File card switch starts photographer's career

Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY— Sometimes when life throws you a curve ball, the best way to deal with it is to throw one back.

That's what young Gerald Massie did in the 1940s when he pulled a fast one that changed the direction of his life forever.

Massie was 26 when he met the girl of his dreams.

He was a linotype operator for the Kansas City Star and she was working for the Chamber of Commerce in Sedalia.

They met when they were both visiting their hometown of Clinton.

Massie spotted 19-year-old Henrietta Hendrich getting off the bus at the station near his stepfather's barber shop. He never took his eyes off of her.

Starting that very day, and over the next three years, the couple dated, fell in love and became engaged. It seemed they were on the road to a life of happiness and dreams coming true.

Except for that very cruel curve ball.

It was the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that stunned the world and changed the lives of every American, including this young couple.

Devastating events around the world continued to unfold, and as expected, Massie received his notice from the draft board.

The wedding had to be put on hold and he chose to enlist rather than be drafted.

"He joined the Air Corps so he could at least have some say in where he was headed," recalls his widow, 91, Jefferson City.

The war for him began with six weeks of training at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis County.

It was while he was later stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Fort Meyers, Fla., that Gerald had a spur-of-the-moment idea and took his future into his own hands.

Call it "Operation File Cabinet."

"While on office duty at the military base in Fort Meyers, he was cleaning up the place and snooping around. It was then that he found a file cabinet with his personnel file in it and when he opened it, a card inside had him listed as a cook," Henrietta said.

"He didn't know anything about cooking!" she laughed. "He took the card out and typed up a new one that said 'photographer' and then he put the new card back in the folder where the old one had been.

"Now that was pretty gutsy, wasn't it?"

Just two days after he changed the card, it was already time to put up or shut up.

It turns out that a plane had crashed and he was given orders to board a plane and take aerial photos of the debris.

He had never even seen an aerial camera before and now he had to learn how to use one, right away.

So, the self-appointed photographer from Missouri boarded the plane to examine the camera, and wished for the best.

Henrietta recalls Gerald saying, "The plane took off and I thought, hopefully the lens is open, but I'm not sure!"

Apparently the lens was open. The pictures turned out great and from then on, he was an authentic photographer of the 8th Air Force.

"Operation File Cabinet" saved the troops from having to eat bad-tasting food from a guy who didn't know how to cook and, at the same time, a talent was developed that became a life-long career after the war.

"Before this experience, photography had only been a hobby for Gerald," Henrietta said.

Just as suddenly as the country entered the war, Gerald found himself flying on reconnaissance missions and gathering important photographic evidence to send to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

"He became a master sergeant and served as a photographer in Eisenhower's strategic staff," Henrietta said.

The photos he took were of downed planes, destroyed bridges and the general damage from the war, and they were examined to judge the effectiveness of U.S. and Allied forces.

One assignment was to get a photograph of the bombed bridges in Cologne, Germany, to determine which bridge could be repaired the fastest for use by American forces.

"Gerald was in the room with Eisenhower when orders were being given to the pilots who would be flying on D-Day," Henrietta said with a serious tone in her voice.

She paused, and then continued with her hand against her face: "Gerald said he could tell that it was the hardest thing that Eisenhower had ever had to do."

In December 1944, his B-17 made a crash landing at Bovingdon, England. He lost all of his camera equipment along with six bottles of French perfume he had bought in Paris to give to his fiancé.

He survived the plane crash and it was then that he declared "any landing you can walk away from is a good landing."

"It just bothers me to no end that I didn't ask Gerald more questions about all that he had done, but he did not want to talk about the war," Henrietta said. "It was too painful and he did not want to go back over it."

During WWII, Massie earned a Bronze Star and five battle stars.

Back home, he earned the right to finally marry his fiancé, which he did on Sept. 22, 1945.

They moved to Jefferson City and he became the official Missouri state photographer.

Following his death in 1989, Henrietta Massie shared some of his collection of war photos with National Geographic for a story in the March 1994 edition. That article caught the eye of some of the pilots of the 8th Air Force and resulted in an additional National Geographic story in the August 1994 edition of the magazine.

The Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City holds more than 45,000 negatives and prints from the Massie collection of Missouri photos.

"It's so unbelievable the life we were able to live," Henrietta said. "You know, it's a miracle Gerald and I ever even saw each other again."


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