I interviewed Walt Hallloran at his home in Rochester, Minnesota, in September. He was an amazing fellow – a film cameraman who landed with the first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day and saw just about every major action the Americans were involved in until the end of the war.
You were born and brought up in Minnesota?
Yes on a little farm in Chapsville.
So this has always been home for you?
After I returned from Vietnam there was never really a doubt about where I’d live. We owned a home in Washington DC because I’d been at the Pentagon for 4 years but we felt our 4 daughters had never had the experience of knowing a grandmother or grandfather; a cousin or nephew and I guess we never even really discussed it; just assumed we’d come back here. Not too many retired military here; mostly they go to the banana belt where it’s warm – Arizona, Florida, Texas, New Mexico.
Like your brother?
Like my brother.
He spends half the year in Tucson doesn’t he?
Oh it’s a tough life.
I’m sure he talked about our other brother – the Padre.
Yes; amazing – you’ve all done well.
Well, we try.
What was it like growing up here in the 20’s and 30’s?
We were born and raised on a farm and by today’s perspectives we were poor but we didn’t know we were poor because every farm family in the area we all had exactly the same economic posture and were never short of food because we lived on a farm. We children never realised we were poor. In retrospect – Pat and I have talked about this – I am sure my parents never saw a thousand dollars at one time their entire life. We grew up happily – we played together; there was no TV; we had no running water in the house; no toilet; no radio.
Was there an outdoor…….
Yes, a little outdoor shack and that was awfully cold in the middle of winter time, but everyone was in the same situation so we didn’t really notice it too much.
What was the house like? A little………
It was a proper farm house; absolutely square design; 4 bedrooms………
A wooden veranda and that sort of thing>
Did you have crops?
Both; we had cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and the rest of the land was devoted to agriculture – the crops. That and sheering the sheep in the winter time that’s where the pitiful amount of money that we made came from. My mother, like all mothers, took care of the chickens and that’s what we used to call her egg money – she’d go to town on a Saturday night and sell the eggs and then go to the grocery store and that was the cycle.
Had your grandparents owned the farm?
Yes, my grandparents homesteaded it.
When did your family move from Ireland to the States?
My grandfather came from Ireland and my grandmother. Her name was Susan Clerken. Is that a proper Irish name?
I don’t know………were you quite isolated or were there other farms around?
There were other farms around. We had 320 acres and most farms were about 1 mile apart because the concept was divided up into squares – a mile on its side and so most farms were not further than one mile from their neighbour.
So water you got from a well?
Oh yes, and a windmill pumping away. When we got to go to High School, there were no school busses in those days and so I rode a horse 6 miles every day.
So you tethered up your horse and then rode back?
That’s amazing! When you think how many cars there are now and it’s not that long ago!
The cars we had we 1935 versions with no radio; no heater……it was a car. But it wasn’t a problem; it is what it is.
It was a pretty happy childhood by the sounds of things?
I think so – simple and straight forward; no money but we didn’t know we didn’t have any money. To give you an idea, we did work awfully hard at manual labour as kids but once a year father would give us 25 cents! But you could a small candy bar for a penny; you could send a postcard for a penny. We never wrote but we could’ve. What I am saying is, it’s all relative.
It is amazing how many WW2 veterans I’ve interviewed who’ve lost a parent or who had really hard times growing up and it’s easy to forget that you were growing up in 1929; most of the 30’s was a period of really, really hard times in the US. I am sensing if you’re ill, Rochester is a pretty good place to be.
It’s one of the keynotes in the nation. We have over 3,000 doctors here!
But in the 1930’s it wasn’t like that – if you were ill, you couldn’t just go to an amazing hospital.
No; this hospital existed at that time – small, but it existed, but every little village had a country doctor who made house calls and babies were born at home. Every one of these square farm houses had a downstairs bedroom which was for grandma, or grandpa, or aunt Nellie and they knew it and the family knew it – that’s where they went to die and that’s where mothers went to have their babies and the doctor would come out form town in a horse and buggy. My mother said she sat for 10 days in bed – doctor’s rules – you don’t put your feet on the floor or anything – now look! 2 hours afterwards they’re prancing out the door! We thought nothing unusual about it because that’s what it was.
Were your grandparents with you when you were growing up?
Both sides, sure. My mother’s parents lived in the little town of Chapsville; they were well to do retired farmers. My father, Grandpa Halloran, lived out on the farm; there were 2 houses on the farm. They brought with them what I guess was an old Irish tradition – a lot of the older men never got married. I don’t know what they were waiting for but I think a lot of Irish mothers didn’t want a daughter in her kitchen! So the requirement that was put on my dad was he was going to take over the farm and dad didn’t want it; he wanted to go to college but the Irish tradition was so rigid, so firm, he didn’t have a choice and therefore he was a very poor farmer; inadequate and he hated farming so we all paid the price. He drank – blah, blah, blah. I think Germans, Dutch, Brits – everyone else – they’ve got a few.
How does a young farm boy end up becoming a combat photographer? You went to school – did you end up going to college or was that out of the question?
Totally out of the question; after graduating from High School in 1941, like so many young people – Chapsville was a town of 1,500 – it certainly wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the great things I wanted to do in the world.
So you had aspirations? Ambition?
Yes and about that time the shipbuilding and aircraft industries were sending recruiters all over the country trying to get young people to come to California and help build aeroplanes.
So a guy would turn up in a suit and …….
Recruiters held big meetings here in Rochester and I saw that……
That was in 1941?
Yes and that gave me the bug and I went to California and got a job…….
How did you get there? Train?
No, we had a relative here on holiday who lived in Hollywood so they gave me a ride and I sat in the back seat to Hollywood.
That must have been quite an adventure in itself wasn’t it?
And I had a fortune in my pocket – $50 – unheard of – from my mother; my grandmother and everybody.
That you’d saved up?
Saved? Saved from what source? No…….anyway I got out to California and went into an employment office looking for something to do and they said there’s a company called Max Factor that has openings. I didn’t know what it was; I thought it was a factory and I came from a farm and I thought if it’s equipment, I can operate it. they had an opening for an apprentice photographer and so I went in there at 40 cents an hour – $16 a week!
This was in 1941? Presumably summer if you left school in early summer ‘41?
Yes; the army quickly realised that one of the things they had to do was build up a training capacity to train these thousands of guys coming in to do military jobs and the quickest way to train them was to produce training films so they sent a couple of officers from New York City to recruit cameramen and so on. You had to go before a Board and one of the members was Ronald Regan because they wanted someone from the industry to look at us. They accepted me and I immediately went to school at Paramount Studios.
When you they accepted you, was it an interview?
A Board of some officers plus Ronald Regan.
You’re this farm boy from Minnesota and suddenly you’re in Hollywood, looking at Hollywood actors…….that must have been very thrilling wasn’t it?
It was; I worked in the photographic department at Max Factor studios – that was my job.
But you can’t have been there for very long?
Not long at all. It shows the desperate nature of the recruiting.
Were you a quick learner do you think?
By the time you were up in front of that army Board you were doing your own photography for Max Factor were you?
You weren’t just an assistant; you were actually taking pictures yourself?
Learning how to develop; all that?
All that. The Max Factor photographic department was in existence primarily to take “glamour” pictures of all the stars of the day and the actresses really sort to get their pictures in the big window at Max Factor’s in Hollywood. Betty Grable – all of them at that time.
You must have photographed some gorgeous girls?
You must have thought you had the best job in the world! I’m learning a trade; I’m meeting gorgeous girls; it’s Hollywood! What’s not to like?!
Yes, you’re right. I was just a teenager. I was accepted by the Board and we weren’t sworn into the army but a group of us were sent to Paramount Studios in Hollywood for on the job training. The industry as part of the war effort agreed wholeheartedly to teach everything they could to these young aspirants coming into the system; what the real world is like; how a camera is operated; how you light and so on. At that time, Bing Crosby was very popular and so we shot some pictures of him for a couple of his different movies. For my age I thought this is living!
What was Bing Crosby like?
He and Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour made a few movies like the Road to Zanzibar. Bob Hope was nicer than Bing Crosby. Bing was a bit aloof. There was another series of films with Abbott and Costello – Abbott was a little distant but Costello was an angel. He’d come up and say ‘Look, this camera you’ve got set up here – I think you should move it over here and get your shot.’ He was always right! Then the next step was when we were sent over to the other side of Hollywood to the Samuel Goldwyn Studios and over there we were going to work on purely still photography.
And all this was being paid for by the US War Department?
Still in civvies though.
But paid for by the US government?
Yes. One of the best aspects of the Samuel Goldwyn training was when we got near the end of the course we were assigned one on one with Hollywood newspaper reporters and we’d run out and shoot murders, suicides, rapes, accidents. That was wonderful training because you have to be spontaneous; you can’t be fiddling around saying how about we do it this way? Boloney! Take your picture or lose it. So you had to learn how to carry your camera on the ready. You had to be able to see an image and get it. You had to be aggressive because the police would get in your way and everyone else. That was good training. When that was all over, the tradition in Hollywood was to have a topping out party when a film was done. All the people who worked on it plus the actors would get together for a big party on the stage. They had one for us when we finished all our training and what we never knew was, the officers were there from the army and they got a big sign and they had awarded all of us a rank! Unbeknownst to us they’d graded us and on that night they made their grand announcement. We didn’t know this was coming!
How many on the course?
Just a little under 100. They’d picked them up from all over the US.
Did you make any particular friends?
Oh sure; I’ve still got some pictures of some of them. My RSM is still alive today in California – he’s 99. They read the list and some were made corporal and some master sergeant and I thought what the hell’s going on here. Ay age and great experience, I was made a private at $21 a month!
Were you one of the younger ones?
Yes, I was the youngest one in the company. We were sent to San Antonio Texas for our basic training. Our company had already been formed – it was 165th signal photographic company. We had everything there waiting for us and they brought us there by train and all of a sudden it’s Jeez – I guess we’re in the army!
Can I just go back a bit – when you left home, that must have felt like a big adventure; you were 18 years old; had you ever left the county before?
So your entire world was the farm and the town…..so suddenly to drive all that way to Hollywood – you must have gone across the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada or something – to see all that for the first time and then to get to Hollywood and in 1941 you would’ve known all about it……..
It must have been amazing!
At that age!
Did you ever get homesick?
Did you write to them?
You certainly didn’t call on the phone because that was long distance and cost money so you didn’t do that. Letters and postcards.
By the time you got recruited America has entered the war. Can you remember the mood? What were people thinking?
The first thing I can recall was Pearl Harbor. All the American Japanese were running for home and most ended up in jail – prison camp. That impacted on us – they were all running and it was kind of spooky.
Was there a sense of excitement about it that here was an opportunity?
Oh gee whizz yes – I am part of this; I am participating.
Did you meet Errol Flynn?
No; we met a lot of them, like Jimmy Cagney who was such a nice guy. Edward G Robinson…….I think back – because we were standing there in front of them with a camera stuck in their faces…….it was exciting for a ?? from Minnesota. ?? on my feet. Our basic training was in San Antonio and about a year later we finished that and had hopefully developed our military skills.
While you were in San Antonio were you making training movies?
No, we were being trained in the art of being a soldier; basic training; infantry stuff. Digging, hiking……
By 1942 I guess you were in the new uniforms with the M1 helmet?
Not the old Tommy helmet?
No, not at all. After we finished that year’s training we were broken up into teams that were going to be configured for combat. A team was going to be a jeep driver, a still photographer and a movie cameraman. We had about 50 teams like that and in retrospect that was a great set up. It gave us mobility and flexibility.
Were you all trying to do each other’s job? Because you were a still photographer weren’t you?
No, motion picture. For some reason which I’ve never understood, the motion picture cameraman usually had one more stripe than the still man. I guess it takes a little more training, but for my first assignment I was sent to the last mounted cavalry division in the US army. 12,000 horses and mules but in addition to that, it was a Negro division because those were the days of segregation. The only white people in the division was us 3 cameramen. I’d come from Chapsville Minnesota and I’d never talked to a black man in my life!
Was that the 92nd division?
