Lee Embree, first photographer to fly into 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, dies in Port Angeles
Lee Embree, his trusted Speed Graphic camera at his side, talks about photographing the attack on Pearl Harbor from the air in this photo taken in 2003. Embree died Thursday. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
By Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News
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Embree, 92, was best known for the photographs he took from an Army Air Corps bomber as Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Enshrined late last year in the Museum of Flight at Seattle's Boeing Field, the photos — plus Embree's heavy Speed Graphic camera, his dog tags and goggles — are icons of their own, the first air-to-air pictures of America's Pacific war.
The stories of his exploits on the Day of Infamy fill the files of Peninsula Daily News.
The files also reveal Embree's other love — the proposed Timber Town history park west of the Elwha River on U.S. Highway 101
Its main building will be named for Embree when the museum and theme park becomes a reality, said Bob Harbick, president of Timber Town and Heritage Center.
But it is his tale of Pearl Harbor that will endure — how he photographed the attack even as grinning Japanese pilots shot at his B-17E — that became legend.
Left in peace, landed in war
Born and raised in Iowa, Embree had joined the Army Air Corps in 1936.
In 1941, as a staff sergeant, he was assigned to one of the four-engine Flying Fortresses at Hamilton Field, Calif., that was on its way to the Philippines with a refueling stop at Hickam Field near Honolulu.
"It was peacetime when we left San Francisco," he said in 2003.
"I had my own camera with me. It was supposed to be a permanent transfer from Albuquerque, N.M., to the Philippines."
The 12 planes of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron arrived over Pearl Harbor 30 minutes after the attack began.
Had the group not conducted a navigation check after leaving California, it would have met the first wave of Japanese aircraft.
"Many people have asked me why I didn't take more photos from the air," Embree told the PDN in 2001.
"I can only answer that I was so flabbergasted at what I saw that I forgot about the camera that was in my hand."
Smiling for the camera
The 26-year-old Embree managed, though, to capture images of the USS Arizona billowing smoke and Japanese planes flying past his bomber.
"They passed us so close on the left, I could see the pilots' faces," he said.
"They were grinning from ear to ear."
The B-17s carried no ammunition for its machine guns in order to lighten their loads and carry extra fuel on the long flight.
"We were just very lucky," Embree said just before Pearl Harbor Day 2003.
"The plane was hit several times, but we weren't."
The bombers also took friendly fire from the ground, where gunners mistook the red disc in the middle of the Air Corps insignia for the "meatball" rising sun insignia of the Japanese.
Before the squadron took off, Embree had switched places with a flight surgeon on another B-17 so Embree could connect his camera to that plane's 24-volt electrical system.
A bullet hit incendiary flares in the plane that would have been Embree's, causing an explosion that killed the other man.
Runways were spared
"I guess you know how that makes me feel," Embree said.
"What do you say? Somebody was looking out for me. I feel very badly about it, but we just changed places."
On its third circle over Pearl Harbor, Embree's plane was out of fuel and forced to land — still in the midst of the attack.
The Japanese had destroyed Hickam Field's airplanes and hangars but took care not to destroy the airfield so they could use it later, Embree said.
"We knew something was bad, but when we finally landed at Hickam Field, that was the first time we knew what was going on."
As Japanese planes soared above for about another hour, Embree and others in the crew threw everything combustible out of their aircraft and fled to a jungle bordering Hickam Field.
A tarp, cold coffee and sandwiches got them through the rainy night.
The next day, Embree began searching for a place to develop his film.
A camera shop developed the 4-by-5-inch negatives but refused to return them because they were being sent to Washington, D.C., for review at the order of the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox.
"The next time I saw one of my photos, it was on the front cover of an Australian magazine," he said.
Embree said he received years later a brown envelope covered in Army postmarks that traced U.S. forces across the Pacific.
Inside were his negatives.
"I was so happy to see the negatives," he said. "They had been trying to catch up to me."
Some of his photographs appeared in Life, Time and other magazines, and copies of the pictures are kept in the National Archives.
Embree remained an aerial photographer at Pearl Harbor until February 1942, then he was stationed for nine months in the Fiji Islands.
He became a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps and went on to serve in New Zealand, New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and the Philippines, where he visited the Santo Thomas University prison in Manila soon after it was liberated by U.S. forces.
Movie was hard to watch
Embree spent 10 years on active duty and entered the Air Force Reserve in 1945.
He retired from the reserve in 1957 as a major and worked and lived in several Southern California towns before moving to Port Angeles in 1988.
Embree continued as a professional photographer after he left the military.
He took aerial photographs as late as 2003, when he snapped groundbreaking ceremonies for the Hood Canal Bridge graving yard and preparations for Port Angeles' Fourth of July celebration.
When the war-epic/love-triangle movie Pearl Harbor was released in 2001, Embree said seeing the attack recreated on the screen was difficult.
"It's hard to swallow," he said. "It brings back so many memories."
A few months later, when terrorists attacked New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Embree's mind flashed back to Dec. 7, 1941.
"To those people life doesn't mean anything," he said of the 9/11 attacks.
Story never grew old
Embree had married Elizabeth Gene "Betty" Lain on Feb. 22, 1941, and the couple endowed a Rotary Junior Livestock Scholarship at the Clallam County Fair.
She died in 1998.
Embree married Violet Tim "Vi" McRoberts in 2001.
With his historical notoriety, Embree was interviewed for a Discovery Channel documentary on Pearl Harbor in 2003.
Last year he shared his stories on the KCTS-TV series "Stories of the Northwest" that accompanied the Public Broadcasting System documentary, The War.
He also spoke at several venues, including the Museum of Flight and the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 7.
Embree outlived the Juan de Fuca Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which was formed 50 years after the attack but disbanded because of dwindling numbers in 2004.
Members of Chapter 310 of the Korean War Veterans Association presented Embree with a medal of appreciation of his Air Corps service and work on Timber Town on Wednesday.
He was a member of the Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, Elks and Masons.
Funeral services will begin at 11 a.m. Feb. 2 in Redeeming Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Masonic services will be conducted at graveside in Mount Angeles Memorial Park at 1:30 p.m. the same day.
Survivors include Embree's wife, Violet; two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all of California; three step-children and five step-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Drennan-Ford Funeral Home
Reporter Jim Casey can be reached at 360-417-3538 or at email@example.com.
Last modified: January 24. 2008 9:00PM