Soldiers don't die

"A man dies only when he is forgotten"

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The "Foxhole" Letter - On This Day in 1944


The following letter was written on this exact date in 1944 by my Grandpa, Melville James Batt, to my Grandma when they hadn't even met, but were just pen pals. He "met" my Grandma through another Army buddy of his: Ed Szeleski, whom he refers to as "Ski". He had not been to Wilmington before at the time of this writing.

He would not actually meet her until 1945, after he had been discharged from the Army.




July 18, 1944

Hello Gene,

I suppose "Ski" has told you that we are in France and have been in combat already. Right now we are having a short rest period and it sure feels good.

I am sitting on the sun porch of my foxhole, answering a few letters.

Thanks for the pictures. I don't think I had better mention them to "Marge" or she may think I didn't believe she was riding a bicycle.

Speaking of Wilmington. I sure would like to visit the place sometime, and in the near future too. In fact it couldn't be too soon to suit me.

I haven't been right up in the front line, yet, but "Ski" has and take my word for it, he did his share up there too.

We are bothered, back here, mostly with German artillery fire and every once in awhile you make a dive for a foxhole and a shell goes screaming over or else lands near and nearly jars you out of the hole. I suppose we will gradually get used to it, but I don't think any of us will ever like it.

Well, "Dutch", thanks for writing and sending the snaps and I'll be looking for the one you are sending "Ski".

Sincerely "Mel"

"Mel" as he liked to be called, was born in 1919 in North Tonawanda, New York just 30 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and he never lived more than a few blocks from his childhood home. He worked as a stock boy for Remington Rand when he was drafted in April 1941 and sent to the Army. He had a younger brother named Vernon or "Vern" and a sister Marilyn. Vern enlisted in 1942 in the Army Air Corps. Marilyn (who just recently passed away in 2016) was in high school at the time.

Gene was my Grandma. The letter refers to her as "Dutch", I'm not sure why. Gene Stephey (her actual name on her birth certificate, not a nickname and not short for Eugene) was a native of Wilmington, Delaware. She was born in 1920 and grew up in a big Victorian town home on Gilpin Avenue, but by this time she was living in an apartment on North Rodney Street. She graduated high school in 1938. She was a University of Delaware alumnus. She worked for the Hercules Company later in life before she moved to Tonawanda, New York where Dad was born.

Mel & Gene weren't married until 1950.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mel's Movie & Film Cameras

Just two more amazing things I'm lucky to have... Recently found in my parents' house, these are the actual cameras Mel used in the Army.  They are both small, lightweight and built very tough, perfect for the rigors of Army field training. How he was able to get or afford Kodak color film so readily in 1941 is anyone's guess. And it was no secret that he had these cameras either, as the images he took show many of his friends having fun with him.

I feel honored to hold these witnesses to history in my hands.

This is the Argus C3, commonly known as "The Brick". It was manufactured from 1939 to 1966 and was quite popular during the war years. No way to tell exactly what year it's from, but if he had it when he was first drafted, it could date between 1939 and 1941. It looks like he modified the case with slots to insert a leather carrying strap.

It still is in remarkably good condition, considering it's over 75 years old.
The brown leather case is starting to flake off around the edges a bit.

This was about the toughest camera ever built for its time.
It was personalized with his name and serial number.

The back of the Argus Brick. I love the little cheat sheet he made with average shutter speed & aperture settings. This has actually helped me learn how to take good film pictures.


We assumed this case held an old pair of binoculars, but we were mistaken.


And now, here is the camera he apparently used to take his 8mm movies.
This is the smallest movie camera I have ever seen! It's just 5 inches tall, 3 inches wide and 2 inches thick.
I had no idea they made them this small in the 1940s.



The camera is a Bell & Howell Filmo "Double Run Eight."
Like many cameras of the time, it has a calculation dial to compute exposure based on light conditions.  No cameras had built-in light meters at this time,
and this was a quick and easy way to determine proper settings without a light meter.
The camera uses a wind-up mechanism, and it still works.

I had to open it up to see what was inside, and there was still a reel of film in it...Oops.
A quarter is shown for size comparison. 
If you wanted a different lens, they were threaded and
you could just screw another one in where you see the tiny black lens sticking out.




That has got to be the smallest pre-digital movie lens I have ever seen.


I looked up what the "double run" meant...apparently it used 16mm film reels which were split into two 8mm frames, side by side. After you were done filming one side, you'd turn the wheel over and film the other side. Then the film would be cut in half when it was developed so it could be played as 8mm, thus getting double the running time out of one reel of film. Interesting.

