Lester Herring is a man who believes in love. His love of his country led him to enlist in the Navy at the age of 18. His love of photography helped save his life in World War II. And his love of his wife began when he was only 20 years and two days old, and continues just as strongly now that he is 88 and a half.
“When you’re young, that half is important, and when you’re my age it becomes so again,” Herring said.
In 1942, Herring had just turned 18 and submitted his name for the draft, a requirement for men who have come of age. He was still in his first year of college when he decided he wasn’t interested in the Army and submitted his name for the Navy. Six days later, his name was called.
The Navy let him finish out his first year of college at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., before he was deployed to boot camp. On July 1, 1943, Herring went into uniform for the U.S. Navy. At the start of boot camp, the officer in charge asked all the recruits what their top three interests in school were.
When it was Herring’s turn, the first thing that came to mind was photography. He had always loved taking pictures in high school and putting films in the projector when they were shown in class. To this day, Herring has all the photographs he has ever taken, all organized in separate binders.
When Herring answered, “Photography,” the officer asked, “And what are your other two?”
“Well, I don’t have any others,” Herring replied. To his surprise, the officer didn’t press him for more.
Herring remembers the day he was sent to photography school. The commanding officer called him and three other men into the mess hall. When Herring walked in, he saw four buckets, peeling knives and a tall pile of carrots.
“I could just tell this was not going to be a good day,” he said.
The men sat down, mumbling some less-than-thrilled remarks about their task, and began peeling carrots. About half an hour in, a man entered the room with a clipboard.
“Herring, Lester,” he barked.
Herring jumped to his feet.
“Drop that stuff,” the man said. “You’re being sent to photography school.”
Herring was sent to Pensacola, Fla. There he learned the principles of photography and how to develop photos sent back from overseas. Herring also had aerial gunnery training. He learned the ins and outs of machine guns – how to take them apart and put them back together – and had six weeks of target practice.
While at Pensacola, Herring married the love of his life, Evelyn. In those days, women under 18 had to get their parents’ permission to get married, and so did men under 21. But Herring knew that she was the girl for him, even at their young age.
He wrote a 40-page letter to his mother, proving his love for Evelyn and explaining why they needed to be married.
“Although she wasn’t too thrilled with the idea at the time, she came around to it,” Herring said. “It obviously worked out just fine.” They will celebrate their 69th anniversary in July 2013.
After finishing his training at Pensacola, Herring and six other men were sent to Fort Lauderdale to learn how to fly torpedo bombers (TBM/TBFs). These aircraft require three people to fly: a pilot, a gunner and a radio operator. Herring was the turret gunner.
People told Herring his first flight would be scary and that most threw up the first time. But Herring loved the feeling of flying so much that he found a piece of paper in the aircraft and wrote a letter to his mother to describe the sensation.
“You will never guess where I am writing you from, or why this letter is written so peculiarly,” he wrote. “I’m living a millionaire’s life, flying above the Earth, and I just want to sit here and enjoy myself.”
After earning permanent air cruise status through his flight training, Herring thought he was going to be sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. However, he was one of 12 called to Pearl Harbor to serve at the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Areas (JICPOA).
At JICPOA, Herring helped develop and print photos taken of the Pacific from aerial cameras. These photos were used for intelligence and for navigation on flights like that of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“I like to think a picture I helped develop may have helped end the war. Maybe I helped Dutch Van Kirk in his flight or other pilots get home safely,” Herring said. Van Kirk was the navigator of the Enola Gay.
When he shared his experiences, Herring showed pictures of each one.
He showed the first picture that he and his wife took together. It was before they were married, and she wore a locket he gave her that cost $5. She still has the locket today.
He showed a photo of his time in boot camp: 50 guys, all with buzz cuts, and either shirtless or wearing white tank tops. “Try and guess which one is me,” he urged.
He showed photos of his stint in Pearl Harbor, as well as photos from his trip back for the 50-year anniversary of the bombing. One of his photos was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper for its anniversary special edition.
“We’re the only ones who can pass on these stories now,” Herring said. “Because that’s all we have – stories and these pictures to show our history. Getting to share these stories is how we pay homage to those who helped us make the lives we have today. ”
Writing: Sara Miller
Photograph: Torin Longaker