokane, Washington, to -- with the air base up there to map the Colville National Forest, which is part of Utah and Montana and goes up into Canada. And this was the crew -- there was four photographers and a couple of mechanics and a couple of radiomen and then the three officers that went along. And this is me right over here (indicating), and then the chief photographer -- Chief Robinson, and then this man is the second class, and then this is the third class, and then I was the seaman (indicating). I was the lower level of the photographers, so I did all the grunt work. But they were nice. And these are B-24s (indicating). This is before jets or anything ever came into being. And we're getting loaded up to fly up there, and this is me right here (indicating) on the side, but some of the other guys were around there to send us off. We were up there for 30 days, and we didn't -- we only flew twice. The problem was weather. We were there from the 15th of November to the 15th of December. Colville National Forest was within a mountain range but it was always foggy. And all it took was -- the colonel of the air base became a buddy of our commanding officer, and he had a hunting lodge and he wanted to get pictures of the hunting lodge, so we diverted and took some aerial views of that. Then the chief radioman met some gal in town at the bar -- she lived in the little town -- so we took some pictures of that. That's all we did the whole month we were up there. As far as taking any pictures of the national forest, it just didn't work out. And then we came back and just did training at various areas of California with the B-24s. And then in April of 1948, the squadron went back up to two or three different places up in Alaska going back to do mapping, and as I say, I was a short-timer so I didn't go up. I stayed at the base there then and processed film and things. Incidentally, the cameras we used were what they call K-20s, and they were -- stood about this high (indicating). They must have weighed 30 pounds. Here was a lens here and here was the film here (indicating). It had a 20-inch focal length. And you mounted those in the racks in the Bombay doors, and then when you were mapping, you were mapping at 19,000 feet, so they'd open the Bombay doors. We'd make a run on the area and then make the correction of the cameras for the drift of the wind and so forth. Then we'd start back again and trip the film. The film was 100-foot rolls. A negative -- instead of being 35 millimeter, a negative was 9 inches by 9 inches. That was one negative. And they'd get the 100-foot roll of film taken and we'd put another roll in. But they didn't process and print a 100-foot roll. Cut the pictures out 9 by 9 and they would lay them on a 4 by 8 piece of chipboard and glue those down. They'd cut out the outside edge because of distortion from the height and that and then lay about 40 percent of it, cut another -- take another film -- another picture and do the same thing, and then they'd glue those down. And pretty soon on this 4 by 8 sheet, you may have 10,000 acres under one -- and they'd do that another 10,000 acres. You could have 100,000 acres on these boards, and then they'd take a picture of those boards up and you could, as I say, have 100,000 acres on one film, then. And that -- to do the viewing of the surface was -- then they had -- they had lenses that stood on little stands and you viewed those various objects there. Now, that was not part of our function. That was map readers or that kind of thing. And the other thing they did, then, they mapped the coastline of Alaska in color. With these twin engine SMB Beechcraft airplanes doing obliques out of the door of the plane, just flying them at ground level and shooting the coastline to get the striations of the earth. And that was all in color. Color come in during that year, then, in aerial stuff. And they could tell by the striations when they were looking for the oil up in Alaska. And that was kind of interesting, that part of it. They'd send the films back to us.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. Tell me a little bit about the relationships that you developed while you were serving with your fellow --

Max O. Palmer:

Well, one of my buddies, we went through photography school together, and then we -- we were assigned to the photographic squadron, lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. That was his home. He went to school there, graduated. So on long weekends we'd go up to Las Vegas. At that time Las Vegas, you know, there was only three places, the El Rancho Vegas, the Last Frontier, and the Flamingo. I don't know if any of you are familiar, but McCarran Field, which was the airport there, the old airport, that was the end of town. It was a desert then. Now it goes another couple miles on down the highway. But we went up there and that was fun doing that. As far as seeing any -- I lost track of him after I got out. I had seen two of the people I was with over the years, and one of them I saw a couple of years ago. And we got together out at -- in Wyoming. He was a rancher in Wyoming, and we were motorhoming out there and got together. And one of the other fellas was a mechanic in our squadron from up in Minnesota, near Minneapolis. Otherwise, I've never had a contact with any of them at all since then. There was nobody else from Iowa in the outfit or anything like that to be very close with. But they were all good guys and all had the same things in mind about wanting to get out, go to school, get an education, and I suppose most of them did, I don't know. But anyway, it was nice. It was good. Good experience. Glad I did it.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Good. Tell me how you kept in contact with family and friends while you were serving.

