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Our War: Photographers paved the way for U.S. strikes

Bill DeMestri at work processing photos during the war.
Bill DeMestri at work processing photos during the war.

BELLEVILLE --- Sgt. Bill DeMestri wasn't cold and hungry at Bastogne, didn't get shot down over Germany and wasn't blown off his ship by a kamikaze.

"You need to talk to the guys in the thick of it," said DeMestri, of Belleville, when asked if he would share his memories as part of the "Our War" series.

But DeMestri's service was unusual because he had a camera and access to thousands of war photos during his service in 1944 and 1945.

DeMestri illegally shipped home a large collection of photos with the help of his beer-drinking buddy --- a major who OK'd the packages as long as Bill made him a set of prints. He snapped some of the photos, but many were taken by other photographers and preserved by DeMestri.

"I'm lucky I didn't get caught or they would have sent me to Leavenworth. I guess they still could," said DeMestri, who is 86.

We checked. They can't.

DeMestri is chief photographer emeritus for the News-Democrat. He started March 1, 1941 at the Belleville Daily Advocate, which later merged with the News-Democrat. During World War II his predecessor at the Advocate was drafted, got a six-month deferment to train DeMestri and then DeMestri was drafted and also got a six-month deferment to train his replacement.

The U.S. Army Air Corps put DeMestri's photo skills to work, sending him to Denver for training. He arrived to find out his old boss from the Advocate was his photo instructor.

DeMestri became part of the Eighth Air Force's 325th Photographic Wing Reconnaissance Base Laboratory at High Wycombe, 30 miles northwest of London, providing aerial photos that led bombers to their targets and showed the way for troops invading Europe. They were headquartered in an English girls' boarding school called the Wycombe Abbey, all under the command of FDR's son, Brig. Gen. Elliott Roosevelt.

When DeMestri first arrived in 1944, there were still threats of a German invasion of England, and he had guard duty. He was out one night with two other guys when they heard a noise over the low idle of their Jeep. They went to investigate and heard the noise again.

"We had our carbines out and ready. Those carbines would go right through you," DeMestri said. "It was a cow."

DeMestri was then picked as one of a handful of men trained by the Polaroid Corp. to produce vectographs --- 3-D aerial images. The technology was key to Gen. George S. Patton leading the Third Army on its rapid advance across France and Germany.

"We worked 24 hours a day --- 12-hour shifts for months straight --- to process those mosaics," DeMestri said. "We'd bring them right upstairs to the photo intelligence guys. Those guys were amazing. They'd look at them and could tell Patton exactly where his tanks could go, where the ditches were, whether there was a ravine in the way. They could even tell how deep that ravine was and whether he could get a tank across it. That's why he could move so fast. We were giving him the information he needed."

DeMestri trained other members of his unit and of the Women's Air Corps to process and print 38,447 vectographs, working around the clock trying to stay ahead of Patton's tanks.

The images were taken by a camera mounted in a P-38 plane. The pilot triggered the camera and it automatically made images from slightly different angles that, when reassembled, formed a 3-D image.The quality and quantity of photo intelligence made bombing more precise and allowed the allies to rapidly advance. DeMestri's unit was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service to the war effort.

While the hazards were limited, they were there. DeMestri said German "buzz bombs" --- V-1 rockets --- would fly over nightly. He said he'd be in his bunk, hear them and hug himself until the explosion.

One exploded near him in London, throwing glass that left him with a slash across the back of his neck. He said the Germans knew the importance of the photo reconnaissance base, code named "Pinetree," and were programming the V-1s for them. The unit's members would listen to the Nazi radio broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw and he'd mention them.

"He'd say, `Hello to you boys at Pinetree. We know where you are and we're coming for you,'" DeMestri said.

Despite the occasionally chilling broadcast, DeMestri said they liked to laugh at Lord Haw-Haw's ridiculous claims.

The other hazard during DeMestri's service came from taking aerial photos and one particular flight that a buddy talked him into.

On his first day off in months, he found himself on a C-47, which was a DC-3 airplane converted to haul gasoline. His friend logged him in as an engineer, "whatever that meant."

The tanker bounced across an old corn field to land behind enemy lines near Herzfeld, Germany. Patton's tanks rolled up to fill up, then headed back to the offensive.

"It was my day off, so I was all cleaned up and wearing my Eisenhower jacket. These guys came up all thin with their stubble beards. I felt awfully guilty, standing there well fed," DeMestri said.

DeMestri said he was never so thankful to be back in the air.

Bill's photo collection was sent home to his sister, one package at a time.

The atmosphere at the High Wycombe base was pretty loose, without a lot of saluting. Sgt. DeMestri was drinking buddies with the major who signed off on allowing the packages to be mailed home.

He sweated out the first mailing until his sister Mimi, who wrote several times a week, wrote that she had received it.

DeMestri spent about 18 months at High Wycombe, then was transferred to France and finally to Germany.

DeMestri looked at a yellowed, cracked edition of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper. The headline reads: "Germany Quits."

"I'll never forget that day," he said quietly. "We were in the lab, still working on the mosaics when they quit. We were still working non-stop when the war finally ended."

After the war in Europe was over, DeMestri still had time to serve and was sent to Erlangen, Germany, staying in former officers' quarters --- German officers' quarters. Germans were hired to cook and clean, but the relationship was very uneasy.

"If we went into town, we had to go in groups of four," he said. "We had guys stabbed on the street cars. We lost guys after the war over there because we were Air Force and they were mad as hell. Well, you just look at the photos and you can see why."

He and his buddies visited cities throughout Europe, including Paris, Nice, Nuremberg and Rome. Had he applied for that Purple Heart he would have had enough points to come home sooner, but he would have missed seeing those European cities.

DeMestri was in a group of 20 sergeants mustering out after the war. They were all offered a $1,000 bonus and guarantees of making at least technical sergeant if they re-enlisted --- not one of them took the offer.

It was time to go home.