Dick Nakamura: air force photographer

(This article originally appeared in the CAHS Regina chapter newsletter in November 2001)

  Dick Nakamura was in high school in 1939 in Surrey, B.C., when the Second World War broke out and admits he thought more than a little about joining the RCAF.
  But before he got a chance, fate intervened: the "Pacific War" broke out in late 1941 and, as a Canadian of Japanese ancestry, he went from being a potential recruit to a suspected enemy agent. He and his family were interned and sent to Alberta, where they sat out the war.
"The trauma of being an instant enemy alien is pretty damned tough to take when you're live here all your life," he told the October meeting of the Regina chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.
  Yes, he admits it embittered him for a while, but with the help of his father's good advice he overcame it and now can see this experience changed his life for the better. "I felt I was going to do everything I can on my own to be a Canadian -- as I felt I was -- from then on."
  When (at Winston Churchill's behest) Canada later began searching those internment camps for trustworthy young men who could act as Japanese-English translators, he was ready to volunteer if the recruiters ever came his way. And in 1947, he joined the RCAF, being accepted in 1948 and training at Trenton and considered the aircrew trade before opting for photography.
  And he's glad he did, for Dick says he got "a lot of enjoyment out of photography, not only as work but as a hobby -- I still love to shoot pictures."
It didn't start out as a love affair, though. After manning depot (where he came to understand the importance of drill ("in wartime, when they say, "'Right, 45 degrees! Enemy!', you've got to fire. You've got to do it right. You can't say. 'Oh, I don't want to!'" he did more training at the RCAF's old Central Photo Establishment at RCAF Station Rockcliffe.
   His first assignment was processing and printing the long rolls of film brought back by RCAF survey aircraft then undertaking the mapping of northern Canada. It was tedious work and occasionally frustrating, as when clouds picked up by the cameras required the film to be underexposed. The "salt mine", it was nicknamed by its inmates.
  The work was so dull and repetitive that the air force gave little incentives for those production teams that worked quickly. "There was no way I was going to stay in that place," Dick said.
This rote work was not why Dick had joined the air force and chosen photography; he wanted something more creative. "I thought, 'This isn't photography; this is slave labour'!"
  His talked with his boss and within about a month found himself transferred to the public relations and information section of Air Force headquarters in downtown Ottawa under a Squadron Leader Walker. His first assignment -- moody, sombre pictures of a former RCAF senior officer's funeral, exploiting the cemetery's shadows after almost all the mourners had left -- pleased his new boss and he was accepted.
  Suddenly, his life changed for the better. The prospect of travel, challenging work and interesting people now arose. "It was a fantastic thing for a single guy; I really appreciated that."
Among his many projects were the first "Leapfrog" flights, which saw  RCAF Sabre jet fighters flown to Europe via Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland, northern Scotland and then south into the London area, from which the aircraft eventually flew to bases in France and West Germany.
Dick was in one of two RCAF North Stars, loaded with maintenance personnel and supplies, that literally took turns leapfrogging ahead of the jets. Patrolling the route were U.S. Air Force B-17 rescue aircraft with droppable lifeboats mounted under their fuselages, plus a coterie of naval vessels.
  A bizarre incident surrounded the flight by the first squadron, No. 421: the deputy commanding officer had mechanical problems approaching Goose Bay and barely coaxed his aircraft to a safe landing. "We thought he was going to go off the end of the runway, but he saved the plane," Dick recalled. A maintenance crew found tissue paper in his aircraft's
fuel tank, prompting a thorough inspection of all other aircraft. It was concluded this was caused by haste in dispatching the brand new aircraft, not by sabotage.
"Somebody didn't do their clean-up job," he said.
   "They found some loose bolts that jammed up controls at a certain angle, so they went through them with a fine-tooth comb and fixed everything."
Good thing, too, because in Greenland, the airfield the Sabres used was at the base
of a mountain at the end of a long fjord. Dick also went on some mercy missions, getting film of pararescue jumpers ("They never asked me if I would jump with them!") and took shots of new aircraft -- the CF-100 Canuck interceptor and the first two DH Comet jet transports, for example -- for public relations purposes.
