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Technical Sergeant Eugene Chernoy

Motion Picture Photographer

6th Combat Camera Unit, 1st Motion Picture Unit, 13th Air Force

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     Eugene Chernoy was born to two Russian immigrants on October 14, 1920, in New York City. Trying to find a good job to support his family, Eugene’s father moved around to various jobs in different states while raising Eugene and his brother. He eventually settled down in Los Angeles, California to work as a manager at a lamp company. Here Eugene graduated from Santa Monica High School where he found an interest in photography and theater, even participating in a few school plays. After graduating, he began further studying cinematography and hoped to eventually break into Hollywood as a camera operator.

     In the midst of trying to make his breakthrough, Eugene found his nation under attack after he heard the news of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Answering the call to help his country in whatever way he could, he enlisted in the Army two months later. With his special skills in photography, he was put into the newly formed First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) of the Army Air Force (AAF). Initially made to produce training and propaganda films, the FMPU stayed stateside at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. Chernoy found himself filming these staged and sponsored films for the first few months of his service until the formation of a brand new, first-of-its-kind outfit: the Combat Camera Unit (CCU). The purpose of a CCU was, in short, to “furnish motion pictures of AAF combat and other operational activities…for historical record for general release to the public.” 

     Almost exactly a year after Chernoy’s enlistment, he was selected for special training in the newly-formed 6th CCU. All the cameramen selected for combat were sent to an old, run-down facility about half a mile away from the FMPU’s headquarters for unique training to learn how to film under fire and keep a camera steady while in flight. Certain teams of trainees also acted as ‘news crews’ to learn how to report on various stories around the area. One such story was a fundraiser golf game in North Hollywood, where the photographers brushed shoulders with guest star Frank Sinatra and other celebrities. Occasionally groups were sent out to bomber training bases as well, where the training missions proved to be just as beneficial to the cameramen as it did the air crews. After many personnel changes throughout this time, the 6th CCU organized itself into 9 officers and 23 enlisted men, with T/Sgt. Chernoy joining them as one of the unit’s few NCOs.

     In February of 1944, Eugene and the rest of the 6th CCU bid farewell to their newly-made home in Culver City, receiving orders to ship overseas. After the long process of packing all their equipment, the photographers found themselves in New Caledonia and Guadalcanal before finally setting up shop with the 13th Air Force in April. Upon arriving, Chernoy was among 16 men in the unit that were assigned to flying status and sent out on various missions in the area. Chernoy was additionally sent with a few other photographers to film a “finishing course” designed to give new bomber crews from the States some additional required experience before jumping into combat. 

     The next couple of months initially found T/Sgt. Chernoy tagging along on more bombing runs around the area as well as using various mounts on doors, windows, and bomb bays to capture what a typical mission looked like in combat. However, by the summer he was assigned a special task, ordered to film a documentary on sanitation and cleanliness in the Pacific, as requested by the Surgeon General in Washington. While this took up the bulk of his time for the next few months, Eugene was able to break up some of the monotony with a visit from Bob Hope, who gave many performances throughout the month of August. As it was described in the unit history of the 6th CCU, by the time Hope was set to arrive the ground was hardly visible, since “men were overflowing the theatre in all directions, trucks parked behind the last rows of seats were sagging with the weight of passengers and all the trees which commanded a view of the stage were loaded with human fruit.” Around this time, in 1944, Eugene was able to secure some leave back to the United States. He enjoyed spending some time with family, but also met his “soulmate,” Sally Chetkin, at a USO dance. 

     After the holiday festivities, the Surgeon General requested another special film, this time focusing on the recovery of wounded men at the 51st General Hospital in Hollandia, New Guinea, and in rest areas in Sydney. Of course, upon hearing this news and “at the mention of Sydney, everyone assumed himself to be the best cameraman in the unit, and best fitted for the job.” Despite the many applicants, T/Sgt. Chernoy was selected to be the cameraman for the picture, which was also decided to be synced to on-site audio recording. The film was divided into the “rehabilitation of men’s bodies” at the field hospital and the “rehabilitation of morale” in Sydney. It also focused on a special program at the hospital to rehabilitate and prepare those that would soon be discharged back to civilian life. The entire film was finished in about a month and, even with the long hours and hard work, Chernoy was still able to enjoy his brief stay in the “Paris of the Pacific.”

