"Photographic Adventures at Kagnew" by Robert E. Fields Jr.

I was the base photographer in 1953-54. Just read your History of Kagnew Station, Chapter 4. Was surprised and delighted that you included a photograph of the interior of the bowling alley after it was expanded to 4 lanes. I took that photograph. I returned home to become a professional photographer for some 35 years after a short re-enrollment at the U of Florida. I have told many people of the difficulties I faced in taking that particular photograph.

Johnny Popovich, Ron Kircher and I removed all of the lightbulbs in the bowling alley and replaced them with some 40 or more various sized flashbulbs, the smaller ones above and around the pins and the larger ones in the ceiling drop lights. During all of this we had shut off the electricity to the bowling alley. Once we had double checked everything I set up a 4x5 Speed Graphic with 1 4x5 film holder. I knew we only had one shot at the photograph so we had calculated and tested with bulbs here and there over and over. When everything was ready, I opened the shutter, yelled "hit it" to Popovich and he hit the main switch for the building power. As soon as I saw the flash I immediately closed the shutter of the camera. I distinctly remember my first thought at the moment the flash went off. Had I pulled the dark slide on the film holder? I snapped my head around to look and there was the slide, out of the holder and sitting on top of the camera. What a relief.

After removing all of the burned out flashbulbs and replacing the normal light bulbs I developed the one single sheet of film and now, thanks to you, I have seen that photograph for the first time in 45 years. I have long considered that photograph to be the most difficult I have ever taken and used a description of it in teaching photography at several times in my career. Thank you so much for including it in your article.

As an aside, I once created a diplomatic incident by taking photographs of Haile Selassie. He had just returned from a visit to this country with some $80 million of our money for his country and, while here, apparently became accustomed to being followed around by photographers. He was having a diplomatic reception at the Asmara palace one afternoon. Not having anything particular to do, I grabbed my Rolleiflex and a flash gun and went to the palace. Somewhere along the line I had made an ID card with my photograph on it with something on it like "wherever this man is or goes, he has a perfect right to be there and is on official business." This was written in English, French, Italian and Amharic and signed by the base commander and the Eritrean Administrator Bitwooded (spelling?) I flashed it for the palace guards and found myself peeking around the door leading right down to the red carpet to the throne, where Haile Selassie and a couple of others were standing.

The nature of his diplomatic receptions at the time was to enter and bow to the emperor, then move along the sides of the throne room and stand there. Waiters would come by with champaigne and hors'dourves and you would stand there, sip and nibble, not saying anything to the emporer. After a decent interval, waiters would collect the napkins and glasses, you bowed again to the emperor and moved down the carpet and out of the throne room. That was it.

However, the emperor spotted me in uniform with the camera and sent someone to ask if I would like to photograph the emperor. I of course said yes. They told me to wait. They went back to Selassie, then the waiters and other officials opened all the doors lining both sides of the throne room, gently pushed all the consuls, ambassadors, officials, military people and others out the doors and into the corridors on both sides of the room and signaled for me to approach. I went down and bowed to the old boy and he then asked me several questions, such as how long had I been in his country, what did I do for the army, had I done any hunting, what did I think of his people, etc. We actually chatted for about 5 minutes, in English, which no one thought he spoke at the time, and then he said I could take three pictures. I did, thanked him, bowed again and walked out.

The only problem was that the base CO, Colonel Hopkins, had been the last person out of the room and one of the first ones back in, and saw me both times. Mad as hell because he was jammed into the hall holding his glass and napkin, he couldn't wait to get me.

I rushed back to the photo lab and processed the film, then as always for many years relieved that I had an image on the film. I was just hanging it up to dry when the phone in the lab rang. I answered it and heard, "Fields, get up here, NOW!

"Get up where?" I asked, knowing full well who it was and why.

"This is Col. Hopkins, dammit, get up here now!"

I went to his office and he was mad. He chewed me out long and loud about what I had made everyone do, how I had gotten all those diplomats shoved out into the halls, etc. It was a real reaming. I apologized as best as I could, told him I hadn't planned it that way, that the emperor had sent for me. He settled down somewhat and then asked if the photos were any good. Then he told me to make 100 prints of each photograph for him and to get out of his office. I was happy to, hopefully before I broke out laughing. I still have the photographs and the negatives.

The best thing about the whole thing was that, from then on, whenever the emperor would see me when he was in Asmara he would always nod his head at me and smile. It was a good feeling.

Robert E. Fields Jr. ex-Cpl ASA US Army Signal Corps


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved