View Full Version : USMC Pilot Photographer J.R. Todd

12-Jan-2016, 18:39
This weekend I discovered an almost forgotten part of photographic history, in an American hero. I went to an estate sale, and after passing through the house full of quality antiques, I looked into the glass case of small, valuable items. Among the wristwatch, stopwatches, fountain pens I spotted two US Marine Corps collar devices, the famous Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia. These were the sterling and gold versions, used on full dress uniforms. I recognized them from WWII era. After telling the seller I'd buy them, I started to realize the house was much more masculine than a lot of estate sales, where the wife lives decades longer than the husband. There were silver trophy plates of some kind on the wall, beer steins, gun racks.


I started realizing many items were from a serviceman, from the Greatest Generation. I wandered downstairs, to the basement and found a box of magazines and paperwork. Hard to believe but in the same box was a 1940 high school diploma, and a much more recent panoramic photo of a USMC Pilot's reunion. The smiling men in the photo were all grey and old. There were more artifacts from this man's life; a 1955 Confederate Air Force certificate sat next to a Kentucky Colonel award. I found two Naval/USMC aviator uniform name badges in leather. I added them to my insignia, paid and left. When I got home, I notices something I know is very rare in aviation. The pilot was enlisted, not officer. In rare cases, in time of war, the US would allow enlisted men to fly. There were something like 75,000 officer pilots in WWII, the USMC had the most non-commissioned aviators, 131. I found Master Gunnery Sergeant James R. Todd online, he had died last Fall at 91. His obituary (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tucson/obituary.aspx?pid=172457966)said he was a 10,000 hour pilot, who flew in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

I had to return to the estate. The next day I did. The house was practically empty now of furnishings and housewares. The box was gone, but the pano photo and diploma sat against a wall. There was a rolltop desk, a few NRA pins inside the drawers. A service coffee mug on the table caught my eye. As a veteran, I know every squadron, ship, unit, or mission commemorates themselves with patches, symbols. These are often emblazoned on coffee cups, as a memento of your time with the unit. This one appealed to me because the obituary said something about him doing photo recon (think, Aero Ektar lenses). The cup reads "Marine Photographic Squadron 1" and has an eagle holding a camera, flying over the globe. I have a background in some of this stuff, so for $4, I picked it up too.


As I dug deeper into this man's life, I felt more and more pulled to learn about him.

12-Jan-2016, 18:40
And so I returned to the internet, and learned more. After WWII he mustered out, then raised his hand again immediately and was sworn back in as a private! His unit helped with the evacuation of China when the Communists took over. My wife found a white silk scarf, embroidered with a dragon and Peipeng, China (the old term for Beijing). The book CORSAIRS TO PANTHERS - U.S. Marine Aviation in Korea (http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/U.S.%20Marines%20in%20the%20Korean%20War%20%20PCN%2010600000100_27.pdf) reveals what he was flying by the Korean war. There is a whole section (it's free) about his Photo Sqdrn, and the fact MGYSGT Todd had more missions than anyone else, and that he would brief the officer pilots that flew F-86 cover for him. They didn't like taking briefings from an enlisted man! There is a photo of him next to his recce stripped down jet fighter. It turns out his squadron shot the majority of combat photo recon in Korea.

He did have a bunch of cameras, decent Japanese ones from the mid 1950s. I passed on these obsolete 35mms, but decided to grab a $5 light meter that seemed to be working. When I researched it, it's the first popular model Sekonic made, from 1951. I'm sure he bought it in Japan while on R and R from the war. I checked it out, and of course, still works. The man is gone, but the light meter he bought as a young man still feels the sun. I wish I had known him, just a few miles from my house, living the last decades of his life. I have a few of his icons of his life, the globes, silk scarf, name badges, a silver award platter from Cherry Point, his light meter. I didn't feel right about keeping his diploma or reunion photo. But he seems like he was a great man. He donated to the Flying Leathernecks group, and many others, I could see.

