TUSCALOOSA (AP) — Ray Farabee says a camera may have saved his life during World War II.
Farabee wasn't sent into battle, but his photography skills earned him a front row seat to some of the seminal moments in the Pacific theater of operations during the war and after it ended. Along the way, he documented the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, got to know the generals who led the U.S. war effort, and witnessed the signing of the treaty that ended the conflict.
Still, the Tuscaloosa resident remains modest about his skills.
"I'm not a photographer," said the 92-year-old Farabee during a recent interview at his home in Tuscaloosa. "I never have been a photographer." Farabee's training and postwar career was in engineering.
Farabee grew up on 12 acres of land in Tuscaloosa near where McFarland Boulevard now intersects the interstate. That land was out in the country when he was a child growing up in the 1930s.
Farabee's father was a professor and department head for metallurgical sciences at the University of Alabama. He taught his son the photographic and metallurgical skills that may well have kept him from being in combat as an infantryman.
The story of how a boy growing up in Tuscaloosa found himself, among other places, on the deck of the USS Missouri photographing the official surrender of Japan at the end of World War II is a story filled with twists and turns.
The journey that most certainly turned him into a photographer began in the UA chemistry labs. Farabee was a student at Verner School, which at that time was located near the cemetery behind Bryant-Denny Stadium. He would walk over after class and spend time with his father, whose offices were in the chemical building.
"I would (hang out) around the laboratories and fool around there, and one of the things he taught me was metallography," Farabee said. " We would take samples of metal, polish them up to a high degree, and put them under a microscope. Sometimes we would take pictures of the samples."
Seeing that photography interested his son, the elder Farabee bought him an inexpensive camera. That act changed his son's life. Farabee took the camera, which he said likely didn't cost more than a quarter, and taught himself how to shoot photos and do the darkroom work. When he was later drafted into the Army, he noted his photographic experience in his Army paperwork.
Farabee was trained as an infantryman and sent to the South Pacific with the 32nd Infantry Division for combat duty. Somewhere in the mid-Pacific aboard the troop ship USS General W.A. Mann, his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was changed from infantryman to combat photographer. Farabee believes that change probably saved his life.
"It's entirely possible, I would say almost probable, that I wouldn't be here today had I not been transferred to photographic duty," he said, noting that much of his division fought not only on Luzon in the Philippines but also at Okinawa, where casualties were high.
Farabee was issued a 4-by-5-inch Speed Graphic Camera, the standard camera of the day, and sent into action, documenting the fighting on Luzon in the northern mountains of the main Philippine island. He vividly remembers the action during the Battle of the Villa Verde Trail.
"I got a lot of combat photographic experience there. I became a real photographer at that particular point," Farabee said.
Farabee said the soldiers sensed the war was winding down in August of 1945, and the dropping of the two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally brought the island nation to its knees. Farebee's story took a new twist that he owes to his days in his father's metallurgy labs and to his prewar college experience in engineering at Purdue University, where he had gone to pursue his degree.
"On Aug. 17, 1945, I was selected to go into Nagasaki and Hiroshima with the instrumentation team because of my technical background and my photographic experience," Farabee said. "I did the first photographic documentation in those two places."
Farabee showed a photograph of the Mitsubishi Torpedo Plant in Nagasaki and talked about how the metal framework of the building melted and sagged into unnatural shapes from the heat of the atomic bomb blast and the ensuing fires that consumed everything that could burn. From his work on his high school yearbook staff and his summer job in the labs at Olan Mills' Tuscaloosa printing plant, the man who never claimed to be a photographer was bearing witness with his camera to the devastation caused by the most powerful weapon ever deployed by man.
The journey did not stop at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. On Sept. 2, 1945, Farabee stood on the deck of the USS Missouri photographing the signing of the official surrender documents that ended the most deadly and destructive war in the history of the world. Farabee says he didn't really think about that as he took pictures of Gen. Douglas McArthur signing the documents and of the Japanese delegation standing with the big guns of the "Mighty Mo" behind them.
"You know, I was around a lot of history being made, but I didn't realize it," he said. "I was a young punk not even dry behind the ears. The training I had was for warfare, for killing, and I guess it was just another day at the time. I really didn't stop to think, 'Boy, I am really in the middle of history being made.'"
Farabee's documentation of historic events was not yet done. He retains in his files a poignant moment when McArthur was reunited with Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, whom he had left behind in the Philippines when he had been forced to evacuate. Wainwright had been forced to surrender and was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until the war ended.
After the war, Farabee was sent to document the nuclear weapons test in the Eniwetok Atoll. Anyone who has viewed pictures of the nuclear weapons testing has likely seen the photos Farabee shot showing the enormous mushroom clouds rising over ships that were used as test subjects.
Later, he documented the war crimes trials in Japan. His photos show the men on the bus being taken to trial and another image of the men standing accused in the makeshift courtroom that had been set up in the University of Tokyo.
Farabee walked the hallowed grounds inside Emperor Hirohito's Imperial Palace enclosure, a place few outsiders were permitted to venture. He was frequently inside McArthur's headquarters in the the Dai-ichi building, which was across the street from the Imperial Palace.
"McArthur was a genius, but he was kind of stuck on himself, too. He was not unfriendly. He would know your name. He knew my name, but there was no small talk with anyone," Farabee said.
To illustrate McArthur's ego, Farabee told of accompanying him to the airport to greet Gen. Dwight Eisenhower who, before the war, had served under McArthur, but after the war became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him McArthur's boss.
"McArthur sent of couple of aides to greet Gen. Eisenhower as he got off the plane. They conducted him to the staff car with McArthur in it. McArthur didn't get out of the car. The aides opened the door and Eisenhower crawled inside," said Farabee, remembering the event with a smile.
At that point, Farabee shot a photo of the two generals who were perhaps the two most accomplished military commanders in U.S. history. McArthur is dour while Eisenhower displays a huge smile.
Farabee said he had a great deal of contact with Eisenhower during his stay in the Far East as he toured the command. Farabee was selected to accompany Eisenhower on what turned into a two-week tour that included stops in China, Burma, India, Australia and Russia.
Farabee does not have copies of all the photographs he took during the war, just a select few he has preserved over the years. He does have some photographs of famous people from the war, including an image of Emperor Hirohito and another of the infamous Tokyo Rose, a Japanese-American woman who had broadcast propaganda for Japan throughout the war.
Then there is the most poignant image in his collection, showing a little Japanese boy who appears to be about 2 years old, sitting on a street somewhere in Japan, crying.
Farabee ended his military career having served for 12 and a half years in both World War II and later in the United States during the Korean War in an ordnance command. After the war he worked in the metal industry for U.S. Steel and then consulted for other steelmakers, where he helped set up production lines. Eventually, Farabee started his own company, Warrior Tool and Engineering, capitalizing on his experience with engineering and ordnance.
When he was drafted for duty in World War II, he entered as a private. By the time his tour of duty had ended, he had risen to the rank of staff sergeant. He served as a lieutenant during the Korean War in a stateside ordnance command.
After the war, in 1956, Farabee married his wife, Elaine, whom he met in Louisiana. Farabee had one child from a previous marriage, and he and Elaine have three children together. They also have five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. The Farabees moved from Louisiana back to Tuscaloosa in 1983.