Doc at San Severo, Italy 1943-1944

by Benedetta Campanile

August 7, 2012

I’m a current PhD student in History of Science at the University of Bari, Italy. I have studied the life of H. Edgerton for my thesis Vannevar Bush and the birth of the Society of Information and seminar on Science and Photography and I have found a very interesting story I would love to share about Doc’s trip in Puglia, my region, and his work for the liberation of Italy.

Although I have not had the pleasure to meet H. Edgerton in person, through my studies, I have discovered how much his life experience had actually brought him close to me and my own region in Italy. So close, he contributed to unveiling the beauty of my culture and its ancient origins!

San Severo is a lively small southern Italian town located in the so called Tavoliere delle Puglie, (namely Table of Apulia) an extensive plain area where fields of wheat, olive trees and vineyards abound. It is also an area rich in traditions and history. Doc traveled to San Severo during World War II to put his innovative technology at the service of the allied forces and while doing so he also ended up shedding precious light on local archeological finds related to the origins of this little town.

Between April 2nd 1944 and March 3rd 1945 the allies chose San Severo as place of settlement for their troops, namely the Fifteenth Air Force and the Royal Air Force (RAF). The military units occupied several of the town’s public and private buildings as well as land and farm dwellings in the surroundings. The P-51B planes of the 31st Fighter Brigade used this area as strategic departure base bringing aerial support to the military operations in the whole of the Mediterranean territory. Flight patrolling for reconnaissance was one of their main tasks. A very valuable one as a matter of fact, often underestimated, usually performed at day or night using sophisticated photographic equipment. Photography had already played a relevant role in the First World War in support to evaluation and preparation of bomb attacks.

During the Second World War the photos sent to San Severo from the whole Mediterranean area proved even more crucial for the positive close of military operations thanks to the introduction of a new photographic system created by a young scientist of the MIT, Harold Edgerton. The system, patented by Edgerton in 1939 following the request of Major George Goddard, was made of a Flash lamp equipped with a large reflector. The Flash was synchronized with a camera for aerial photos and activated through a simple switch located in the pilot cabin. A condenser bank installed in the plane cargo brought the additional electrical power needed, thus providing autonomy for a higher number of good quality photos and ensuring safer flights above the fire line of anti aircraft guns.

The images collected were then analyzed by the personnel under the command of Major Leon W. Gray and specifically by the 5th Photo Reconnaissance Group, including the 15th Photo Reconnaissanse Squadron, the 32nd Photo Recon Squadron and the 4th Photo Tech Squadron that arrived to San Severo in 1943 and operated there until 1944. The photo interpretation process engaged a group of archeologists from GB, also hired to read the aerial images collected. Among them John Bradford and Peter Williams-Hunt, assigned to the Army Information Service based at the Masseria Torre dei Giunchi. It was their reading that led to the unexpected archeological findings regarding the origins of San Severo.

While inspecting the aerial images of the territory taken with Doc’s Flash, Bradford and Williams-Hunt noticed an unusual continuity of human settlement traces around San Severo. According to legends San Severo had been founded by the Greek hero Diomedes and had thus very ancient origins. However, the images were actually hinting to the existence of human settlements dating back to the Daunian era (the Bronze Age) and extending all the way through the Middle Ages.

Bradford later received permission from the RAF to further survey the territory by air to continue his research. At the end of the war with the help of his wife Patience, he launched several fruitful archeological campaigns that proved his first intuitions about the settlements to be right. About the subject, several years later he wrote “For example, on the Foggia Plain in South Italy, a single vertical air photo can map a Neolithic kraal, a Roman estate, a derelict medieval drove-way for cattle, and a modern settler’s farm built by the State — all side by side.”

His global approach applied to the history of landscape led to the application of a new methodological formula overcoming the idea of chronological phase differentiation analysis that had dominated archeological studies until then. The data collected with the excavations enrich today the archeological Museum of San Severo that hosts an opulent exhibition of the continuity of human presence on the territory and explains the reasoning behind it.

During his stay in San Severo between 1943 and 1944, Harold Edgerton experienced a completely different environment from the one in which he was doing research in Boston. As Technical Manager for the installation of the Flash lamp Type D-3 on the B-24 planes Doc took pictures of San Severo’s historical town center, with its noble baroque style buildings and imposing bell towers. And its population, culture and traditions charmed him even further. He used his camera to capture the wonder of people encountering for the first time the extraordinary power of American technology. He caught the grins of young boys staring at the tanks with curiosity and admiration. He followed the elders engaged in religious ceremonies and photographed the procession that every year, despite the war, occurred for the Festa del Soccorso, the village festival dedicated to the Madonna del Soccorso and the Saints Severino, the Abbot and Severo, the Bishop, the town’s patrons.

Passing through military operations, archeology and regional Italian traditions, Doc’s innovative technology left an impression that clearly went past a simple photo print.

See more photos of Edgerton in San Severo.


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