Sgt. Waldrop‘ s Camera
On the 29th of January, I went to look at a lot of vintage cameras for sale on facebook market place. I had been watching it for a bit, and the seller had been bringing the price down over several weeks until I finally went to have a look. I was interested in one in particular, a Rollei Magic missing it’s name plate. I wanted to know which model it was, maybe I could give it to my son who also enjoys using film. The rest of the lot looked like it was mostly junk, but still interesting enough for me to go and see.
The Rollei Magic turned out to be the wrong model, and I almost told the man that I was not interested. The cameras were in two big plastic tubs, mixed in with tons of loose AC adapters, lens hoods, speaker wire, cheap computer speakers. It was basically the detritus that gets passed from junk dealer to junk dealer, with some cameras mixed in. However, I decided it would be courteous to have a look at the entire lot. I began sorting them, telling him what was broken, thinking that if nothing else, I could buy the working cameras for less. I found some things, put them aside, and then I pulled out an unassuming and slightly battered little box. I recognized it as a folding camera from the 1930s. I was intrigued, figuring that it was probably some kind of Kodak model, but the writing on the back said that it was a Zeiss Ikon Nettar, Bob 510/2. I was not familiar with that particular model, but the name Zeiss Ikon I did know, and I decided to pop it open and see if it worked. I first checked the front, the camera came out, the shutter mostly worked after being stuck for a bit. Next I decided to check the inside. I opened it and noticed first the wooden film spool inside on the film side.
For those not familiar, this type of camera uses 120 type film. 120 is a medium format film, still in use and commonly available today. I had some sitting in the freezer at home and had a couple of rolls waiting to be developed. When you load 120 film into a camera, there must be an empty roll in the camera for take up. 35m film winds into the camera, and when the roll is finished, it is released and the user winds it back onto the cartridge it came on. 120 film only goes one way, and is protected from light by a black paper backer rather than a cartridge. The film is placed in the bottom, and the end is loaded onto an empty roll on the top, and as you shoot, it winds onto the old roll. When finished, the roll that the film came on is moved from bottom to top, and awaits the next roll. Many photographers move it when they take the film out, a good habit for being ready.
The empty wooden spool was on the bottom, where it would have been with film coming off of it. There was no take up spool in the camera. The Second thing that I noticed was on the inside of the door. Etched in rather neatly in my opinion, were the words, “SGT Curtis E. Waldrop Tendon, France October 8, 1944.”
That alone convinced me to buy the lot, as the man wasn’t breaking it up, I needed to take that camera home. Once I came home I began my research into this G.I., and a simple google search found a Kerrville Mountain Sun article from 1990. In it, I learned that Curtis Waldrop had been a part of the 143rd Infantry, a Texas National Guar unit, that his battalion was the first one on the beach in Salerno, and that they had entered federal service in 1940. (1)
Using that information, I looked up the 143rd infantry, and found a brief history of their very extensive service in World War II, courtesy of the Texas Military Forces Museum. (2). You may read the full story if you wish, but in short, in that region of France, the 143rd had already been in three major battles, and were still made to push on. They were fighting a determined and prepared enemy, and in October, it took them three weeks to move seven and a half miles.(2)
According to the Museum, all they wanted was some rest, but rest was not to be had.(2)
Turning my attention back to the camera, I decided to track down a manual for it, as I have learned the hard way that small things can completely ruin a photo. Fortunately, cameramanuals.org is a very nice place and they happened to have just what I needed. It was then that I noticed an anomaly. The manual, being for the exported version of the camera, kept talking about the focusing ring being in feet.(3) This would make sense, except that the camera I bought, is in meters. Meters, not feet.
Starting here, I must do a bit of hypothesizing based on the evidence. I make it clear that I have only what is before us to go on. The cameras were made in Germany starting in 1936.(4)
If what I have learned about them is correct, then meters would indicate a German camera, not one of the exports to English speaking countries. There are plenty of ways that SGT. Waldrop could have gotten that camera, but the inscription in the back is indicative of when and where. If he did not get the camera on October 8, 1944 in that particular region of France, then why scratch that specifically into the back? I know personally that men brought things home, trophy’s from the enemy. I had two great grandfathers in that war, one who fought and one who fixed tanks, specifically he was glad he did not fight. However, both men brought home enemy Lugers, amongst other things. Without fighting my great grandfather Bledsoe was able to bring home an enemy weapon, trophies were plentiful.
I do not know what SGT Waldrop’s job was specifically, so I can only work from the default idea that he was infantry and did fight, but I make no assumptions about what he did or did not do in the war, but I do speculate that this camera belonged to a Nazi soldier and that it was collected by SGT Waldrop. I imagine that he carved his name and the other information into the inside with a knife on the day that he got it. Even murkier is the question of, who was the last person to use it. The empty film spool was in the position of feeding out film, not take up. The film that was last in it could have gone anywhere. If it had been the film of a Nazi soldier, which is feasible, the camera was an entry level model, easily available to even a soldier of the time, then I would say the film was disposed of any number of ways, having been anywhere from pocketed, left in the mud, or given to someone as collected intelligence.