No, the 2nd cavalry. After galloping up and down the Mexican border taking pictures for 3 months we were sent to Colorado into the mountains to photograph the ski troopers getting ready to go to Norway. So we went from the desert on horses to ski country.
When was that?
I suppose ’43. We finished that and went to England and disembarked in Liverpool.
What was the trip across like?
Terrible; no convoy. We were on the SS Louis Pasteur. We had enough speed not go in a convoy. The cooks God bless them were British…….BAD! For an American! Boiled fish for breakfast! We went to a little village called Chipping Sodbury near Bristol. The Mayor gave me the keys to the town just last year! I’ll never forget my first night in Britain. By this time I was a private 1st class – one stripe. I was out there with my gun guarding the motor pool and they just parked right in the city square but they wouldn’t give us ammunition but I still remember the first realisation there was a war going on because of the black out. I thought my God! Any minute the Germans are going to descend on us!
It must have seemed a very small country after the US?
I don’t have that perception because we didn’t do much travelling.
Were you excited to get to Britain?
Oh of course and we met families and they were all so wonderful God bless them, they’d often invite a Yank for a Sunday pot roast or something. We finally woke up to the realisation it was a tremendous effort on their part because they didn’t have much food later on. It was great.
So you got there sometime in ’43?
We got there on Thanksgiving Day.
It must have seemed dark, bleak and cold?
Guarding the motor pool at that time of year – dark. Eventually we were broken up into all of our little teams and dispersed all over England to be assigned to the particular organisation we were going to record for the invasion.
Who was with you in your threesome?
Both dead now but the still man was from Arkansas and the jeep driver was from Massachusetts. Wes Karalyn (?) and Bob Wetzelburger (?).
All good guys? You got on?
Oh sure; just before the invasion I made corporal! 2 stripes! My still photographer had one and the jeep driver had none! You see the chain of command?
Oh yes, so you’re top dog!
Oh yeah! I’m top dog! Big man on the campus! We got joined up and I went in with the 1st infantry division (?)
The big red one?
This is 1943? In Broadmayne?
It was Nook Camp not terribly far from Stonehenge; Warminster way.
You joined the 16th – part of the 1st division at Nook Camp and then you’re sensing D Day’s getting closer?
Oh sure; when D Day came we went in.
Do you remember loading up and all that stuff?
Were you on an LST?
An LST and my jeep driver couldn’t go on the first wave so we agreed I’d meet him in an apple orchard. We did some map work and I said ‘If I make it, I’ll meet you there in a couple of days.’
Were you all expecting a tough fight?
Of course; so we went in, over the side of the LST on rope ladders and then into the little landing craft; terribly sea sick.
What movie camera did you have with you?
A good solid camera but terrible for what we……..a 35mm Eymo; heavy; clumsy and even though I was a motion picture man, the American government went to the American population and asked them to donate 35mm still cameras. At that time they were called candid cameras and they were pretty expensive and only wealthy people had those cameras and asking the population wasn’t new because they contributed dogs for the canine corps. I ended up, very fortunate, with a beautiful Leica camera from somebody and the army I think was pretty nice – they made a bronze plate naming the donor and stapled it into the back of the case and said ‘When the war is over, if you still have the camera, we really hope you’ll send it back to the people who gave it to you.’
So on D Day you had the Leica?
Yes but I didn’t shoot it at the time. I kept it in my pack and used the Eymo.
Was that because the Leica was a still one?
Yes but I also had 2 carrier pigeons. We didn’t know anything about those until the day we left. Some people from London came down to where we were with cages of carrier pigeons! They snapped them on our backs and so we went in and each pigeon had a harness with a little capsule and we could put a very small roll of film in there that was in code and we had special little cameras they gave us and you could get 8 pictures on that load of film and you’d put it in there and send the pigeons off. In my case I was in the first wave to hit the beaches and had the misfortune to drop into a hole and floundered around for a while – I’m not tall anyway – by the time I got on shore, one of my pigeons was dead; drowned. There’s quite a story around these pigeons – when the Americans recaptured Cherbourg they discovered a picture magazine like Life – a German magazine laying around and there was a whole series of beautiful pictures and they said ‘Courtesy of Martin Letterhandler – US Army.’ It was his pigeon that had got shot down. The Germans gave him a line of credit for the pictures!
I hadn’t realised you were in the first wave. That’s the main assault bit of Omaha isn’t it?
That’s right; we went back there last year.
The noise must have been amazing wasn’t it?
I guess it must have been. The biggest reaction we all had was that we were so sick. If you recall the invasion was supposed to be June 5th and they had to scrub it but many of us had already departed the shore – already afloat in the middle of the channel; you can’t go back and they didn’t have food for everybody so we just toughed it out all night long. By the time we got to morning and ready to go over the side and then got in the landing craft, we were so sick. I’ve often been asked if I was afraid and I usually say ‘I don’t think so.’ Other emotions overrode that – being sick – get me off of this damn barge. I don’t care who’s where or what……..all over the floor; slopping all over and so on and the tough part was that we’d been ordered – ‘When you go off there, don’t even think about rescuing someone who’s floating around and wounded because you’ll jam up and then the machine gunners will have a beautiful target.’
So you were warned about that beforehand?
Yes; Saving Private Ryan – most of those movies are stupid, but that one, the opening sequence was quite good and there were men all over; some were unconscious; some wounded and you just had to push them aside and go aboard.
Do you remember the ramp of the landing craft going down and suddenly there it all is?
Oh hell yes. And then you’re running as fast as you can get off there because the machine gunners aren’t stupid; they’re sitting there spraying the open ramp so if you stopped to help a guy, then there was 2 casualties because you were going to get shot.
So you jump off and get straight into a sort of hole in the sand and you’re struggling around in the water for a bit?
You managed to get out of that one dead pigeon later……
Had to sacrifice him, yes.
The beach is quite long isn’t it and then there’s that little shelf isn’t there?
You run for shelf if you can get there.
That’s what you did?
Yes but I’m also taking pictures.
Jeepers! At the same time!