This is Marine Aviator James. R. Todd.

And another:

See more USMC Photographers here:

Randy Moe
12-Jan-2016, 19:10

12-Jan-2016, 20:45

Don't take this as personal criticism, but if it were me I would have returned the stuff to the family and explained what it was and what it meant. I would bet they had little idea of the significance to their family history. My own dad was in the 101st Airborne in Austria at the close of WW2 and has a few souvenirs from Hitler's office. He's very proud of them and I know they should stay in the family.

A few years ago I bought a Leica IIIc, serial dates it to 1942. There was a name engraved on the base plate along with a town. I checked into it. Turns out it was owned by a Sgt. in the quartermasters corps in Germany at the end of WW2. He bought the Leica from a widow whose husband was a lieutenant who went off to the east and never returned. She sold it for cash to feed her kids. The Sgt. went to school on the GI Bill, became an optician, and loved cameras. The Leica wasn't his favorite but was one of the last he kept. The youngest son sold it on ebay, which is how I got it after he died in 2012. (Wife had already died years before.) I got this info from the oldest daughter. I offered to sell it back, but she said, "No, he had a lot of camera stuff and we only kept a couple." It seemed pretty shallow to me to not appreciate the story behind the Leica. It isn't really "just another camera." If I get tired of it sometime in the future, I might approach them again.

Kent in SD

13-Jan-2016, 05:55
I understand the point about the family should want this, and that's why collecting anything is so sad. The family didn't want any of this. They put the house up for sale, must have picked what they wanted, and told the auction company to sell the rest. From what I read, he hired a stranger to care for him in his last years, who wrote a very loving tribute to him. He was married twice.

I'm a sentimental sort, I was raised to tell and retell the family stories. I have the Yankee sword that broke off in the door of the family plantation house when Sherman sent a detachment to burn it, and remained until the 1940s when an aunt let my dad pull it out as a boy. We keep many icons like that. Sadly, many families don't. I've personally seen a farm sell that was in the family since the 1700s, and the last grandmothers words were to never sell it. I've seen WWII bomber jackets with all the missions embroidered on the back brought into Pawn Stars by the grandson, who walks out with $250 gambling money. That's why when I do buy an old camera, gun, or military item, I revere it, and try to find the story of the owner.

The WWII generation is about gone. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg realized it a decade ago and started honoring them with movies, after a generation lull from Hollywood. At one point a few years ago, something like 600 WWII veterans were dying a DAY. Each has a uniform, a compass, a camera, a coffee mug. But that's not our point. The point is Americans don't seem to want to keep their family history anymore. Our careers are more important. If you are asked at a party "what do you do?" that's what they want to know. 100 or 1000 years ago when someone asked that, the answer was "I am Miller's son, son of the great war hero Jesse. My family comes from Rapid Creek, and has lived there for 8 generations...."

As a matter of fact, where I grew up in the South, you always down play what you do for a living. But you will sure brag about what your dad, grandmother, or Uncle did! At reunions, that's what people did, respected their elders and their sacrifices. Not sure what happens today, there don't seem to be many reunions.

13-Jan-2016, 07:04
My dad has several photo albums taken in Germany just after the war. Some are photos he took, some are a sort of scrap book put together by army photographers. He also has a few 4x5 prints of him when he graduated from jump school, and the portrait that was sent to parents. Below, from 1944.

Kent in SD

John Kasaian
13-Jan-2016, 07:49
A very poignant story. Thank you for sharing.

13-Jan-2016, 09:27
By telling the stories, the men live forever. It's how humans have always done it. After a half century, it's important to write it down, as the generations die. When my dad was young, he said at reunions they would talk about the relative's who had been in the Civil War. I still have those stories in my mind, and some have been written down and corroborated. But if you don't document them, the stories die with the man.

Mark Sawyer
13-Jan-2016, 13:16
An amazing little archive you're caring for there, Garrett. And sad, the things that are lost to time...

