Soldiers don't die

"A man dies only when he is forgotten"

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

An Interesting Story

This story is not something directly related to Mel, but rather one of his relatives. As you read on, you will begin to see why I'm interested (and part of the reason why I became a World War II reenactor and historian)

It concerns a man named Fritz Niland. Never heard of him? Here's his story, as written by my own father in his genealogy research from 2010.

Frederick Niland (known as "Fritz") was born in Tonawanda, NY on April 23, 1920, the youngest of six children of Michael C. Niland, who worked as a steel plant superintendant, and his wife Augusta Witzke. He grew up at 62 Longs Avenue with three brothers and two sisters. He was attending Canisius College in Buffalo, but when the United States entered World War II he joined the 101st Airborne Division, attaining the rank of Sergeant, and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy as a member of H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.  The wartime story of Frederick and his family was the inspiration for the 1998 Academy Award-winning motion picture "Saving Private Ryan." His brothers, Sgt. Robert J. and Lt. Preston T. Niland, were both killed during the first two days of the Normandy invasion, and his oldest brother, Tech Sgt. Edward Niland, was shot down while on a bombing mission over Burma. Although Edward survived and spent a year as a Japanese prisoner of war, he was presumed dead, so Frederick was returned to the United States to prevent the loss of all four of the brothers to the war. (The rescue mission depicted in the movie was, however, fictional. In reality, the chaplain of the 501st heard about the brothers, and had Frederick returned home, where he served out the rest of the war as an MP in New York.*)

*This (Niland's) story is told in the book Band of Brothers, but was not included in the television mini-series based on the book. Frederick was not pulled from the front line as indicated in the movie, but returned with his unit to London, and was sent home instead of returning to action as stated in the book. In early 2010, a newspaper article reported plans for a war memorial in Tonawanda which would feature Frederick and another Tonawanda native, Warren "Skip" Muck, who served with Frederick and was killed later, in the Battle of The Bulge. (Mel was also involved in the Ardennes campaign and he was said by other relatives to have been wounded in the arm during the Battle of the Bulge, though he never spoke about it) Fritz and Skip were, in fact, friends before the war.

After the war, Frederick was studying dentistry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. when he married Marilyn J. Batt.

Marilyn Jane Batt was the youngest of the four daughters of Raymond Batt and Mary Hartnett. She was born April 20, 1923, in Tonawanda. She was not quite three years old when her father died, and she grew up on Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda with her mother and three older sisters....

When Marilyn was 25 years old, she married Frederick William Niland on June 5, 1948.

...In the mid-1960s, they moved to Maryland, and then to Guam in 1968. A year later, they relocated again to San Francisco. Marilyn and Frederick separated in the early 1980s, and Marilyn moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where her daughters lived. Frederick remained in San Francisco, where he died at age 63, on December 1, 1983. He was buried in the veteran's cemetery at Fr. Richardson in Anchorage. Marilyn died six years later in Anchorage at age 66, on January 20, 1990, and was also buried at Fr Richardson.


"Two of Four Sons Killed, Third is Missing in 2 Days" Oswego-Palladium Times, Oswego, NY. 5 Aug 1944, p.1; online

Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 102-103.

Bando, Mark A. 101st Airborne: The Screaming Eagles at Normandy (Osceola, WI: Zenith Imprint, 2001), p. 153-155.

Batt, Douglas G. The Descendants of John Batt (1825-1880) and Catherine Eckhart (1828-1890) of Alsace and Western New York.  From the library of Douglas G. and son Jeffrey D. Batt.  2010.

Charles, Nick. "Home Truths - A Real-Life Private Ryan, Fritz Niland Came Back to a Devastated Family," People magazine, volume 50 No. 8 (7 Sept 1998)

Frederick "Fritz" Niland on Saving Private Ryan Online Encyclopedia, <>

"Saving Sgt Niland" on Mark Bando's Website, <>, March 2008.

"Plans Call for Memorial to Local Heroes, Film Legends" Tonawanda News, 8 Jan 2010
 How does this relate to my family, and to me?

Marilyn J. Batt was Melville Batt's second cousin. Therefore, my grandfather's second cousin-in-law was the man who inspired the movie Saving Private Ryan. And my family is thus indirectly connected to both Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Which makes this guy a distant relative of mine.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

75-year-old Cold Case: 8mm Movie Reels Found, May Contain Never Before Seen Footage of 8th Infantry Division in WWII

When I thought I had posted everything there was to know about Grandpa's army service, suddenly here comes some new blog material.  A 'time capsule' of sorts has apparently been in my Dad's house for years without my knowledge. I was recently made aware of a cache of 8mm movie reels that my grandfather recorded, some of which were reportedly taken when he was in the Army. Where and how he was able to get a movie camera in the service I have no idea, he was not in the Army Signal Corps nor was he any kind of War Correspondent. But they exist nonetheless.  And somewhere else buried in my parents' house is an 8mm movie projector.

So this can potentially mean one of two things. Either: 1) Maybe I could find some way to get that projector working and digitally record whatever is on those films, or 2) If that fails, I could take it somewhere and have it done professionally.

Motion film footage taken by a soldier in WW2 is extremely rare. If the film has not deteriorated past the point of being viewable (and that is a big if), I will be sure to make either a DVD or upload a Youtube video of the results!

This would be the most exciting thing I have learned about him in years. No one has seen these films since 1945, without a doubt.