I’m sure you’ve seen a couple of shots I took – the one that’s shown the most shows 5 soldiers coming ashore and the furthest one on the left is shot and killed and falls over. I shot that. You can see from the picture I was laying on my belly – it’s a low angle shot.
It’s amazing! You’d think all you’d want to do was run for safety but I suppose that was your job!
It was! I’m a corporal now! A corporal!
It must have been some experience.
There were many worse ones to follow.
Buchenwald concentration camp – things like that and I was in prison towards the last – a POW and the Soviet troops released us; the Soviets! Our buddies! We were happy to see them!
You didn’t get hit at all on D Day? You were fine?
I didn’t get hit, no. I do remember in the Battle of the Bulge, we were retaking the town of ?? and I wanted to steady myself and leaned up against a tree and all of a sudden I felt and heard a snap and I shook my head a little bit and it didn’t hurt but it was a shot. There was a soldier coming down and I described what happened and he said ‘You’re a damn fool, standing up so you’re a target! That was a sniper shot and the bullet went so close to your ear, it compressed the air; a shock wave; sonic boom.’ I thought that is close! A millimetre or 2 – so thank you God! It’s amazing but I was so young! Still a teenager on D Day.
Not quite 20 on D Day.
So you get off the beach – were you just filming throughout the day? And you used your one pigeon that was left to send stuff off?
Yes; got rid of him. We saw an awful lot of combat because we had these highly mobile 3 man teams so in each corps in each division, they could move us around.
So you didn’t stay with the 16th infantry the whole time?
No, at one time or another we stayed with every division in the 1st army; you’re moving all the time; wherever the action is they’d say get down there.
Did you meet up with the other 2 from your team on D Day in the orchard?
And there was the jeep and everything ready to go?
You must have done the whole of the Normandy campaign; St Lo and you went up to Cherbourg you said?
Yes; we did not have good equipment. If you had to change a 100 foot roll of film, you had to sit somewhere and take the door off the camera and where are you going to put the door? If it’s pouring with rain or snowing or muddy………? If there was a soldier near you’d say ‘Hold this camera.’ Then you’re loading the film and you have to get the sprockets ejected; the right number of frames from the film gate and all that. It’s tedious.
Fiddly I should think. Did you have a little tool set of screw drivers and such like?
No; we discovered later on in the war that the Germans had far better camera equipment than we did and the French did too. The Russians had our cameras and I don’t remember what the Brits had. I never fought beside the Brits.
It’s fascinating because you’re involved but I’m sure there’s times where you have to become infantrymen but basically you’re observing a lot of the time so you’re in a different position; getting a different perspective to other people.
Totally; we were up close photographing people like Montgomery and Eisenhower.
What did you make of these guys?
It was a slave/master relationship naturally but I even had a 15 minute one on one interview with General Patten once and he could not have been nicer. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this anywhere but for a long time he was considered to be the wealthiest soldier in the army.
He was quite well to do wasn’t he? And very pucka, smart……..
Yes but he was also dyslexic and it took him 5 years to get through the academy.
What was Eisenhower like?
I liked him but he didn’t ask my advice very often! He had a rabid temper but he got over it instantly too.
He let off steam and then it would be gone?
Yes; he smoked constantly; always had a cigarette in his mouth but he was smart enough that we didn’t get a picture of him with a cigarette in his hand very often; he’d hide it or something.
Did you meet Monty?
I never spoke to him but I’ve been as close as I am to you taking his picture. He was a feisty little guy!
I’m not his biggest fan.
People like Bradley and Maxwell-Taylor…….
Oh Bradley was great. Maxwell-Taylor was a brilliant man; spoke several languages; Ridgeway was nice.
You know they hated each other’s guts?
Were you aware of that at the time?
Not at the time, no. I never saw McArthur because that was another theatre of operations but I would like to have.
People like Hodges?
Courtney Hodges, 1st Army. He was a quiet, down to earth sort; a real gentleman Courtney Hodges. Here we are – this is an Eymo.
Wow! It’s quite dinky; quite small isn’t it? what were your opinions of the fighting men you were with and the of the Germans you were coming up against? They weren’t all Waffen SS and Nazis were they?
Of course not.
I’m thinking of when you were in Normandy particularly.
First of all, we did a lot of fighting ourselves, the photographers. Sometimes we’d have to stop because the light was too bad or whatever and if we were in a tight situation we’d pick up a gun and start shooting.
Were you equipped with a ??
No, just a pistol but on the battlefield there’s always weapons laying around; people are wounded or whatever and if you go to a medical aid station there’d be a whole stack of rifles left there by the wounded so getting a weapon was not a problem. The chief signal officer in the war wrote something and I’ve remembered it ‘The 165th signal combat photographic company garnered more awards and suffered more casualties than any ??? in World War Two.’ Our company – most people don’t think we fought; we fought a lot; you had to.
How did you respond to combat? Some people ……..did you find the adrenaline just took over?
Oh yes, usually; it’s really not fun to take another person’s life and yet if it’s a point where it’s you or me, I don’t care about morality, theology…….it’s self-survival; you do it. I remember one time, the first German I shot, and even at that young age, I looked at him lying there and I thought that poor SOB – he’s got some people back in Germany that love him; mother, brother, wife, sister – whatever, and he ain’t going home and that’s kind of hard.
But it’s war isn’t it?
A few years ago the French government came over here and wanted to shoot a 50th anniversary program for D Day. They’d picked a former German soldier from their archives somewhere and chose me and the whole theory was they wanted to photograph 2 men of the same age who’d fought each other in the war that long ago and to see how they were doing. So they came here to Rochester. One day we were on the beach looking at the Omaha ?? and a school bus full of French high school kids came along. The German – Franz was his name – he and I were standing there talking and they asked a lot of questions about what it was like. The girls asked what did you have to eat? Where did you sleep? That sort of stuff and the boys all wanted to know how big a gun we had! I could see we weren’t making an impact on these kids at all and they all spoke English and I said to them ‘You see this man standing beside me? His name is Franz ?? And had he and I met that morning of D Day, one of us would have killed the other one, and that suddenly clicked. The girls were the first ones to notice and they said ‘You mean……?’ and I said ‘Yes, I’d shoot him of course.’ That’s kind of interesting.
