Recently I had the opportunity to photograph a WWII veteran in Athens, Georgia…a relatively sleepy southern town, compared to Atlanta. Vincent Masters was born in 1920 in California, and just weeks after WWII began he joined the US Army as a private.
He was quickly accepted for flight school, and became a B-17 bomber pilot, eventually flying out of England with the 551st Squadron of the 385th Bomb Group during the summer of 1943 as the Lead Squadron Pilot, with the rank of Captain. In August of 1943, he became the Squadron Operations Officer, and was promoted to Major. He completed his 28 combat missions as Acting Command Pilot, and was given the option of returning to the States for reassignment.
Rather than return, Major Masters formed and assumed command of a secret weather scouting force, with hand-picked, seasoned pilots, flying the P-51 Mustang fighter plane. The mission of the 3rd Scouting Force was to fly ahead of the bomber stream to report weather conditions over the target to the Command Pilot leading the mission. As the commander, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Although they weren't to engage the enemy unless directly threatened, he did shoot down one enemy fighter, and probably another. He mentioned that at that point in the war they were probably student pilots…but he had a job to do.
During the war, one of the tactics tried by General Curtis LeMay was to have bombers fly over Germany, drop their bombs, and then turn south to fly to north Africa. It was thought that this would be safer than flying back through the murderous fighter cover the Germans had established over Europe.
However, the length of the mission led several crews to ditch in the Mediterranean Sea, due to fuel exhaustion and damaged aircraft. On his return trip to England, his unit bombed Bordeaux, France, and his aircraft was so shot up, they had to ditch in the stormy Atlantic, only 30 miles from safety. Four of the 11 men on board drowned in the 30 foot seas. Picked up 21 hours later by the Royal Air Force Rescue Service, he returned to flying two weeks later.
When the war ended in 1945, he joined the Air Force Reserves, and became a pilot for Trans World and Western Airlines, otherwise known as TWA. He flew DC-3's for a few years, and then changed directions again. He graduated from Stanford Medical school in 1953, with a degree in Obstetrics.
Col. Masters had a long medical career, finally retiring at age 83. Still vibrant at 96 years of age, he and his wife Judy enthusiastically shared his adventures with me. They were both just delightful, and experiences like these really make the effort to produce these images worthwhile. By the way, it should be mentioned that these images were created on their carport, with a black background and strobes. Actually, it was quite a good impromptu studio, as we didn't have to track in and out of the house, and had plenty of room to operate. It was close to the car too, making setup and teardown quite expeditious.
While it continues to sound like a cliché, we as a country, and indeed the free world, continue to owe these men an immeasurable debt of gratitude for their selfless service.