Max O. Palmer:

Well, in those days everything was letter. You know, no cell phones. If you called home, why, that was -- you know, it wasn't a 95 cent call like nowadays. It was 4, 5 bucks. But I just sent letters home, that's all.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Okay. Tell me a little bit about when you left the military and came home.

Max O. Palmer:

I got out in July of 1948. I had signed up at the University of Iowa to go to school. I'm going to digress here a minute now. The commander of -- the assistant commander of our photographic squadron had been our class officer in Pensacola in photo school. He was an Annapolis graduate and he was a flyboy. So they assigned him as the assistant squadron leader and so, of course, he knew who I was because we were six months together and only 45 of us. And he took the same program we did at school. So then I got assigned to this photographic squadron. One day he called me in and said, Palmer, he said, if you'd sign over for six months, I would put you on this group that's going to go up -- it's what I alluded to a little bit ago -- flying the coastline out of northern Alaska shooting the coastline in color. Well, that would have been a plumb assignment. And I said, oh, Commander Barbee, I appreciate that, but I've already sent my application in for the University so I'm going to turn it down. But you always wonder why I didn't do that, you know, when you're fifty years later. But anyway, I did -- went to the University for two years, and I did photography there. I was a photo editor for The Hawkeye, the annual, and took pictures for them. I've just followed the photography part as a hobby ever since. But I knew what I was going to do. I was going to be a funeral director, and so I -- our family is in the funeral business. So I got the two years in. In those days you had to be twenty-one years old to go to mortuary school and I was only nineteen, so -- and I had the GI bill, so two more years got me up to twenty-one. And then I came back, served my apprenticeship and eventually went to mortuary school and got licensed in funeral service and that's what we did. That's pretty much that part.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

All right. Can you tell me a little bit how you feel that your experiences in the military have affected your life?

Max O. Palmer:

Well, it matured my up very much, the two years, and gave me, as I said earlier, quite an experience to see how other people live. And I always -- I never regretted it. And particularly I got an education, all those types of things. Now I get VA benefits at the hospital. You know, and I'm really -- I didn't really contribute much as far as fighting or anything because the wars were over. And I got out before the Korean War started. A little sidelight. When I got ready to get discharged in the first part of July of '48, why, they were wanting everybody to stay in the navy reserves and the inactive reserve, and I thought, ahh, you know. And then they said, you know, you fellas all have pretty good rates. Which we did have, you know. Photography was pretty clean work and it was fun, and I thought, well, maybe I ought to stay in the reserves. So I thought, I don't have to go to meetings on the inactive reserve. So I signed up for six years. Well, then I met my bride to be in 1949, and so we were going to get married in the summer of 1950. The Korean War came on in June. We were going to get married in July, which we did. August I get this letter from the navy department. I thought uh-oh, I'm getting called back in, because they were calling back our friends who had been radiomen and corpsmen. I thought sure as the world I'm going to get called back. But all they wanted to know was upgrading what education I had. So I didn't have to go back in the Korean War. Then when my six years were up, I didn't sign up again on that deal at all. But otherwise it was a very rewarding experience and I -- it was a time of my life when I did not have to sacrifice like most of these World War II veterans had to in terms of fighting and that kind of stuff.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Well, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your experience that we haven't covered?

Max O. Palmer:

Well, I think that pretty much covers it all. I belong to the American Legion for over sixty years and happy about that. I belong afterwards to -- we had a drum and bugle corps, our American Legion post did in Gowrie, and I played in that for 12 or 14 years. We'd go out and parade around at different fairs and things. So that part, I enjoyed doing that. But I've not had any other family that's gone into the military. Our kids have missed the aging of having to go, so I guess I'm about the only one that did in our family.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Well, we certainly thank you, Max, for your service and for coming and visiting with us and sharing your story today.

Max O. Palmer:

Thank you, Deb. Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Julie and Kayla.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Thank you for participating in the Veterans History Project.

Max O. Palmer:

You know, I -- at one time I had a letter from somebody that they wanted the information about what I'd done, so I sent it and never heard anything back. But I belong to a Masonic group that we meet once a month for dinner. And the last month, why, Mr. Day announced they were going to have this program, so I went over afterwards and I said to him, what's this deal consist of, so he told me. I said, well, I'll sign up and come over, so that's why I got involved with it, I guess.

Deborah L. DuBuc:

Well, we're glad you did. Thank you very much.

Max O. Palmer:

And thank you for what you're doing.

 
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