Was it during the Normandy campaign that you shot your first German?
D Day was a tough fight but were you at St Lo and those kind of places? Operation Cobra?
I received the Silver Star medal at St Lo.
What did you do there?
You don’t want to know!
I do want to know! They don’t hand out Silver Stars willy nilly!
That’s right, they don’t. I hate to re-visit these things………they came up with……they were going to form a task force; a provisional unit. A provisional unit is one where you start with a clean sheet of paper and decide what the mission is and then you bring different specialties in to form the unit. When the mission is over the unit is disbanded. They were going to form one to go in and take St Lo because there was a major communications centre that was very important. We found out about it and I told my lieutenant and I said I’d like to go in and he said to go ahead and we went in with them. We were under heavy, heavy artillery fire; mortars and everything like that and a German came around the cemetery wall and took a shot a shot and missed and turned around and ran into an underground vault. The cemetery was right there. I went in after him and there were 2 of them there and I shot one and the other immediately – we’re comrades! Don’t shoot me! They captured him and as luck would have it, he was a courier and had a lot of maps and data with him that was significant and I took a lot of pictures of that; ran out of film; got out of town – walking down through the trees til I got out and my film was all gone. Next morning I told my lieutenant I had to go back as there was a lot more stuff there and he said fine and this time, right back at almost the same spot, there was a lot of artillery, primarily from mortar fire – high trajectory, short range – there was an army major beside and we both crunched down because of all the artillery and we were talking away and a shell came in. I thought I’d been hit because I remember I turned to my still man and my face was all covered with tiny pieces of stone and glass. I said ‘How does my face look?’ I figured it was going to be like hamburger. Then we looked over and the major had been very severely wounded. You do strange things – I picked him up and ran about a block to where our jeep had been hidden, put him in there – I don’t know why you do these things; you just do it. We went roaring off to an aid tent and brought him in there and I remember one of the doctors saying he’d gone and I said ‘No Goddamn it! He’s not gone!’ all I knew about the major was that he was in the signal corps. The doctors saved his life.
Yes; and I went back to the major’s HQ which was about half a mile away and told his staff. I said ‘The major’s not coming back; you’re going to have to reorganise.’ I’m just a corporal for Christ’s sake! But otherwise they’d be waiting for him. I said ‘He’s in the hospital; I’ve got to go; have a nice day!’ Years later, after I was an officer and I was at my desk in the Pentagon, all of a sudden I felt something and I looked up and there was a brigadier general standing there with a kind of half arsed grin on his face. He said ‘You don’t remember me do you?’ I said ‘No general, I don’t.’ He said ‘Were you ever at St Lo?’ And I said ‘I thought you were dead!’ We had quite a time! He said he was being moved to Fort ?? Arizona as deputy commander of the base. He said ‘I want you to come out; you have to meet my wife.’ So I went to Arizona and as the general, he lived in the big house on the hill with nice trees and so on. I met his wife and that was emotional. She cried hugged me and cried and said ‘You saved my husband’s life!’
What an amazing thing.
Then not too many years ago, I knew by this time he’d have retired – he was older than I am – he died last year – but we found out he retired to Tucson and we were out there and went to see him at his house. This time he didn’t remember me – he was getting on in years, but she did.
What was his name?
Gordon Corball (??)
So you had your trio in the jeep but how was the 165th signals company organised? Were you answerable to a lieutenant?
We were very unusual; most companies had a captain and maybe 2 lieutenants – we had 15 lieutenants! Unheard of! The reason was they were deployed and working very well, one at each division HQ’s and one in each corps so they could pull strings and talk to each other. One might say ‘We’ve got a really big deal coming up here tomorrow; how about you send me two of your teams?’
So they’d be attached to divisional staff?
Yes and their job was to find out what was going on.
What was the process of you reporting in because if you were in your jeeps and attached all over……at what point do you come together and get your briefings? ‘You 3 go there and you other 3 go over there.’ How does that work?
Usually you go back to the corps or the division lieutenant and he’s got a truck and a typewriter and he’s in communication – you report back in and give him the film to be processed and you get a new supply of film.
Ok, so you’d head for the divisional HQ camp or chateau or whatever it was and they’d say ‘You’re now moving over to this division.’
So you’d go and report there and they’d say ‘OK, you’re Halloran; off you go and do this.’
Yes and the end result of all that methodology is that we had an awful lot of days in combat. A division is relieved periodically but hell we stayed there and relieved divisions that came in! So we had some battle fatigue I guess and that’s why we had so many casualties.
The 2 guys you went into Normandy with, were they ok? They survived?
Did you stay together?
No; we split up at one time. One of my jeep drivers……..I’ve got a picture of him…….he was a gold old boy from the mountains of Tennessee. He was so proud of the fact he graduated from high school. He was the only man in his entire clan that had ever gone to high school. God he was a good soldier.
That wasn’t Wes?
You rotated your drivers; every once in a while one gets wounded and they’d send a replacement. This guy – I liked him – he was a natural woodsman and very, very good at reading maps and he was just a good man. I have a picture of him and me standing on the steps of an old house and as we were talking, he was killed and I was as close to him as I am to you. A mortar shell came in and shrapnel got him.
What was his name?
Did you find you got hardened to it?
Absolutely; you got hardened to death and dying but also as you gain experience, you can sense and feel and anticipate.
A 6th sense?
And that you can only get with experience?
It’s nothing to do with training.
What did you make of the German equipment? You must have seen burnt out Panthers and Tigers……
Oh yes; they were reasonably well equipped. We didn’t like their Mausers. We had the Grand (?) which we thought was a beautiful weapon and the Schmeiser, that had such a rapid rate of fire you could tell……oh that’s over there. But the German soldiers, they were aggressive; they followed their orders and I would have to say, as far as I could tell, they were good soldiers. A colonel was interrogating us one night after we were captured – he was born and raised in America – spoke English better than I do! We were talking about the war and he said ‘We can’t win! If we knock out one of your tanks, tomorrow morning 2 more are in its place. How can we win?’
He was quite right.
