The United States has for many years been a major player in world conflicts. A focus of the recent IWM Duxford American Air Show was to highlight this involvement and to remember the wide range of people and aircraft that participated in these important moments in history. I will try in this post to discuss these in a little more detail, and also of course talk about the photography I undertook during the visit.
World War 2
There is so much that has been written about the second world war, so I am not going to go into detail about the war itself (there are loads of great sources and readings out there). I am however going to focus on the deployment of American Air personnel as this reflects the portraits I captured on the day.
The United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF) was a part of the Army and originally consisted of the Eighth Air Force (bomber command). The USSTAF was established in 1944 and also retained overall command of other air forces stationed in the Mediterranean and Eurpoean theatres. Over the course of the war 1.5 million American soldiers (a big constituent being airmen) were either posted in England or carried the fight over to continental Europe.
The main challenge with these portraits was to avoid the fun fair rides and big crowds in the background, as it didn't seem in keeping with the mood... The other challenge was keeping up with their movement. They were moving around, chatting with each other and so getting a sharp shot was more tricky. It was made even more so by me forgetting to change my settings so that I had a fast enough shutter. I was a little frustrated with this sequence of images when I got them on to the computer, as a lot of them had missed focus slightly, or there was a little too much motion blur. They are a great group to photograph though as they keep it authentic during the day, avoiding the use of phones and modern conveniences as much as possible, making environmental, candid portraits like this a pleasure to capture. The colours produced by the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens I was using was excellent, with only a little bump in vibrance needed in Lightroom.
Alongside the military efforts, there was a big drive by civilians in the US to keep spirits up, and a lot of this culture (music, dancing styles) journeyed across the Atlantic to England. There was a rise in popularity of jazz, blues and R&B music, with the dances that accompanied them.
Just a small aside - there is still an American presence in the UK to this day, with bases such as Mildenhall and Lakenheath hosting fast jet pilots and their families. It is a vital jump-off point for operations in the middle east, increasing their capability in these areas of the world.
There were four major contributing factors that pushed the US into the war in Vietnam; containing the spread of communism in Asia; a domino effect of the other countries in South-East Asia falling if South Vietnam did; a weak South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and finally (perhaps most importantly) North Vietnam attacking the USS Maddox in 1964. The combined effect of these events led to the US President, Lyndon B Johnson to become aggressively interested in the future of the country, with him finally declaring war after the attack on American air bases in February 1965.
Over the course of the war there were approximately 8.7 million "volunteers" (possibly including a lot of people who decided to join rather than be drafted and get a less favourable posting) and 2.15 million draftees pulled from the young male population in the United States.
This portrait was taken from a group of actors called the "Rolling Thunder" experience, who re-enact troop deployments of the 101st "screaming eagles" airborne division. The majority were dressed as regular troops and NCOs from the period, and they created a great atmosphere. The light was flat this early in the morning, and so the sky was one big softbox. This created great conditions for portraits and I was able to capture this image; at an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 100 to keep the quality as high as possible, I was using a shutter of 1/250th of a second (the exposure was more or less spot on from the Nikon D750 and the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8, only needing to bump the image up in Lightroom by +0.2). Most of the colours were greys and olive greens, so a black and white conversion seemed fitting, especially considering the subject. There's a sense of underlying tension, a sense of waiting for something, which is exactly what these troops posted in FOBs (forward operating bases) would have experienced on a daily basis.
A quick kit thought - this was my first time out with my new Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens and after using it all day I had two observations. First, yes it is pretty heavy, but not debilitatingly so (I wasn't in pain, just a little tired in the forearms). Second, the images I was obtaining (when user error was not involved) were amazingly sharp and colourful. As an alternative to the extremely expensive Nikon/Canon glass, it is hard to beat in terms of quality and value for money.
The first signs of diminishing support at home in the US for the war came in 1964-65. Small protests were being organised, mainly on college campuses, but high profile protestors included Mohammed Ali, who became one of the many conscientious objectors (people who refused to be drafted into service). As the body count and cost to the US tax payer rose, more and more movements took place, including one of the largest at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. in 1967. Now it wasn't just academics and free spirits, ordinary American workers were getting involved.
Unfortunately I did not get a chance to catch the name of this re-enactor, which is a shame because he did a great job of posing for people taking pictures, and keeping to the mood of the display. His dead stare had a certain level of anger and frustration, just perfectly reflecting what people would have been feeling. I decided to take a couple of different images, with slightly different compositions and, in the end, different processing. I like them both, but maybe the black and white image does remind me more of a picture you might have seen in the paper at the time.
Johnson ordered an end to the bombing in 1968 and in 1969 the new President, Nixon, began pulling troops out whilst at the same time providing money to the ARVN. Kissinger proposed a peace deal in 1972 which the North Vietnamese refused to sign, until Nixon's renewed bombing forced the hand of North Vietnamese leader Thieu and the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973, bringing the Vietnam war to an end.
The Cold War
I'm not going to say much here because, technically, there was no military involvement in the Cold War. However, there was an American presence in Berlin after WW2, where West Berlin sat as a little island marooned in communist occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Americans were amongst other things tasked with guarding the Berlin wall (think Checkpoint Charlie). The wall was put up to stop people taking advantage of the loop hole West Berlin presented - a route to the free West. Between 1961 and and its fall in 1989 about 5000 people tried to cross the wall, with a small percentage of those people being killed in the process.
A piece of the wall has been added to the newly reopened American Hangar at Duxford. It was a very popular installation on the day of the airshow, alongside a haunting animation looking at the proliferation of nuclear weapons since their invention. Again, shooting the wall I was hugely impressed with my combination of camera and lens. Due to the lower light and the need for a faster shutter speed dodging busy crowds I was shooting at ISO 1000, and the D750 managed it with ease. The Sigma still had excellent colour rendition and sharpness, every hole and chip in the wall was captured perfectly.
I always enjoy my visits to the museum, and the air show was no exception. Shooting portraits of people re-enacting what our armed forces went through to keep us a free society is always a pleasure, and I am always humbled by the constant stream of stories and achievements made by this group of people.