The Filmo Double Run Eight was a popular and inexpensive sport camera, so incredibly simple to use and small that it's very easy to imagine him taking it just about anywhere (and hiding it in his pocket when the officers came around) I imagine that he wasn't the only WWII soldier who carried one.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The 8mm War Films: Behind the Scenes

Here's the two reels of film and the projector we used. The small reel is the snippets of color footage, spliced together from other reels. The larger metal canister contains the black & white film. The projector was Grandpa's and still works.

It actually is from the 1940's. It uses a spring-belt drive to spin the reels and the large box on the back houses the (very fragile) projector bulb and the fins for radiating heat (which it really generates tons of).

As you can see it's a Kodascope 8, model 70. The styling of the machine is very Art Deco.

Holding the mono film up to the light, you can see it's started to curl and warp with age, and no longer lays flat against itself. This makes it very difficult to feed smoothly thru the projector as the teeth in the film advance sprockets tends to slip, making it 'freewheel' out of control. We had little control over the speed of the film, and the slippage tended to make a vertically scrolling picture that was blurred. We tried to control this as much as possible, but some portions simply couldn't be saved. Oh, and it reeked of ammonia. I guess the emulsion chemicals started to break down. Really, it stank.

We knew this was our one shot to digitally preserve the film, and even then we might not succeed for several reasons.

1. If we waited a few more years, the films might have been completely unwatchable. I've seen pictures of what ruined film looks like and it isn't pretty.

2. Once film is exposed to air, the decay process speeds up. The airtight metal container protected it, but once the lid was popped open all bets were off. The film gives off ammonia as it decomposes and it STINKS.

3. The projector is almost 80 years old, the electrical wiring and motor are original. We can only guess how much longer it will work before it burns up...we figured if we don't see sparks or flames, it should be okay. The motor itself was noisy and made a smell of ozone. The cord wasn't frayed however, I think it was replaced at some point so we should be safe. We kept a fire extinguisher in arm's reach just in case.

4. The projector bulb is the original one. These bulbs aren't made like this anymore. You never, ever touch a bulb with your fingers, because the oils will weaken the glass and possibly cause it to shatter once it heats up (and boy does it get hot!)  We only have one spare bulb. If that blows, we're done.

5. We'll have to turn the projector off and let it cool down about every 10 minutes, to avoid putting too much strain on the dinosaur motor and the ancient bulb. At operating speed we could see heat rippling out of the vents in the top of the bulb housing. Dad said "you could almost bake cookies off this thing" ...we also can't touch the metal casing even after it's turned off, or it could burn fingers.

5. We can't afford a professional digitizing service, so what I'm doing is recording the projected image with my Canon DSLR, set at highest quality for minimal loss. Another concern I have is the refresh rate of my digital recorder not syncing up with the speed, or frame rate, of the film. (This is what created the wobbly, flickery look to the image in some parts.)

Dad used to work for Kodak and he told me some fun facts about film. Celluloid is one of the most flammable materials known to man, and they keep old movie films in flameproof vaults because the risk of fire is so great.  When movie film catches fire, the chemicals generate oxygen as it burns, so the fire feeds itself and gets hotter and hotter. Movie theater fires used to be very deadly and hard for fire crews to put out. That's why every theater has multiple fire exits.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mel's Movies Part 2: 8th Infantry Division Basic Training 8mm films 1941-43

The color films fared somewhat better. As before, this is silent but set to my personal selection of music from the '40s. Enjoy this rare look at WWII in color!


Songs used in this video

1. "This is The Army Mr Jones" by Glen Miller and His Orchestra
2. "Blue Skies" by Philippe Brun Swing Band
3. "Frenesi" by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
4. "Don't Fence Me In" by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters
5. "Riders in the Sky" (A Cowboy Legend) by Vaughn Monroe
6. "I'll Be Seein' You" by Bing Crosby


Mel's movies Part 1: 8th Infantry Division 8mm film 1941-43

This is digitally recorded footage of actual 8mm movie films my grandfather captured when he was in basic training for the Army. No one has ever seen these before; I was not even made aware of their existence until this year. This took lots of editing and splicing, and apologies for the poor quality in some parts as the film is starting to decompose, but I hope you enjoy this rare treat! The next video is in color.




The music selection in the video:
1. "Franz Schubert - Military March for Orchestra" by the Czech Republic Symphony Orchestra
2. "This is The Army Mr Jones" by Glen Miller and His Orchestra
3. "What Do You Do in the Infantry" by Bing Crosby
4. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" by Glen Miller & The Andrews Sisters

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Saving Private Ryan: The True Story

A segment of this documentary features the story of the Niland brothers inspiring the movie Saving Private Ryan. Click PLAY and it will start playing at this point.


As stated in the previous post, Frederick Niland survived the war and married my grandfather's second cousin.