Then he said ‘Earlier on in the war, some of us who didn’t like the war much anyway, said when they realised we were shipping things like chewing gum and candy bars and tobacco and cigarettes over – you’ve got shipping enough in your nation that you can bring over goodies……toothpaste…..? Logistically the war is over.’
John Slatter was the number 2 air commander in Italy made an interesting point. He said that the thing about the German soldier is that he expected to live off less so he can survive for 4 or 5 days while a British or American trooper would expect to live off ??
I believe it and a Soviet solder even longer!
I remember talking to this German sergeant who was obviously as tough as old boots – one of the absolute back bone of the army types. This guy had lived through it all; been wounded twice in Russia; Italian front etc. When one of his soldiers was killed he wouldn’t report it for 2 or 3 days so he could still get the guy’s cigarette ration for a few days. That’s just how it was. That guy doesn’t need them – he’s dead; circumnavigating the system.
You must have felt the uniform and kit you were given was pretty comfortable?
This jacket was a good jacket to wear?
You didn’t really think about it?
No; the clothing we had during the terrible winter of the Korean War – it was just as cold as the Battle of the Bulge, but we had better clothing. We had jackets lined with something; Parkas. In WW2 we had 5 buck over shirts like you buy at Kmart; terrible. By Korea our clothing was much improved.
So, you survived the Normandy campaign; did you film any of that? The Falaise Gap and the Bulge?
Oh yes; we stayed right up there.
So you remember scenes of German carnage and dead horses and all of that?
Of course and then the bridge at Remagen – oh yes.
Were you involved in Market Garden at all? The airborne drop?
Presumably you were attached to 3rd Army ??
Did you get to Paris?
Not in the advance…….
No, I didn’t fight in Paris. Our Company did something that was wonderful. When they got to that point, they moved our photographic processing facilities from London to the big studios in Paris and some of us got particularly battle worn and they sent us to Paris for 3 days to preview our film. It was to get you a hot shower and a clean bed and a little R & R if you will and that was a life saver; our lieutenants had figured that out. They did a great job. that was absolutely………I’ve got some pictures under the Eiffel Tower. We followed the main course of action all the way to the end of the war.
You were saying you had plenty worse action than D Day. Were you involved in Aachen or the Hurtgen Forest?
Not Hurtgen but Aachen yes, we fought in the streets of Aachen.
I was told by an American who fought there that it was the worst fighting he ever saw personally; it was terrible.
It was; Aachen was also the target for buzz bombs; the V1’s. You could hear that pulsing engine and look up and there it was. Aachen, Cologne – all that area round there. I didn’t fight in Cologne but I did in Aachen.
Then you were in the Bulge?
Yes I was with 101st Airborne in the Bulge, but they didn’t jump; they walked in.
Where were you?
We stuck with the 101st.
But they were all around the perimeter weren’t they?
Do you remember places like Foy? Villages on the edge.
Were you in a foxhole or based more in the divisional HQ in the middle of the town?
I was in a foxhole; that’s where the pictures are.
God it must’ve been cold.
It was awful; it was so cold we were having technical problems with the film. The movie camera would crank and break because it got so brittle. Also the speed – it’s called sound speed – that the pictures are taken so you can add sound later on – the camera wouldn’t run up to proper speed because it was so cold. We wiped every trace of lubricant over it to try to keep it……. we had a lot of trouble trying to get our cameras to work properly. The stills photographers didn’t have so much of a problem, but there was the awful problem of simply trying to reload your camera. You’re there under a pine tree with snow up to your butt and you’re out of film – mechanically you can’t take it out and lay it on a table. It was a problem.
Then you’d get German artillery barrages going into the trees.
They started the tree charges, yes and that was bad. That was really demoralising; these tree bursts were terrible.
You’d get shards of wood going everywhere.
We also took some pictures the day the sun came out and the C47’s came in dropping supplies – euphoria everywhere! The guys were out of ammunition; out of everything.
Because you didn’t have enough warm clothes did you?
No; I’ve got a picture somewhere – I wore 5 buck over shirts like you get at Walmart.
So you were filming action but were you filming troops in foxholes and talking to them and stuff?
How much filming work were you doing in a day in somewhere like Bastogne?
You were limited to how much you could carry in your pack and your pockets; 10 rolls would be a thousand feet of film and there’s no sense in carrying more than that.
How much time would that have been?
About 12 or 13 minutes all together.
So not a huge amount and then you’d have to go back to base?
You were besieged at one point…….
Or you could go back to the jeep; we kept a basic load in the jeep too and the jeep driver’s job was to make sure that all that stuff was there.
So you had more than a quarter of an hour’s worth when you were in Bastogne?
Oh that’s right. The jeep drivers were really important; we were hard on our jeeps – shrapnel; bullet holes……..we’d bring them back to Company HQ which with 1st Army was way, way back and I remember the motor pool sergeant would get angry and frustrated. He was a staff sergeant and I wasn’t and so it was all ‘Yes Sir…..’ but he’d get so irritated because we’d bring in our beat up jeeps and I’d be like ‘What the hell? There’s a war on!’
I’ve been driving around in a 1944 one which apparently served with the 82nd airborne; been driving that around all summer; it’s so simple. If anything goes wrong, it’s pretty easy to fix.
It’s a wonderful vehicle the jeep.
Presumably you’ve seen the series Band of Brothers?
I like the opening sequence; that’s pretty good but the rest of it is a bunch of crap.
It’s hard trying to bring to the screen something that was so……..
I understand what they are doing but if authenticity is not important, then fine – have a good day. Something as simple as the uniform they’re wearing – I’d say to my wife ‘We were in Korea before we got those uniforms.’
So the Battle of the Bulge – the tide turns and then Bastogne is relieved and you go on to Saint Vith. There can’t have been much left of St Vith by the time you got there was there?
It was flattened that place wasn’t it?
I have a picture for you. You can see how I’m dressed – just plain old 5 buck overshirts.
So then you were on Remagen Bridge?