   The latter shot was particularly difficult as the Comet was far faster than the North Star, its hatches open, carrying Dick and supporting crew. "They just zoomed right by us. They couldn't slow down and we were going as fast as we could go."
   It took a long chat between the two crews over coffee at Montreal before they could figure a way for the Comet to approach, as slowly as safely possible, the thundering North Star.
   Far more time-consuming was getting a photo of the air force's new C-119 Flying Boxcar transports, assigned to No. 435 Squadron at Namao. For seven consecutive days, each morning's weather briefing brought the same news: grey, raining and cloudy. "I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm going to be here for a month!" recalled Dick.
   Finally, on the eighth day, there arrived word there was a small patch of clear sky north of Edmonton. From a Dakota with the cargo door open and everything inside taped down, Dick spotted the three accompanying '119s forming into what looked like a huge creature with three wings and fuselages "stuck together".
   "At one point, " he said, "It looked like there was a piggyback."
  Quick as that, he snapped this picture, illustrating one of the rules he learned about photography. Film is cheap; take your opportunities when you get them. "Just one of those things: when something happens and you don't get it, then you've missed it," he said.
   In respect of his facility with the Japanese language, he was also informed he'd be joining the Canadian party for the visit of the Crown Prince of Japan. He packed and was ready to go when he learned that he'd been replaced.
  "What do you mean?"
  "They've found someone prettier," he was told.
  And sure enough the RCAF has found an airwoman of Japanese ancestry who was indeed better-looking, though "this girl never spoke one word," Dick observed.
  He learned another lesson when he was assigned, on very short notice, to cover the visit to Ottawa of Air Marshall Lord Trenchard, founder of the Royal Air Force 35 years earlier. Speed was utmost: He grabbed his camera with three exposures remaining in its magazine and another photographer handed him two fresh magazines, each with a dozen shots in it. He grabbed some quick shots of Trenchard inspecting a guard of honour, then put on one of the "full" magazines and fired away.
    The second magazine went through his camera in equally short order as he snapped "all kinds of shots".
  Back in his darkroom, he opened his buddy's two "fresh" magazines and was horrified to find both were empty.
   He had violated one of his cardinal rules: never use anybody else's equipment. Fortunately, from his own magazine of three shots, he got a fine photo, but it was a close call. "Sometimes," he said, "You gotta be lucky!"
  Make no mistake about it, the RCAF regarded Trenchard's trip as being of great historical and symbolic importance. When the distinguished visitor went to RCAF Station Clinton, Dick was dispatched via train to document the visit.
  He got some shots, then boarded a Beech Expeditor that flew him back to Ottawa, where he raced to his darkroom, made prints and dispatched them to the Canadian Press wire service network to be sent across the country. (A note for photo buffs: Dick used the same bulky, sturdy, easily dismantled, Speed Graphic camera beloved of generations of newspapers and magazine photographers. "The Cadillac of cameras," he called it. In cold weather, as at Cambridge Bay, he learned to keep the battery pack for the flashgun inside his parka and run a cord to the camera through his sleeve. The camera itself would have to remain outside during cold weather to avoid being covered with condensation when taken indoors into warm air.) 
    His most harrowing experience came on one of his two visits to wartime Korea. The Canadian Army has an entire infantry brigade, with supporting arms, there.
The RCAF had a number of fighter pilots attached to USAF units and 426 (Transport) Squadron with North Stars flew Canadian and American troops from McCord AFB near Seattle north to Anchorage, then west and south over the Aleutians and over northern Japan and into airfields near Tokyo.(On their return leg, they would take advantage of prevailing winds by going from Japan to Wake Island, Hawaii, San Francisco and then Tacoma, often carrying wounded men in stretchers stacked up the cabin's ceiling.
