Staff Sergeant Arthur J. Nicol
Motion Picture Photographer
1st Combat Camera Unit, 1st Motion Picture Unit, 15th Air Force
Arthur James Nicol was born on July 20, 1918, to two British immigrants in Minnesota. His father, John, was originally from Scotland and came to St. Paul, MN around 1902 and met his mother, Joan, who came from England in 1914. A little over a year later the couple had a daughter, Margaret, and a second daughter, Gladys, in 1922. During his childhood Arthur’s father found work as a pavement cutter around St. Paul, while his mother–now a busy mother of 3–took care of the children at home. Arthur did well in school, getting on the honor roll while attending Harding High School, and picked up a few extracurriculars including journalism for the school newspaper. After graduating in 1935, Arthur found a job keeping track of stock at the local calendar company Brown & Bigelow to help provide for the family. Undoubtedly hard work, this company grew to be one of the largest calendar printers in the world in the 1940’s
Soon after war broke out he was drafted into the AAF in early 1942, beginning training in California. With previous photography experience, he was placed in the newly formed First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). The unit was a first of its kind, designed to make training and propaganda films while also training cameramen and photographers for combat. For months Arthur was trained to hold the camera in simulated combat conditions and get quality footage, even when his life was on the line. Soon after, a new ‘7th Combat Camera Unit’ splintered from the FMPU, taking Arthur and some of the other combat-trained cameramen. The ultimate goal of the outfit was the same as the FMPU, but specifically to do so in combat missions. Arthur’s combat camera training continued with additional practice flights and ground missions. About a year later the unit changed its name and officially became the ‘1st Combat Camera Unit’.
On 24 July 1943, the 1st CCU got orders without warning to attach to the First Fighter Command of the 1st AF. Hastily packing equipment and clothes, Nicol and the rest of the unit were transferred to Mitchel Field, New York. It was here that the unit got a real sense of formation and organization in the field, finding that with the variety of areas and subjects to cover it worked best to divide into 3-4 men teams, similar to the Signal Photographic Companies of the Signal Corps. From late September to early October 1943, Nicol–now a Sergeant–and 3 others in the unit photographed a simulated airfield attack which was then used for tactical assessment and training. In addition to filming, Arthur also attended classes in camera repair and film development. At this point the unit was undoubtedly a tight-knit group, having spent about a year together and consisting of only 8 officers and 23 enlisted men. In November, however, Arthur took a short leave to go home and marry his wife, Audrey, whom he met before his time in the Army.
In December of 1943, Arthur and the 1st CCU were shipped overseas for the first time. On top of his issued equipment and cameras, he also packed along his personal motion picture camera to get some footage of Europe that he could keep for himself. The cramped and stuffy conditions of the 500-passenger ship hold were a distinct change of pace from the clean and comfortable rooms at Mitchel Field, and 3/4 of the unit became sick within the first two days of the trip. A highlight of the trip, however, was Christmas aboard the ship. The 1st CCU threw their own party in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, and Arthur enjoyed an all-you-can-eat turkey dinner on Christmas Day. The unit had a few stops and did a little sightseeing in North Africa and Italy before setting up shop in Bari in late January 1944.
Detachments were immediately sent out to various groups of the 15th AF, including the 99th, 450th, 451st, and 455th Bomb Groups. On a typical mission, Arthur would board bombers with the crew and set up custom-made mounts on doors and windows to keep the cameras steady. In combat, he would begin filming enemy encounters and bombing runs by moving from mount to mount on the plane. Occasionally for smaller or safer missions, men of the 1st CCU would be given their own planes to fly alongside the bombers and film. Sgt. Nicol filmed various missions in one of the detachments until the entire unit was reunited in June to cover the first part of Operation Frantic, a series of shuttle bombing operations intended to hit targets in Nazi-controlled Eastern Europe, land in Soviet territory to resupply, then hit more on the return flight. By this time the 1st CCU was averaging around 25,000 feet of film a month, while other CCUs averaged about 8,000.