Fortunately we were with an armoured division that day and they came over the crest of the hill and looked down to see the bridge at Remagen and oh the euphoria; everyone was screaming. There was some major or colonel in charge of that armoured task force or……I don’t know what it was and they started screaming ‘Take the bridge!’ So we left the hill and went down to the bottom into the town and I noticed as I got down there that there was an obvious place to go – a church with a big steeple and I said to my still man ‘Come on! Let’s go! To the church!’ We got a good view from up there. We shot some pictures and then of course the Germans aren’t stupid! They started shelling the steeple and I said ‘Come on! Time to move!’ yes, the bridge at Remagen – that was a lot of excitement – first time the Americans had crossed the Rhine river.
And the Rhine’s a big old river!
And that was really the beginning of the end of the war.
Suddenly you’re in Germany; what did you make of that and the Germans you came across?
They were scared of us; they didn’t know what we were going to do, and one thing I think we should have done…….. word came down that rather than sleep put in the cold, we should go ahead and move into German houses but no atrocities; no nothing. By and large the Germans were eternally grateful. We kicked them down to the basement but we didn’t shoot them. The Russians shot everybody and moved into their house. Some of the older German housewives, they might venture upstairs and get some potatoes and feed the guys. They were surviving. It was kind of creature comforts – all of a sudden we didn’t have to sleep outside any more. The guys would kill a few chickens once in a while or a poor sad cow and then it was ‘It’s steak tonight guys!’
Getting flags and Lugers and such like?
There’s always some of that because we have a lot of stupid young people in our country, and your country. They’d revert to animals some of them; animals; rape anything they’d get their hands on…..it happens; it’s not restricted to the Russians.
Did you come across any die hard Nazi’s as you went into the towns?
Yes, some of the older ones – not in the army; in the villages – oh yes. An interesting aspect is I’m a Catholic and most of the Germans were too and you could be fighting and Sunday us guys armed to the teeth – we’d all be sitting in there…….
Go outside the church and you’d shoot them! At my young age, I’d see it but wasn’t sure I understood it – human nature.
The rations you got were ok? You ate all right?
You had enough smokes – if you smoked?
Yes; I didn’t smoke but it was good trading material. In our K rations there was a little pack with – I think – 3 cigarettes in, I’m not sure and I’d swap with guys for chocolate or whatever. The rations got much better during the Korean War.
What was your route into Germany? With the 3rd Army?
Did you get as far as Czechoslovakia?
That’s where I ended up – as a prisoner.
How did that happen? Had you been to Buchenwald at that point?
No, we were just going down the road; the war was nearly over so the lines were terribly fluid; no one knew who was where. We had a report of something going on and we went and drove right into a German tank column! Why? How can this happen?!
This was about April 1945 was it?
Yes; some Germans got out of the tank and came over with their guns out and one was smiling and spoke a bit of English. He came up to me and said ‘Not good!’ I thought you’re right Charlie! It’s not good!
They didn’t treat you badly?
No, I have to admit it, they didn’t. The interesting part was that it was the Soviet troops that released us. They got there before the Americans got to the area.
Where was this?
Carlsbad – it has a different name now; in Sudetenland.
How long were you a prisoner?
Less than a month.
Then you went back …….?
Once we could get over to the American side, then we went back………the Reds took everything. They took our cameras; our jeep – they let me keep a pistol. I’ve got a picture of me on a wagon surrounded by Russians. We finally hitchhiked back to our Company HQ and reported to the Captain. ‘Where have you been Halloran?!’ Glad to see us back!
When did you go to Buchenwald?
I don’t remember the month any more.
It was before you were captured?
Oh yes; it was about the time we were going through Cologne and Aachen – that general Weimar and so forth and that was terrible.
Was it a complete shock to you that that sort of thing was going on?
Oh most of us got sick – we vomited – you could not………I hate to even talk about it. You cannot believe………you’ve seen pictures?
The sights, the sounds and the smells; unbelievable.
But I think it must have been such a shock to realise this had been going on and to have had no idea about it?
Eisenhower claims he didn’t know.
That’s entirely possible.
He was there – got us together and ordered us to photograph……..he made the old people and kids from the nearby town of Weimar walk through and the mothers tried to hide the eyes of their kids and the American MP’s would rip their hands off – we all took a lot of pictures of Eisenhower up there going through and the women from the villages were crying; the older men just looked straight ahead; no expression which was probably as good a way as any to do it. so many of those poor wretches died from the shock of realising. And another thing the good old Americans did, til the medics stopped us, we tried to feed these poor people.
They couldn’t cope with it?
They died – on the spot. The medics were running around crying ‘Don’t feed them!’ I think there was a PA system set up and they broadcast ‘Don’t feed them!’ The psychological warfare people were there. That’s work that Henry Kissinger did – he was a sergeant in the American Army doing that work.
Where were you at the end of the war? VE Day?
The armies were all broken up and sent home.
Do you remember the end of the war?
Oh of course. the 3rd Army was moved on to Bavaria with Patten and the 1st Army went back to New York. The 3rd Army Photographic Company was sent down to prepare to go to Japan. Our Company joined 3rd Army there and we were in the Bavarian Alps til we rotated.
Did you ever get up to Ober Salzburg and Hitler’s house?
Oh yes; beautiful country. Many years later after I got married we lived in Bad ?? right where we were stationed so many years earlier. It was a good tour of duty.
So the war’s over and you eventually get back to the US?
We went back on the same ship – the SS Louis Pasteur – which I understand was a luxury liner that the French ran but we still had British cooks! Oh God!
You stayed in the Army?
I stayed in. I received a direct commission – called a battlefield commission – in the Korean War. One minute I am a Sergeant Major and the next I am a 2nd Lieutenant. My senior non-com colleagues thought that was a de-motion – they thought how can you go to being a 2nd Lieutenant? There’s no-one lower!
And you still didn’t get to meet MacArthur?
No, wrong theatre.
What about Mark Clarke? Did you ever meet him?
He did not have a good reputation. He was from a Jewish family and arrogant; most people despised him. He got the job done I guess because he had 4 stars but he was brutal, hard, demanding, arrogant – somewhere along the line he must have been a producer or they never would have made him 4 stars.
You did Vietnam as well?
Would have thought you might have had enough of war by then! But you stayed in the Army the whole way through?