     Eugene wasn’t able to rest for long, however. As soon as he returned from the trip he was sent on an emergency combat mission around the Gulf of Boni, where two Japanese destroyers and several smaller ships were discovered. During this flight he found himself in the middle of the action as the enemy ships desperately tried to defend against the small detachment of US bombers and fighters. while facing one of the Japanese destroyers, Chernoy filmed his crew rack up a few near misses, but they ultimately delivered the final blow that sent it completely underwater within 30 seconds. In the heat of the moment, he also captured footage of the other ships being strafed by American fighters, and the final destruction of all Japanese ships. 

     It wasn’t long until Chernoy found himself back in action, boarding a B-24 on April 8. On this flight he traveled over Tarakan, Borneo, on a low level reconnaissance mission with the job of gathering comprehensive film of the area they flew over from the waist window. The plane flew at an altitude of only 650 feet for the mission, and soon encountered Japanese small arms fire. Taking whatever cover he could while filming, Eugene tried to keep the camera steady. Not long after, a 40mm shell struck only a few feet from the window he was filming from and sent shrapnel throughout the back of the plane. A fragment of the shell flew right towards Chernoy, cutting his left wrist and just barely missed an artery. He scrambled to stop the bleeding while more hits chewed up parts of the plane. The crew survived the mission, but by the time they reached their airfield Eugene and two others had been wounded.

     With the extremely lucky miss of his artery, Chernoy was able to make a quick recovery and left the hospital by the end of April. Wasting no time, he immediately prepared to cover the amphibious invasion of Tarakan–the same place he had just been wounded while flying over. On the morning of May 1, T/Sgt. Chernoy and another photographer from the 6th CCU boarded a landing craft alongside 12,000 troops from the Australian 26th Brigade. With support from air and naval bombardments, the Allied force landed on the island to little Japanese resistance. Touching down on the beach, Eugene captured fragmentation bombs being dropped along Japanese defensive lines and created spectacular up-close footage of the landing to send back to the states. As the initial invasion continued, he soon found it hard to get usable footage through the large smoke screen and trudged inland through the thick mud on the beachhead. Further into the island, however, the Allies experienced the worst of the fighting: Japanese troops had dug into the rugged jungle terrain of the island, putting up harsh resistance to advancing infantry. For the next few weeks, Chernoy followed alongside various units on the frontline, pushing to capture oil fields within the island while slowly whittling the Japanese forces. He put himself right in the middle of the action, filming close encounters with the enemy right next to Australian riflemen. When the film was sent back to New York, it was met with incredible praise. For his actions during the invasion Chernoy was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster for his Air Medal. The recommendation for this described his footage as follows:


Invasion photographed from long and close range and shows most sensational bombardments ever screened. Unquestionably superior combat coverage. Unit and cameramen have been recommended to Headquarters, Washington, for official commendation not only for general excellence of coverage under hazardous circumstances, but for outstanding teamwork of cameramen in coordinating pictorial record of invasion phases.


     Upon returning to the rest of the 6th CCU, T/Sgt Chernoy also found that he was highly praised for his camerawork in the Surgeon General film he took in Hollandia and Sydney. A report from the states described the film as “an outstanding job of camerawork and coverage. Photography [was] practically flawless…of highest value both for educational purposes and popular consumption.” The 6th CCU soon found itself with fewer and fewer projects to film, and made the decision to shoot exclusively in color in July of 1945. This was considerably more difficult to produce than black and white, and created a large drop in the output of the unit. However, Chernoy wasn’t concerned about this for very long. After a short period of downtime, he completed his tour of duty and was sent home at the end of July.

     After a few months in the states, Chernoy was officially discharged on October 5, 1945. The first thing he did upon getting out was marry his fiancée, Sally, just five days later. In 1947 the two opened up a local lamp store, Sally’s Lamps and Shades, in Santa Monica. The lamps became quite popular and business thrived in the following years, selling to every single state by the mid-50s. They continued to run the business until they both retired in 1990, when they enjoyed traveling and spending time with friends. Chernoy lived peacefully with his wife, donating regularly to local charities and volunteering throughout his community, until his eventual passing in 2017 at the age of 97.

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