World War II Oral History Interview
Date: January 17, 2003
Veteran: T/Sgt Brendan A. Heslin
US Army Air Corps, 50th Air Depot Group, 17th Photo Lab, 499th Bomb Group
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Brendan Heslin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in October, 1920. In 1941 he was working as a commercial photographer and living in the Bronx borough of New York City, where he was taking photos at the Bronx Zoo at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalled that as he heard the news his camera shutter ominously froze. Heslin remembered a sea of other bad news that flooded the airways in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese invaded islands across the Pacific and sank the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse in an air attack off the coast of Malaya.
Heslin was drafted in July, 1942 and inducted into the military at Fort Dix New Jersey. He left there for Florida shortly afterward, and was quartered in a hotel in Miami Beach while completing Army Air Corps basic training. In November 1942 he was assigned to the Army Air Corps Photographic School at Denver, Colorado’s Lowry Field, where he was trained as a military photographer. Following his training, Heslin was transferred to Waco and then San Antonio, Texas and assigned to the 50th Air Depot Group, serving in that unit as a supply clerk for nine months.
Following his stint in Texas, Heslin was transferred to Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he applied for the Aviation Cadet Program, but was rejected due to poor vision. Following a two week furlough he reported to Smoky Hill Army Air Force base in Salina, Kansas on January 6, 1944, where he was assigned to the then new B-29 Bomber program to instruct bombardiers on ground and aerial camera operation. The men assigned to Smoky Hill were divided into separate bomb groups for overseas assignment, but Heslin remained in Salina as a trainer with the 17th Photo Laboratory, 499th Bomb Group, 73rd Bomb Wing.
In August 1944, Heslin’s unit was transferred to Camp Anza, California, an embarkation point for overseas operations located near Los Angeles. He left Anza on a troop transport that stopped in Hawaii for a week then traveled on to the Marshall Islands, where Heslin remembers that over a thousand ships were anchored. After some recreational shore leave he moved on to Saipan, one of the Marianas Islands, his permanent station. His living quarters were initially a pup tent surrounded by mud. By October army engineers had built roads, buildings, drainage ditches and an airfield, however, and Heslin and his unit began to construct a photo laboratory out of prefabricated materials.
Heslin was the supply sergeant for a lab crew consisting of one officer and twenty enlisted men. The latter included lab and camera repair technicians, as well as a clerk, draftsman and some supply personnel. The first bombing photos of Japan that Heslin’s unit processed turned out to be of cloud formations rather than the ground, since Japan had an 80 percent cloud cover and bombing was taking place from 20,000 feet. General Curtis LeMay changed the bombing level to 8,000 feet, below the clouds, which led to clearer pictures of bomb damage for assessment.
Heslin recalled that morale on Saipan was high. The weather was usually pleasant and the “C” and “K” rations, standard food when he first arrived on the island, were soon replaced by hot food, featuring lamb from Australia. Soldiers were able to follow the progress of the war in Europe through print media and newsreels. Nightly movies were available, with USO donuts and lemonade served by attractive women. The men received mail from home, although its arrival was sometimes erratic.
Although Saipan was subjected to occasional Japanese air raids which damaged several B-29s on the ground. Once the Marines captured Iwo Jima, the source of these attacks ceased. Heslin recalled that there were some Japanese prisoners of war on Saipan, and that they were well treated. The island’s native population was kept confined in a fenced in compound, but well fed and housed.
Following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Heslin and his fellow soldiers received orders to close up their shop and prepare to depart for home. Heslin sailed back to California on a clean ship with plentiful supplies of fresh baked bread. After arriving, he boarded a Pullman car for transportation to Fort Dix for discharge, and then took a train to Penn Station, New York City, where he was met by his sister.
Brendan Heslin recalled that it took him a month to readjust to civilian life, after which he rejoined his family’s food business. He received the following medals: Asiatic-Pacific service, WWII Victory and Good Conduct.