A Japanese kamikaze is shown just before colliding with the USS Missouri during the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean on April 11, 1945. Recent findings suggest the historic photo was taken by Baker 2nd Class Harold "Buster" Campbell, one of the ship's cooks.
Cook may have clicked
A family collection puts the
origins of the famous photo in doubt
When the air alert sounded aboard the USS Missouri that day in 1945 off Okinawa, one of the battleship's cooks raced to a bridge high above the action on deck armed not with a rifle, but a 161 mm camera.
From his perch some 70 feet above the main deck, Baker 2nd Class Harold "Buster" Campbell captured the fierce air battle, snapping away as a single Japanese kamikaze pilot penetrated the Mighty Mo's formidable anti-aircraft fire.
"He kept coming through the greatest ack-ack I've ever seen," reads Campbell's journal entry of that day, April 11, 1945. "He then came direct at the ship and hit us on the starboard quarter on the main deck, burst into flames. I was shaking but felt relieved after he hit."
The entry continues: "I took a beautiful shot of him as he hit."
But did he?
The image of the A6M Zero kamikaze taken at the moment of impact has become one of the most recognized photos from the Battle of Okinawa and is featured prominently in books, souvenirs and aboard the decommissioned Missouri, now anchored off Ford Island as a museum and memorial.
The photo is credited to the late Len Schmidt, one of the Missouri's official photographers who also shot the April 11 battle and the kamikaze's collision.
But Navy historians say photos weren't credited to individual photographers until 1973. Schmidt has been given credit since then, based on his body of work and firsthand account of the attack, said Mike Weidenbach, curator for the USS Missouri Memorial Association.
It wasn't until last year, when Campbell's son saw the photograph in a souvenir book his daughter brought back from a Hawaii vacation, that Missouri historians were alerted to the possible discrepancy.
Dan Campbell, a 52-year-old government worker from Baltimore, contacted Weidenbach about his father's story. If the curator wanted more proof, the son had his late father's entire collection of Missouri memorabilia -- a small suitcase full -- that he wanted to donate.
The collection included his father's handwritten journal, a letter opener made from the kamikaze debris and more than 200 pictures. Dan Campbell scanned some of the photos and sent them to Weidenbach on a CD.
Now, with the complete collection in hand, Weidenbach has seen enough to believe the son's claim is credible.
"We saw there was photographs of the kamikaze attack that we had never seen before," Weidenbach said.
Using the photos, Missouri historians matched features and sight lines to pinpoint the exact spot from where the photo was taken: a bridge eight levels above the main deck.
"We went back to Lennie Schmidt's description of where he was," Weidenbach said. "He tells it himself that he's below that level. He couldn't have taken this picture from the perspective he says he was at.
"All the pieces just started to fall in place."
Weidenbach, who's still cataloging and preserving the collection, said the next step is to convince the Naval Historical Center of who deserves the credit.
Officials at the Washington-based center said Friday they were unaware of the Campbell collection and the possibility that the photo was miscredited.
Spokesman Jack Green, who also was the center's photo curator for six years, said the claim sounds like something that would be "very, very difficult to validate."
If the center receives more information and documentation, its photographic section could study the matter and issue an opinion on who should get credit, Green said.
"But that cannot be a definitive thing," he said. "I'm not saying the fellow is wrong, but this would be something that would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove."
Schmidt died a few years ago. Pat Ferrigno, another of the ship's official photographers who raced to the bridge with Campbell during the April 11 battle, died sometime in the 1970s, Weidenbach said.
Buster Campbell died in 1966 at age 43, but not before sharing his wealth of war stories with his son.
Dan Campbell said his father, who convinced a friend in the photo shop to let him shoot pictures as sort of a hobby, was an unassuming man more concerned with the finished product than the credit.
Buster Campbell reveals that trait in a May 17, 1945, journal entry about a conversation with Ferrigno.
"He said the 'ex' (executive officer) told him the picture of the plane hitting the ship was said to be the greatest picture so far of any action on a ship to be taken in this war," Campbell wrote. "And to think I took it. ... Of course, no one knows I took the picture except some of my friends as I told Pat to take the credit. I don't care much."
Regardless of who is credited, Campbell's collection already has proved invaluable to historian Weidenbach.
Many of the prints have some kind of notation marking the date, subject matter and other details from life aboard Mighty Mo and its various ports of call around the world.
Aside from photos, there are souvenir programs from various shipboard events, including the Japanese surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay that formally ended World War II.
Campbell also kept copies of the ship's newspaper, letters home to his wife, handmade drawings, yearbooks with names and addresses of dozens of shipmates, even a never-submitted movie script penned by a fellow sailor: "Kamikaze! Weapon of Despair."
"It's a lot of intricate little treasures that all together reveal somebody," Weidenbach said. "We often get bits and pieces of the history, like someone will send us a photograph, they don't know anything about it but they think we might want it.
"This collection comes with the whole story."
For Dan Campbell, his visit to the Missouri last month to donate the collection gave him a chance to connect his father's story.
Weidenbach even arranged a special tour, to let the son stand in the exact spot where his father described taking the kamikaze photo.
That was all the proof Campbell needed.
"I've looked at the photographs all my life and kind of had the place memorized," he said. "As soon as we hit the Level 8 bridge, it was like everything came into focus.
"There was no doubt that's where the picture was taken."
Weidenbach said he hopes to eventually make the entire collection available to the public in some form.
"Before he died, he used to talk quite a lot about his time on the Missouri and what it was like to photograph a kamikaze," Campbell said. "I'd like to see him credited with what he did on the Missouri."