On 16 June 1944, the 1st CCU celebrated its one-year anniversary. In the morning, a ceremony was held where Arthur, along with many other men in the unit, received his Air Medal. Soon after, he was served some cake from a GI machete and enjoyed the celebrations. The unit then returned to normal duties and for the next month Sgt. Nicol worked with the commanding officer (CO) of his detachment, Captain Charles Gekler, to get the first all-color motion picture footage from the unit. The footage was used for a new picture about the process of a bombing operation, and notably had good reception in the states. When August came, the sights of the unit shifted to film the preparation of Operation Dragoon–the invasion of Southern France. On 15 August 1944, half of the unit checked their cameras and boarded bombers to film the invasion. It was the first time any of the men filmed a night mission, and they needed to make some adjustments to account for the low level of light. Cameramen were put in each wave of the invasion to get full coverage of the event, and all film was promptly sent back to Washington and released to the public in various motion pictures. It was also during this invasion that the unit suffered its first man killed in action when S/Sgt. Albert Muse’s plane was hit and exploded in mid-air. With such a small group of about 30 cameramen, any loss had a large impact and was felt throughout the unit.
Starting in September, Arthur and his detachment went on a five-week assignment to Ploiești, Romania, where a devastating Allied raid on the oil fields took place a month prior. In that time, they got footage of the bomb damage in the area and the aftermath of the raid as well as an interview with the Romanian King Michael I. The footage was to be used for the upcoming motion picture “Air Siege” about the raids on the oil fields, narrated by Ronald Reagan. While there, however, they found a cache of German films hidden in the mountains which Cpt. Gekler retrieved and found to be a source of vital information. Upon returning, Arthur and his detachment went back out on a quick mission with the 449th Bomb Group, with the goal of getting footage of bombs being dropped from multiple angles–also to be used in the upcoming film.
By November Arthur was promoted to Staff Sergeant and began a medical documentary project by himself. The premise behind the film was to show the treatment of airmen who were suffering from frostbite. It took the viewer through the whole process from hospital admission to discharge and served as both a documentary and training film. This took a bulk of his time in the coming weeks, although he was back with the rest of the unit for a nice turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. In December, S/Sgt. Nicol got in the festive spirit by joining a detachment to film a unique story with the 455th Bomb Group. In this film, Italian children are given a Christmas party by the Army, with Santa himself flying in on a B-24 named “Santa Claus Special”. Soon after on 20 December 1944, Arthur and the rest of the unit were called into an impromptu meeting with the CO of the unit. After sitting in confusion, they were told to load into trucks, where they were taken to a surprise party thrown by the officers. Given some time to enjoy the holiday, Arthur spent the night with beverages, music, and WACs.
In March 1945 the 1st CCU finally moved out of Italy and into Yugoslavia and France. As for Arthur, he moved to Cannes, France, and began filming various subjects in the area. His next big project, however, was going back to Italy and filming bomb damage, this time on the ground. While he previously filmed the exact same targets from the Northern Italian skies, he now captured the aftermath up close. On 8 May 1945, a collective sigh of relief came from the 1st CCU. The war they were brought together to photograph nearly three years ago was finally at an end. They all gathered at the unit headquarters for a two-day celebration. However, the good spirits didn’t last very long when they found out that one of the officers, Lt. Wyrick, was unfortunately fatally electrocuted while filming on 9 May. The unit paid their respects and buried him a few days later in Bari.
After VE day, the 1st CCU saw a huge drop off in work and were allowed to go to various rest camps in Venice, Capri, and Nice. Nicol and the rest of the crew enjoyed some downtime to relax and celebrate the end of their time in the Army. By the end of the month on May 29th, 15 men in the unit were sent home to their families, with another 9 sent home in June, which left just 6 men in the unit. The film made by the 1st CCU throughout the war, “Air Siege”, was also finished in May and shown to various groups in Washington and the AF with high acclaim.
Staff Sergeant Arthur Nicol was welcomed back to the States by his family and soon found work in the local advertising industry. Going from client to client to shoot commercials, he provided for his family which soon boasted a few more members. In 1949 he had a son he named after his father, John, and another son, Bruce, in 1950. Both sons followed in their father’s footsteps and served in the military in Vietnam, John in the Army, and Bruce in the Air Force. For the rest of his time, Arthur lived a quiet life in his home in Minnesota with his wife of 68 years, pursuing his passion for service and history. He went to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and for 40 years served as a custodian and trustee of a local cemetery. Arthur also volunteered in the local Minnetonka Historical Society and, embracing his Scottish heritage, served as the regional VP of the Clan MacLeod Society. He passed away peacefully with family in December of 2011 at 93 years old and was one of only three known living veterans of the 1st Combat Camera Unit at the time. As a true man of character and service, he donated his body to the University of Michigan Medical School.