  Dick was aboard the North Star that carried into Korea RCAF Air Commodore Dwight Ross, the famous officer who had lost a hand to an exploding bomb while he was rescuing airmen from a crashed 6 Group bomber in wartime Britain. They got quite close to the front line, but never right to it because RCAF personnel were barred from the front lines. Dick tested this rule by stowing away in the back of a series of Jeeps taking A/C Ross and his party forward, but was caught and expelled.
    Balancing that was the time Dick, then a lowly aircraftsman, was taken into an American senior officers' mess in Korea by a flight lieutenant who brashly assured him that nobody would make out his rank. The boldness worked: Dick found himself sitting next to a full colonel, who chatted amicably with him, apparently oblivious to his rank badges. (Culinary note: wherever he went in Korea, ample supplies of fruit salad seemed to be on the menu EVERYWHERE.)
   On a more serious note, Dick was dispatched on a North Star -- serial number 17509, he recalls -- detached from duty in Japan for a navigational training flight that took it to the Philippines, Australia, from which it went to Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and back to Japan, heading onto final approach on a particularly foggy day. No sweat, thought the crew, as they were being brought in by ground-control approach (GCA), a system that saw a sensitive, ground-based radar pick them up on approach, with an operator "talking them down" to a landing.
    So went the theory.
  Things proceeded smoothly until the North  Star pilot saw something dark flash past the cockpit. He asked the flight engineer for full power and pulled up sharply. "We heard sort of a pinging noise and we saw a sort of a tree going past," Dick remembered. "I thought, 'We're all dead.'"
   The No. 2 engine had to be shut down and No. 3 throttled back, but the North Star successfully went around and made another, successful, GCA approach before landing. So thick was the fog that the North Star's personnel could not see the array of firetrucks and ambulances waiting for them at the far end of the runway.  Dick subsequently learned the North Star's four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines (unlike those of the similar C-54s of the USAF) were credited with having the response and power to burst through a row of trees on a hill and take them to safety.
   Upon landing, Dick's role changed from that of a press photographer to that of an accident photographer. The leading edge of the port wing had a one-foot dent in it, with pine needles embedded in the landing gear doors. "Good thing it didn't touch the landing gear," he said. Dutifully, Dick developed and printed his accident pictures in a little hut in which a USAF fighter pilot, his allotment of flying hours used up, watched him work.
   His work finished, Dick was aware of shaking uncontrollably.
"He gave me a glass of something and then said, 'The bunk is over there!' I didn't see anything or hear anything until 7 o'clock the next morning. I was out like a light. That was a scary part of my experience as a photographer."
       After five years in the RCAF, Dick left it and signed on with another federal government agency, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, in Regina. He joined the army reserve (militia) unit then known as the Regina Rifle Regiment and rose to be its deputy commanding officer. After his retirement from the PFRA, he and his wife moved to Victoria, near to her family in Vancouver. Again, his knowledge of the Japanese language came in handy: ships of the Maritime Self-Defence Force, Japan's navy, were visiting Esquimalt and some sort of procedure for welcoming their crews was needed. Because he was still on the Canadian Force "SuppList" (supplementary reserve list) the retired Dick was recalled to duty, put into a navy uniform. He subsequently received an official commendation for his work from the JMSDF.    An astonishing journey for a young man who had once been turned down for service in the Canadian Forces fifty-some years ago. He said that his wartime experience and his father's subsequent wisdom caused him "to change my whole way of life -- and that was to prove to myself, on my own, that I was Canadian. That was my whole aim in life. Just for myself."
   He took pains in civilian and military life to volunteer for jobs so that he could never be labeled as "one of those damned guys who was just sitting down on the job,"  said Dick, who said that his parents taught him about obligations to family and country, a sense of duty and perseverance.
  He cited one Japanese word that, translated, means, "It can't be helped." as cooling his anger over internment.
      He sees obvious parallels with modern Canadians of Arabic or Islamic ancestry who are caught in a similar situation today, suspected of being hostile agents. "Now, my whole effort is to work toward anything that would not let this happen again in my country."
  -- written by Will Chabun