However, the film could have even been last used by an American, as the films metal ends say “ANSCO film.” ANSCO was an American company, which had been acquired by the German firm of AGFA in 1928.(5). This tells me that film could have been used by an American or a German as I have been unable to determine which brand was sold in which country, it could have been both in all markets. What does need to be noted is that upon America’s entry into the war, with Hitler having declared war on the United States, ANSCO was seized by the U.S. government as an enemy property.(5). If ANSCO was still sold in Germany in 1944, then it probably would have been older stock. I do not know how long companies kept film on shelves back then. I believe it would have been black and white film, due to the camera it was in, and who would have been paying for it. Black and White is fairly shelf stable, most of what I have expires in 2022, giving it a best by of four years, as it is mostly from 2018. The film is a dead end. I originally thought that if it had been American film, it would have been on a metal spool, but I later learned that America was using wood again, with metal going to the war effort.
What I do know is that the engraving done by SGT Waldrop is in a place that would not normally be open to be scratched on. In that place should be a metal plate. The purpose of that plate is that it keeps the film in place. Film, even when pulled taught, needs something to hold it in place for the purposes of focusing. When a camera is focused, it is not enough that the lens is focused, but also the film must be the correct distance from the lens for that focus to produce a correct image. The film plate is not present, and could not have been in place when the carving occurred. I do not know where it is, or when it came out, but it had to be out when he carved his inscription. It could have been put back after that, the metal tabs to hold it are still there. I cannot say what happened to the plate, but I think perhaps, he took it out to make his inscription and could not get it back into place, or simply did not mind, that he did not intend to use the camera, film would probably have been hard to come by, as military supplies were difficult for that region at the time. Really, for all that I know, he could have put it back, used the camera quite a bit at home, and it was lost later, but I do not believe so. I think that the last user, was the original owner, but I have little evidence in that way, and all that I do have is put before you.
Either way, I talked to a friend of mine, and he had the idea that if the camera had belonged to a Nazi soldier, and if that person was the last to use it, that I should make the first photo I took on it ( the fact that I was going to use it was never in question) something significant. I did some more digging and was able to determine that SGT Waldrop, having passed in 1991, the year after the article about his unit and their reunion was written, and had been laid to rest in Kerrville, Texas, barely an hour from San Antonio, where I lived at the time. I cleaned the camera up as best as I could. The lens is dirty on the inside, and after minor attempts to get to it, I gave up for fear of making it worse. I made a new plate from a cut up capri sun box, and I drove the camera to Kerrville, so that the first photo could be of the grave of the man who brought it home.
His grave, (and that of his wife) is at the bottom of the photo, partially cut off on the left, and with my Subaru Outback ruining the shot. As you can see, I forgot about the parallax, and so what I thought to be a shot dominated by the grave and foreground is really a large shot with the grave barely in the foreground. Also, my plate was a bit thick, so the film was scratched on the way through (the black lines running the length.). The camera only has four shutter settings, 1/25th of a second, 1/75th, Bulb (open as long as your hold the button) and T, which I figured is like bulb but it opens with one depression and closes with a second. To today’s film, these are all pretty slow. The fastest is 1/4 of a second and for reference with 400 ISO film, my go to film especially for a cloudy day, it would be much too slow, only 1/60th of a second is needed to avoid camera shake, and really the light meter was saying 1/250th. 1/4th was just too slow, and the shutter was prone to sticking on that one, so I went the other way, I loaded Ilford Pan F, a 50 ISO film, and decided to work in whole seconds. Turns out, even on a day that is rainy, this region of Texas has a lot of light, and I did not have whole seconds to work with, so I did my best. Two out of the eight shots were usable, the rest were very overexposed, but I only needed one to accomplish my mission.
That is my story of SGT Waldrop’s camera. I have not contacted the family, as I do not feel the need to. Firstly, I have made no claims on SGT Curtis Waldrop other than the fact that he was a soldier who was in a particular region of France at a certain time, which has been proven. My speculations about the camera are my own, and make no assertions on him whatsoever. As for the idea that they could help the story, I am not sure they could, I got the camera from a picker, who got it from another picker. I think that as they things normally go, that it was cleared out as part of the estate in 2016, and has worked it’s way around to me. I feel that had they known, or if it was significant, then it would not have been there. I do not feel the need to bother these people. I will continue to use the camera, mostly near dusk or on very overcast days. I put some camera seal foam on the metal, hoping to alleviate the scratches without causing a new problem. My wife thinks the more things I introduce into the camera that were not supposed to be there, then the more that will go wrong, and she is most likely right. I hope you have enjoyed this little story, and if you have some evidence to contribute, please do.
I thank SGT Curtis E. Waldrop for his service and time spent fighting against the Nazi menace. As a veteran myself, he is my brother, but I am not able to stand in the shadow of those who fought in that war.
For me, this whole thing was what it is all about. I found a real thing, that belonged to a real person and went hunting for the story, and in the end, added to it myself. The camera did not find it’s way to a dump for an ignominious end, but instead it lives on. I’m rather certain that Sgt. Waldrop’s family remembers him, but now so will I, he has taken a step towards immortality.