I was a staff officer in the Pentagon. My last photo job in the army – and I feel good about that, I really do; have to admit it – I was commander of all audio-visual activities in the American Army – from where I started to end up commanded the whole thing worldwide – it felt good, I admit it. I was moved into McNamara’s office; I don’t know why. Someone convinced him there was too much redundancy, which was accurate, in all audio-visual activities in all of the services. He directed an air force colonel and a navy captain and myself and a couple of sergeants and we had an office in McNamara’s outfit and spent a year analysing and chugging all over the world and he was right; we found out a lot. One thing I’m proud of is that we recommended and they followed up on – they have an audio-visual school now – all services go to it. The equipment is standardised and the commander rotates between the 3 services. It’s in Fort Mead, Maryland. We felt pretty good about that. After almost 5 years, I finally went to Mr McNamara’s exec officer and told him I needed to get back into the army. I said ‘I don’t like Vietnam; don’t think we should be there but it’s history; it is what it is.’ I’d been there several times on temporary duty. I told him I’d like to get over there and he said he’d see what the boss said. The next day he told me the boss said I could go if I found a suitable replacement and if I could guarantee I could command troops. He said ‘The Secretary isn’t going to help you do these things.’ I didn’t find it difficult to get a replacement but to get a command – I was a Lieutenant Colonel then and career-wise battalion commanders would kill each other to command in combat; that’s the top of the ladder. I called a friend of mine, a general in Signals Corps and told him what I wanted and he just laughed but he said he’d call me the next day and he did and he said ‘If you can be here this date, you can have command of this particular battalion.’ I said ‘Yes Sir! Thank you!’ I did something that turned out pretty good I think. Fort Mead isn’t far from the Pentagon and I called out there and got a refresher in small arms and someone came out and said ‘The Colonel wants to see you.’ All he wanted was, he said ‘I wanted to look at you! You’re the first staff officer at the pentagon who has ever come up here to help get prepared for a tour in Vietnam!’ The Signals Corps was the communications battalion – I called up there and got hold of the commandant of the signal school and told him who I was and where I was going and said ‘I’d really like to come up for a week and get brought up to speed with what’s going on.’ He said ‘You’re in luck Halloran. The exec officer of that battalion you’re going to command reported for duty yesterday. He’s got here; he’s fresh; he knows everybody in the battalion – you can have him for a week.’ Those 2 steps really gave me a lot of help. After a while they moved me up the Group and I got promoted to full Colonel and so I commanded about 5,000 men in the unit and I’ve often thought this has been quite a ride! All these years!
From that trip down to join Max Factor and then going in as a private and then private first class……slowly getting up the ladder. The things you’ve seen though!
There are a million men with the same story. I’m just one of many. You get to go to school – I graduated from the Army’s General Staff College. I did a tour of duty in Indonesia wearing civilian clothes as a military attaché and being paid by the CIA.
That must have been interesting.
When I was told I was going there I thought what the hell are they sending me to Indonesia for? I’m not even sure where it’s at! When I was a student at the Army’s General Staff College one of the allied officers there was a Colonel from the Indonesian Army and we became good friends. He went home as a Colonel and promoted to a General and out in charge of tourism, communications and transportation; we call them Secretaries; they call them Ministers. All of a sudden this guy was a big player. They said ‘Halloran, that’s why you’re going over there and your job is to play golf or whatever it takes; keep your ear to the ground and stay friends with the General and if he wants you to go to dinner at his house, you go to his house. Civilian clothes; travel on a diplomatic passport.’
How long were you out there for?
A couple of years.
It must have been interesting wasn’t it?
Yes of course but they told us…….we had a lot of briefings…….it was a hostile environment because the Soviets were fighting viciously for control of Indonesia like we were and they said ‘Be aware that everything you say will be recorded somewhere; your phone’ll be tapped; there’ll be microphones all over your house. It’s a hostile environment – don’t be a damn fool and …..’
Don’t put your foot in it.
Yes; it was an education.
You came back in 1970. What did you do then?
I had to do something; couldn’t just let the grass grow and so I went back to school and became a stockbroker; got all the necessary certificates from the Security Exchange Commission (?) and all the licenses and it was fun! I learnt things – I learnt I don’t want to play with people who are amateur investors because they can’t handle it if their stock goes down that you urged them to buy yesterday!
What a life!
Being a stockbroker was fun and I made a couple of bucks at it!
A bit more than the 25 cent pocket money you got all those years ago!
I bought some Harley Davidson stock! Wonderful!
Did you ever have a Harley Davidson?
Oh yes! In Indonesia they shipped us a hundred Harley’s to be given to the Military Police. It’s all psychological – you’d see a brand new shiny Harley and a Marine Corps major and me we each kept one because we had a lot of running around to do and you could go down these dykes where the rice paddies are on a motor cycle quite nicely. That paid off too. When the huge revolution occurred in Indonesia, we got a secret message from the embassy. We were scattered all over town in private homes and they said ‘Don’t go out anywhere because we don’t know who is going to get killed. We’ll get you some protection as soon as we can.’ All of a sudden a whole bunch of kind of Hell’s Angels came roaring in on their raggedy arse motor cycles. I’d become friends with a lot of them just rising around and they came to protect us til the Army showed up. You never know! These ragged guys! Tough looking! They couldn’t believe these fantastic looking shiny motorcycles. Jakarta’s a big city and their old beat up things were held together with tape. There was a periodical magazine and I asked the ambassador if I could write a letter and I wrote to Harley Davidson and told them about this and sent some pictures and said ‘If we could establish the Jakarta Chapter of the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Association so I could take these guys pictures…..’ and they did it! And I took pictures and wrote articles and sent them into the magazine and they are sitting there with a toothy grin! When the bulletin came in for distribution, they were just like gold! The guys loved my pictures! When the riots came, those guys showed up! A whole bunch of them roared up! They knew what was going on and they stayed there til the regular Army showed up to protect us. We all lived in commandeered houses scattered around – they were homes that Dutch bankers owned. So my friend, is that about it?
It’s been amazing!
I don’t know if I’d go that far or not!
If I think of anything else, please can I drop you a line?
END WALT HALLORAN