13-Jan-2016, 14:14
Great stories, thanks for sharing.

13-Jan-2016, 15:08
Poignant report, thanks for sharing. Our lives are richer for the stories.

Jim Graves
17-Jan-2016, 21:35
Really, really nice story ... and much better that Master Gunnery Sergeant Todd's personal memories live on with someone who appreciates him and what he did.

Thanks, Garrett

Keith Fleming
18-Jan-2016, 19:28
As a former Marine officer and later a civilian historian for the Marine Corps, may I suggest that someday the items be donated to the National Museum of the Marine located at Quantico, Virginia. Such collections are welcomed, and will be protected and preserved (and perhaps exhibited at some point in the Museum). I've donated my files related to my doctoral dissertation which was on a Marine Corps topic, and I need to donate some more. If my family is interested in seeing my stuff, it will always be available for viewing or research at Quantico.


19-Jan-2016, 07:57
I really enjoy reading things like this, excellent story Garrett

19-Jan-2016, 13:54
Thanks Keith, I may do that one day. But read my earlier post, about the sheer numbers of aviators, and their life's artifacts. Also, know that a museum is not obligated to keep a donation forever. I've seen many donated items get back into the market when a museum does a funding drive. For example, this USMC WWII uniform was at a museum auction this year. I'm sure the family that donated it thought it would always be maintained and displayed at the museum. From what I can tell they didn't keep it 10 years. I bought it to save it. My point is, museums don't want something unless it's very special, though to me, this aviator certainly was!


I think museums sell their common items (like my coffee cup and uniform items), to afford the big, expensive items like this (Pensacola Air museum shot this summer):


Jerry Bodine
19-Jan-2016, 14:59
That Corsair in the background has reminded me of my hobby as a youth, model building. I was so enthralled with flying that I had memorized seemingly all there was to know about WWII aircraft. I made a very detailed model of the Corsair, my all-time favorite, Navy blue w/ white underside. I also made a model of a
CO^2 propelled midget racer that was mounted on a plank of varnished wood, which during my college years was converted to a desk lamp by mounting (on the wood) a piston/connecting road made into a tilting lamp. Just before graduation from university I had a physical in an attempt to fly for the Marines and was rejected due to having the eye sight of a 27yo - I recall thinking "27!!! My God, that's ancient."

Keith Fleming
19-Jan-2016, 20:21

The National Museum of the Marine Corps and all other museums run by the Federal government and staffed by professional civilian curators do NOT sell the artifacts in their custody. Period. But that is not true of your Mom-and-Pop museum in the local shopping mall. The latter type museum all too often lasts only until the original enthusiastic owner dies or retires. Items in the government museum collections will be preserved as long as the USA exists.

The Marine Corps' museum does have many artifacts that are not on display, but the collections are still available to researchers. For example, the museum's weapons collection included a set of M-16 rifles with one complete rifle for every modification of the weapon. The number of modifications was larger than the number of parts in the original rifle.

Your point about the huge number of certain types of artifacts is correct. In the early 80's, I (as a USMC civilian historian) managed to get myself enrolled in a one-week course conducted by the Smithsonian on photographing artifacts. My jaw dropped when the instructors from the photo department said they had just finished photographing the Smithsonian's entire 50,000-plus collection of pocket watches. But what a resource for researchers specializing in the history of pocket watches. (And, as an amateur photographer, I have wondered about what size collection of Leica and large format cameras is in the Smithsonian.)

I understand and appreciate your feelings on those USMC artifacts not being wanted by the veteran's family. They are my feelings too. But do keep open the option of contacting the National Museum of the Marine Corps to see if it is interested in accessioning the items in your custody.


