Citizen Airman/Aug. 2014 -- The flag of the 4th Combat Camera Squadron was not officially unfurled at March Air Reserve Base, California, until March 1996, but the squadron has a lineage that dates back to the early days of World War II and a unit that played an important part in the Air Force being established as a separate military service.
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, the U.S. Army Air Forces was a part of the Army, and motion picture production was the responsibility of the Army Signal Corps. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, the Army Air Forces commander at the time, believed that the formation of an independent film unit would help lead to the air service gaining its independence.
In March 1942, Arnold commissioned the head of Warner Bros. studio, Jack Warner, and producer Hal Wallis to produce and release a recruitment film that would help the Army Air Forces meet its critical need for new pilots. They completed the film, called "Winning Your Wings" and starring a young James Stewart as a dashing pilot, in only two weeks. The film was a huge hit and, according to Arnold, was pivotal in attracting 100,000 pilot recruits.
The success of "Winning Your Wings" created a demand for training and recruitment films, which proved difficult for Warner Bros. to meet. So Warner was tasked with developing the organizational structure for an independent motion picture unit. The dual mission of the unit was to produce training and morale films, and to train combat cameramen. The ranks were to be filled with film industry professionals; the first time in history such a unit would be formed.
On July 1, 1942, the First Motion Picture Unit became an active unit of the Army Air Forces. The FMPU released more than 400 films between 1942 and 1945. The films were extremely popular and were praised for being informative as well as entertaining.
The people assigned to the FMPU included some of the most well-known film professionals of the day. Actors like Clark Gable, William Holden and Alan Ladd served with the unit. Future president Ronald Reagan was a captain in the unit. As the personnel officer, he was responsible for maintaining personnel files and orienting new recruits to the operational aspects of the FMPU. Like the other notable actors, Reagan appeared in the films produced by the unit, but to avoid distracting the audience, they were eventually relegated to narrating the films.
In addition to making movies, the FMPU was charged with producing trained combat cameramen. In 1943, six officers and 23 enlisted men were transferred from the FMPU and activated as the 4th Army Air Force Combat Camera Unit. Their mission was to capture motion and still pictures in combat zones. With the drawdown of World War II, the unit was inactivated in December 1945. Redesignated as the 4th Combat Camera Squadron, it was activated as part of the Air Force Reserve at March Field in March 1996.
"It's fun to look back at our history and learn that Combat Camera was started by Hap Arnold himself before the Air Force was even established as a separate service," said Lt. Col. Beth Horine, former 4th CTCS commander. "And that people like Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan were a part of Combat Camera. Fourth Combat Camera Squadron has a wonderful legacy, and the people who have served in the unit for the past 18 years have done a tremendous job of building on that proud tradition."
Master Sgt. Sam Ameen, a director of photography who has been with the 4th CTCS since 1998, is extremely proud of the squadron's heritage and its ties to the film industry. As an Emmy-nominated freelance cinematographer who has shot feature films, television programs, commercials and documentaries, he carries on the tradition that the 4th has shared with Hollywood over the years.
He is also an active member of the International Cinematographer's Guild, the same union to which members of the FMPU belonged during World War II.
In his civilian career, Ameen has worked with a wide range of filmmakers, including Academy Award-winning actor/director John Voight and Golden Globe-winning actor/director Anthony Edwards. Many of his feature films have appeared on network and cable television, including HBO and Showtime. His television shows include specials for many prime time network series, including "Lost," "Gray's Anatomy," "The Fosters" and "George Lopez" as well as several reality series.
"I'm afraid I might be the last of my kind," Ameen said. "With the inactivation of the 4th, we might be losing that connection between Hollywood and the Air Force."
Ironically, at the time of this interview, Ameen was working as a director of photography on a recruiting commercial for the Air National Guard.
His civilian and military careers have intersected at several points over the years.
"I think I've been in more war zones as a civilian camerman than I have with the 4th," he said, recalling numerous freelance jobs that took him to the Middle East and other hot spots across the globe. But that doesn't mean he hasn't seen his share of action with his combat camera unit.
"I deployed to Afghanistan, I've been to Iraq, and I've had people who I worked very closely with killed," Ameen said. "As combat cameramen, we're definitely an outside-the-wire unit," he said. "We've had people in our unit injured in combat -- people who have earned Purple Hearts. I think that's what makes this unit so special. You have some very artistic people here in the 4th, but they are able to combine their art with military service. It's a special thing."
Ameen said he is saddened to see the 4th heading toward inactivation.
"It takes a lot of years and experience to become a great photographer, and the 4th CTCS is full of great photographers," he said. "It's a shame that the Air Force Reserve is going to be losing some great talent."