A soldier’s memoir. My father Donald Krasno (1921–2005) was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His interest in photography began at age ten when an uncle gave him a bunch of S&H Green Stamp books to redeem for a nifty little box camera. He read Popular Photography, bought film and camera equipment when he had money, took a photography course in college, and served as a Photo Lab Technician in World War II.
In the 1950s, he built a darkroom. In the 1960s he bought a Beseler Enlarger and taught himself to develop and print color film. In the 1970s, he moved up to Nikons, collecting half a dozen in the next 20 years.
In 2004, at age 82, I insisted he try digital photography, and gave him a Kodak Easyshare digital camera. After some initial resistance, he got the hang of it and took some very cool pix.
What began as a young boy’s hobby went to an entirely different level when my father enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) in 1942. He was a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working toward a BS degree in chemistry.
Self portrait, UW-Madison, 1941
Soon after graduation, he married my mother, Miriam. In June 1943, he reported for active duty. The USAAF Twelfth Air Force definitely tapped into my father’s interests and skill set when they selected him to train as a Photo Laboratory Technician in the 4th Photo Technical Squadron.
His first stop was the AAF Eastern Technical Training Command (AAFETTC) Basic Training Center in Greensboro, NC.
Corporal Donald Krasno, age 23
A month later he went to New Haven, CT, and entered officers training at Yale University in the AAFETTC Technical School, Department of Photography. For eight months, he studied aerial reconnaissance photography, radar, aerodynamics, communications, darkroom procedures and equipment, mixing chemicals, and photo printing.
Yale Technical School, (rear, center)
Upon graduation from the Yale course, my father went to Hampton Roads, VA, where he was scheduled to ship out for service in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) in Italy. He was supposed to board the Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton along with 316 officers and enlisted men of the Twelfth Air Force’s 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, and about 280 other soldiers.
My father missed the ship. His explanation for “missing the boat” was a humorous, but flimsy, story at best. Why he really missed the ship will remain a mystery, but he and 25 ground officers of the 32nd boarded the SS Fitzhugh Lee which sailed directly behind the Hamilton.
On April 3, 1944, the large convoy of 105 ships and 21 escorts (UGS-38) departed Hampton Roads for a slow eastbound journey to Italy. On April 20, the SS Paul Hamilton was attacked near sunset by 23 German Ju-88 bombers approximately 30 miles off the coast of Cape Bengut, Algiers, in the Mediterranean Sea. An aerial torpedo hit the Hamilton and ignited its cargo of 7,000 tons of ammunition and high explosives stored below decks. The entire ship disappeared into a column of fire that reached over 1,000 feet into the air and riddled surrounding ships with shrapnel and debris. The Hamilton exploded and sank within 30 seconds, killing all men aboard in one of the most costly Liberty ship disasters, in terms of human life, in all of World War II. Twenty pilots and 297 enlisted men of the 32nd died.
SS Paul Hamilton (Wikimedia.org, Public Domain)
SS Fitzhugh Lee (Wikimedia.org, Public Domain)
The explosion was recorded by Coast Guard photographer Russell Green aboard the SS Menges and the photograph was published in Time Magazine on May 22, 1944. The remains of only one of the 580 men aboard were ever recovered. The incident remained classified for 50 years due to the embarrassing fact that a troop ship had been loaded with tons of explosives and munitions.
Explosion of SS Paul Hamilton (Russell Green, Public Domain)
The Fitzhugh Lee was covered with debris. All the ship’s hatches were blown off. Many men were injured from strafing attacks by the German aircraft. My father saw the horror from the deck of the ship.
On April 28, 1944, he landed in Italy to begin his service, which would extend to September 20, 1945. His first posting was at a Replacement Depot (“Repple Depple”) at Triolo Airfield near San Severo, Italy. After a brief stay, he was loaned to the 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and relocated to Torre dei Giunchi (Junchi) Airfield northeast of San Severo. There, he worked alongside the small group of newly arrived 32nd survivors and the 32nd men already at the base. His duties:
MOS 945 – PHOTOGRAPHIC LABORATORY TECHNICIAN
Performs all tasks in a photographic laboratory incident to processing ground and aerial photographs. Prepares and mixes photographic solutions; develops negatives; makes contact and projection prints by means of a printing machine. May spot or retouch photographic prints and negatives. May assemble aerial photographic mosaics. Must be thoroughly familiar with photographic laboratory equipment such as film developers, film driers, and print driers. Must be thoroughly familiar with various types of sensitized materials, print washes, and other chemicals used in photographic work.
Due to the loss of all the men on the Hamilton, my father said when he arrived at the base, he was one of the only men who knew how to mix the chemicals—he worked crazy long hours. As time passed and replacement lab techs arrived, the workload became less frenzied.
In the photo lab at Torre dei Giunchi Airfield
The lineage of his squadron—the 4th Photographic Technical Squadron was activated in November 1943 as a component of the 3rd Reconnaissance Group which was part of the 90th Photographic Wing. The 90th was assigned to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) as a command and control organization to provide photographic reconnaissance for both the Twelfth and Fifteenth Air Forces. By the end of 1943, the 4th had 11 officers and 55 enlisted men who had transferred in from other organizations. The squadron was first located in La Marsa, Tunisia, and then moved to San Severo, Italy, in December 1943. On October 1, 1944, the 4th Photo Technical Squadron was reassigned to the Fifteen Air Force as a component of the 5th Photo Group, Reconnaissance along with the 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and the 15th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. That organization remained in place until the end of the war.
A pilot in the 32nd described the importance of photo reconnaissance in winning World War II, “The 32nd was assigned the responsibility of obtaining vital photographic intelligence essential to the military objectives of the Allied command. The targets to be photographed by the pilots were located among some of the most hazardous areas of the entire war. 32nd pilots ranged from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, throughout the entire Balkans and westward to France, including Austria, Italy and Germany. When a pilot returned safely from a combat mission the film was immediately removed from the cameras in the nose of the P-38/F-5 and rushed to the photo lab for developing. As soon as prints were made from the rolls of negatives they were hand delivered to the photo interpretation hut.” (Thomas K. Follis, He Wore a Pair of Silver Wings: The World War II Memoir of a Lightning Recon Pilot, Bennington VT: Merriam Press, 2012, 116.)
Analysis of the photos helped assess the effectiveness of completed bombing runs and determine where the next bombing targets should be. Between 1943 and 1945, the volume of aerial photographs printed by the photo lab team in Italy is estimated to be over a million. Regarding the 5th Photo Group Reconnaissance alone, the group historian reported, “738 missions were flown between October 1, 1944 and May 8, 1945. Over 7,004 pinpoints, 128,206 negatives were processed. 277,369 prints were made, and 787 photo interpretation reports were issued.” (Albert J. Ostergaard, Eyes Over Europe: The 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of San Severo, Italy, 1944–1945, Ellisville, MO, 1996O, 107.)
As I was growing up, my father told me bits and pieces of what he did in Italy. In addition to lab work and “chem mix,” he sometimes flew on aerial photo recon missions, seated behind the pilot. He manned a Thompson submachine gun (“Tommy Gun”) which he said was an experimental model being tested during the war.
There is a photo of him seated at the table with the photo interpreters, the intelligence analysis team that used stereoscope devices to locate details on the photos, so he apparently did some of that, too.
“Night crew” and photo interpreters
He brought a surplus stereoscope home from Italy and showed me how to use it. He said after some practice, he was able to see in depth “stereo” without the stereoscope, just by training his eyes to focus intently on the two photos placed side by side.
And, the story he found most amusing…he claimed soldiers were not supposed to bring personal cameras with them when they reported for active duty. My father, always an independent thinker and averse to authority, stowed his beloved 1937 Rolleicord camera in his duffel bag.
The 1937 Rolleicord that went to Italy
(The “Rollie’s” serial number is 708842. It’s specs: 75mm Tessar 3.5 lens. Compur Rapid shutter 1/500 to 1, B + T. Heidoscop Anastigmat 75mm F2.8 viewing lens. Bay I.)
He took hundreds of photos in Italy between April 1944 and September 1945. When he ran out of commercial film, he constructed a gizmo to cut eight-inch wide discarded film ends from the aerial reconnaissance cameras to the size needed for the “Rollie.” And to punch sprockets in the edges. The gizmo was made of cardboard, toothpicks, rubber bands, and razor blades (known as a “razor blade board.”)
The photos, which he carefully arranged in an album shortly after returning from the war in 1945, tell a story larger than “photo recon.” My father used his furlough time to travel in Italy, photographing great cities and monuments…and, especially, Italians’ daily lives shortly after their Liberation Day. The album is his “collection, his vision.” Most of the photos were taken with the “Rollie.” A few are copies of photos from squadron yearbooks, taken by their photographers. How he acquired the rest is yet another mystery, but they do fill in the story.
In late 1945, my parents moved to Cincinnati, OH, where my father studied leather chemistry at the Tanners’ Council Lab of the University of Cincinnati. In 1947, they returned to Milwaukee where he joined his father and uncles in the family business, Krasno Brothers Glove and Mitten Company. He bought the business in the 1960s and ran it until his retirement in 1983.
For the next 22 years, my father lived a quiet life, sitting at the kitchen table painting needlepoint canvases to help my mother, a needlepoint artist. In the evening, he read voraciously—science fiction, mysteries, novels, non-fiction, photography, and science. He listened to every Chicago Cubs baseball game. I have no idea why, as a Milwaukeean, he was such a devoted Cubs fan. They didn’t do very well in those days…maybe he just liked to root for the underdog.
Sue Schoenfeld, January, 2023