How One Soldier Talked His Way into Becoming a Photographer for the Navy—without Any Photography Experience at All

What happened during that 24-hour period may have saved one sailor’s life.

01-this-soldier-lied-his-way-into-becoming-a-photographer-navy-Don-Mendecourtesy Don Mende/Reminisce Magazine When I was 16 back in Roanoke, Virginia, I got into some trouble. It was bad enough that I had to see a judge, who strongly suggested to my dad that I get some structure in my life. As an ex-Air Force pilot, Dad took that to heart and dragged me to the local Navy Reserve unit. Because I liked automobiles, I signed up as a machinist mate candidate and after two years of monthly meetings became a third-class machinist mate, having never worked on a ship.

After graduation, I reported for active duty, and the Navy flew me to Japan to catch the USS Independence CVA 62 on its 1965 Vietnam tour. As I boarded the monster of a ship, I was convinced that drowning was in my immediate future.

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A first-class machinist mate took me down several decks to a room filled with open bunks and dozens of dirty, oily new roomies. The sheets were filthy, and the noise and smells in that room were ghastly.

I told my guide that I was sure my momma didn’t want her 19-year-old son down here, and that I needed to do something else, maybe with trucks. Then that wise old first-class machinist mate changed my life forever. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “What do you think your momma would want you to be doing in this man’s Navy?”

That made me think. My dad did aerial photography while he was in the Air Force and was doing it now for a living. That seemed like a good job, so I told my new friend that if there were no trucks to work on, I was a good photographer. “Maybe I could do that,” I said, knowing that I had never held a camera or taken a picture.

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The old first-class laughed and said, “Photography is an impossible rating; there are so few openings and it’s highly competitive.” But he told me to see the personnel officer and tell him my story. “Maybe he can help you.” After he left, I never saw him again. The next day I went to see the P.O. I told him my story, and he called the chief in the photo lab to see if there were any openings. Sure enough, there was, and Chief Snyder requested that I meet him in the lab to talk. The chief was tall and authoritative. I was scared beyond belief that if I screwed this up I was on my way back down to the bowels of the ship.

02-this-soldier-lied-his-way-into-becoming-a-photographer-navy-Don-Mendecourtesy Don Mende/Reminisce Magazine I got through the interview, and Chief Snyder handed me a roll of exposed film. He told me to process the film, make some 8×10 prints and show him that my photography skills were sufficient to warrant this coveted position.

So I stumbled through the dark room doors into a room lit with little red lights, where two men were working. I told them my story and said I had no idea what I was doing. The two guys, Randy Beck and Dale White, laughed and couldn’t believe that I had convinced all these people, along with Chief Snyder, that I could be considered for the job.

Randy and Dale, who are still lifelong friends of mine, decided to help me with my little ruse and processed that roll of film, made some professional glossy prints and stood me in front of the dryer drum. When Chief Snyder came by, he would see me and the glossy prints and assume I had done the work.

And that’s exactly what happened! Chief Snyder came by, said the processing and print quality was great, and that if I was willing to lose my rank he would approve my transfer.

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Of course I was low man on the totem pole and got all the worst duty—stuck with hot days on the flight deck, work in the AV room, late-night printing sessions, kitchen duty or whatever—but I was one happy buckaroo! The guys in the lab helped me along. I caught on pretty quickly. I eventually became a pretty good naval photographer.

Over the years I took classes in photography, chemicals, image composition, background, color and more. I have been fortunate to have made a living as a photographer for a good portion of my life. In the end, that 24-hour period aboard the Independence saved my life.

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Originally Published in Reminisce Extra