St. Nicholas Magazine/1913/Risks of Photographing Battle-Ships in Action

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Photographing a battle-ship at full speed is fully as exciting and dangerous a feat as encountering a charging rhinoceros in the jungle. It's a case of a hasty shot and a quick "get-away".

Of all the marine pictures that have ever been taken, this picture of the U.S.S. Michigan, flagship of the Atlantic fleet, is considered the most remarkable. When I took it, the experience was one in which I nearly lost my life.

It was just before sundown when, in a small motor-boat, I arrived in the direct course of the Michigan, several miles out in the open sea off the coast of Maine. Once there, I didn't have to wait long before the ship's smoke on the horizon warned me of her approach. I was eager to get a picture full of life and dramatic action, - of the ship under full speed, taken from directly in front, something never before accomplished, - so I ordered the engineer to gauge the distance and allow me to stand in her course, until the last possible moment before making our escape. She was nearing us now, and bearing down at the speed of twenty-two miles an hour a great, overawing monster! The vibration from our engine was bothering me, so I decided to take a chance, and ordered the engine stopped. On came the ship, her bow-spray looming up before us like two green, foaming, white-crested wings. The moments were precious now, so I shot the camera, and shouted for full speed ahead. The engine gasped, made a struggle to work, but gave up immediately. I was frightened; even the engine seemed to foresee its fate! In the delay, I had but one idea: a chance for another snapshot. Now the ship was within thirty yards of us, cruelly pointing her bow directly toward our little boat. I snapped again, and almost as if the little engine had been waiting for this to happen, it answered immediately with a chug, and we swerved across the dreadnought's bow. There were yells from the ship to get out of the way, then came a crash! Her bow wave had caught us, and, the next thing that I knew, with plate holder in one hand, I was struggling with the other to reach the surface of the sea in which I had been buried fathoms deep. Succeeding in this I was soon dragged aboard a near-by ship that had seen the accident, and, after congratulating myself for having escaped being cut in two by the bow and sent to the bottom, as were the camera and most of my plates, I began planning how I could save the one plate that I had so jealously clung to when thrown into the water, and which had been the cause of the whole excitement. I was pretty blue and disgusted, for it seemed impossible that the picture could be good; but I rushed immediately to wash the plate in fresh water, in order to prevent the brine from affecting it. On developing it, I drew a deep gasp of relief the plate had been saved! The picture was a success!

A naval photographer gets many ducklings, and, after a time, takes them as a matter of course. Being thrown into the sea isn't considered by him at all a serious event. It is during battle-ship practice that he encounters grave dangers, for much of the work done at this time is from the tops of the fighting masts, which are at an elevation of one hundred and twenty feet above the sea.

During different practices, I have taken my position in these masts, in order to get detailed pictures. Once in these basket-like tops, the question is how to stick. The gunfire photographs itself. I suppose you wonder what I mean, but it is just this: every time the big twelve-inch guns fire, the awful concussion they cause invariably gives the snap to the shutter of the camera, and the exposure is made. If this were not a successful method - one discovered by chance taking photographs of gunfire would be an impossibility, for, at the instant when the guns are fired and the exposure of the plate should be made, the thundering noise and the oscillating motion, combined with the terrific shock, seem completely to stun and paralyze one it is all that one can do to hang on and brace himself safely, in order to avoid being dashed to pieces on the decks far below. Once, while standing unguardedly, camera in one hand and my gripsack in the other, in the basket at the top of the mast of the battle-ship Michigan, the salvo came, and I was thrown forward with such force that my camera and grip were torn out of my hands and went flying into the ocean; and it was luck only that prevented me from going with them!

The "whip" of the mast, during fire, is due to the recoil of the guns. On the dreadnought North Dakota, when a salvo from the ten-inch guns is fired, the aggregate energy of the ten shells amounts to 500,000 foot-tons sufficient power to life a 20,000-ton ship twenty-five feet in the air. The recoil of these heavy guns, which in combination weigh 500 tons, is communicated to the ship with such force as to cause it to heel, in the opposite direction from the target, to the extent of from four to five degrees. The shock is gigantic, no part of the dreadnought escapes its force, and the masts are whipped back and forth like slender reeds blown by the breeze.

The crashing noise, combined with the air current, strikes one so stinging a blow when the first whip comes, that he feels as though he had been boxed by the hand of a unseen giant, and, unless the ears are protected by special ear mufflers, total deafness with result.

Many of the pictures of battle practice here published have been taken with great risk and under fully as dangerous conditions as would be met while hunting wild animals in Africa.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).