20-Jan-2016, 06:29
It's true the best national museums like the Smithsonian maintain very good collections, preserving the history. But it's also true that every generation or two interests change. In the 1950s there were a lot of outstanding collections of Confederate civil war items, but those are now closed. Yet, it was a very important part of my family history. The Liberace museum recently closed, as will Graceland one day I'm sure. These entertainers are certainly not as important as the average WWII GI. But there was only one of them, and 4,000,000 GIs, each with a uniform, bayonet, M-1! For the past 10 years I've scoured the country looking for photography shops and museums that are all closing. I bought a Daguerreotype camera from one that used to be "very big." Here is the museum that sold the USMC uniform, and lots of other stuff this year. https://www.390th.org/ It's in the Pima Air Museum, which makes the Pensacola Air Museum look tiny. They have a Wright flyer, a B-36, and an SR-71, for example. But they sold the "common" uniform items, which I and others bought. It's an internationally known museum, not a mom and pop strip mall museum. They all only remain open as long as there is interest, and the money it brings.

America is a relatively young country. When I was in Europe it was common to find items at the flea market that were older than America! It's often the collectors of obscure eras that keep the history alive. Look at our forum here. As Large Format collapsed in the past 20 years, there were no museums keeping the flame alive. They all shut down, as everyone went to digital. But hardcore enthusiasts started this forum, and contributed to several Renaissances like the Wetplate boom, Soft Focus, etc. Meanwhile, I know of at least 5 antique photography museums that closed, and sold me very rare lenses. At one time photography was one of the top businesses in America. Every town had a dozen development shops, camera stores, and Kodak employed 20,000 people in Rochester. Today, it's all but forgotten......

I will keep an open mind, but I doubt the National Museum of the Marine Corps would want every family with a USMC coffee cup, EGA collar insignia, or sergeant's uniform to start contacting them. Their phones would be ringing off the hooks for years!

4-Sep-2016, 08:00
I had the honor to serve with Master Guns Todd at MCAS Cherry Point NC MARS-27. in 1962 He was a true American Hero
but you would never know it. He was a mentor and magnificent role model to me and many others. When my son was born in Philadelphia, he flew me up in a Sandy,(A-1E) and picked me up and flew back to Cherry Point "just because". I never forgot his kindness and huge smile. If you ever choose to get rid of one of the leather patches, I can promise you it will have a good home forever..Semper Fi Mike D

Randy Moe
4-Sep-2016, 08:55
Not to detract from USMC Pilot Photographer J.R. Todd's life,service and accomplishments.

There is an operational Warbirds outfit, Garrett must be aware of. http://commemorativeairforce.org/

In the 70's I used to winter camp with Snowbirds (retirees from far north) right next to CAF in Harlingen Texas. We often visited and watched restoration work. Occasionally saw one fly. We were camped very close by. We got in them, but I won't fly in one. My Vietnam Vet buddy loves military transport, not guns, he collects WWII 6X2 trucks. I advise on engines. My War Vet brother has a Vietnam Communication shelter which the first guy gave him. The first guy spent Vietnam inside that tiny tin can. Nasty.

My point is, dedicated hobbyists collect and preserve many old things that corporate style museums discard.

4-Sep-2016, 11:13
I had the honor to serve with Master Guns Todd at MCAS Cherry Point NC MARS-27. in 1962 He was a true American Hero
but you would never know it. He was a mentor and magnificent role model to me and many others. When my son was born in Philadelphia, he flew me up in a Sandy,(A-1E) and picked me up and flew back to Cherry Point "just because". I never forgot his kindness and huge smile. If you ever choose to get rid of one of the leather patches, I can promise you it will have a good home forever..Semper Fi Mike D

Hi Swoopr, I'm so glad to hear from you, and your friendship with MSGT and pilot Todd. Send me your address via PM. It's good to keep his memory alive.

6-Sep-2016, 07:55
If you send me a quick e-mail, marine@bellatlantic.net, I will respond with my contact info. could not figure out the PM
Semper Fi
Mike D

6-Sep-2016, 08:25
Sure, I just sent you an email. Former Navy here, so I'll have to sign off with "Go Navy!"