Alexandria Treasures – Honor, Courage, Commitment


From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our countrys battles
In the air, on land, and sea….

For 233 years, the Marines have never flinched when going into battle on air, land or sea because they are always well briefed, well trained and well armed. That is unless you happen to be a Marine like Alexandrias Norm Hatch, who stood behind a movie camera during World War II, shooting the fiercest battle action for news reels, training or history. In such instances, Hatch planned that Marines photographed in combat footage only have a pistol to defend themselves and his very first effort at recording a battle during World War II resulted in the Marine Corps winning an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Short Subject in 1944. 

Hatch was one of the first two Marine movie film cameramen in the second Marine Division, and the rules were evolving as they began their work. By the end of the war, there were 600 Marines involved in all aspects of film production, still photography and motion picture coverage of battles.

The Battle of Tarawa, which led to Hatchs film and the Academy Award win, was his first Marine filming assignment. Hatch was in the first wave of troops that landed on the small island of Tarawa in the Pacific on November 20, 1943. The 4,836 Japanese knew of their presence almost immediately since the island is less than one-third the size of New Yorks Central Park. 

Everything in battle can come down to luck even if you are well prepared, said Hatch from his home in Del Ray. I only had a pistol because I couldnt fire a rifle and shoot a motion picture film. Once the first wave of Marines landed, we were pinned down.  The Japanese were firing intensely on the next wave of landing crafts that were hitting the reef at Tarawa. The Japanese artillery was so heavy that no more allied landing craft could come ashore and the ones stuck on the reef were demolished. I do not remember being afraid because I had a rush of adrenalin and I was focused on filming the action.

The fighting for the strategic island of Tarawa waged for three days as the Japanese bombarded the allies from their 500 pillboxes. The island was so well fortified that the Japanese commander of the island, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, claimed, It would take one million men one hundred years to conquer Tarawa.  The battle was bloody and the color movie film reflects how gruesome the fighting was on Tarawa. Finally, the United States successfully took the island, and Hatch moved on to film other battles.

His footage from the Battle of Tarawa was sent back to Hollywood immediately along with film from other Marine cameramen and made into a documentary, which was directed by Captain Louis Hayward.   Their film showed the Marines from the time they were informed of the orders to invade Tarawa to the time the United States flag is hoisted to confirm victory.  It was the first time that the general public saw actual film of the horrific fighting in World War II in the Pacific.

By mid-December 1943, the movie was edited by Warner Brothers, released by Universal Studios, and shown in all 16,000 movie theaters in the United States.  The nationwide-release of the film to commercial theaters in 1943 made the documentary eligible for consideration for the 1944 Academy Awards. Hatch was preparing to film more battles in the Pacific when the Academy Award was presented.

When Hatch joined the second Marine Division and first began to plan the filming of battles for the Marines, there were exactly two movie cameramen, Hatch and John Ercole. We trained eight still photographers to shoot movies. We bought nearly every 16mm movie camera for sale in Hollywood and all the color film we could find, said Hatch. Then we shipped out from San Diego to New Zealand, and there we purchased all of the black and white movie film we could find to accomplish training.  He continues, We were a bunch of kids, but we taught the untrained photographers as much as we could in the time we had before the orders came for the Marines to take Tarawa. It was exciting to think that we were going to be the first to document an actual battle.

The first Academy Award for any film relating to World War II was won by one of Hollywoods great directors, John Ford. Ford took actual footage from the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and spliced it together with film created on a movie set.  He had a first-rate professional movie-making team, and in 1943 he even won another Academy Award for his coverage of the Battle of Midway. We used to joke that our little amateur Marine Corps film crew was going to best Fords, says Hatch.

It seems hard to believe that a boy from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who grew up with very little during the Depression, could end up getting professional film training at the March of Time in New York (a series of newsreels produced by Time Magazine on the Depression) and helping the Marine Corps win an Academy Award for his work two years later. Hatch went on to document the fierce fighting on Iwo Jima and the occupation of Japan in Nagasaki. 

His role in helping the Marine Corps win the Academy Award was a team effort, but Hatch won a number of military awards in his own right. He won the Navy Commendation Award for his coverage of the Battle of Tarawa, and the Bronze Star for his photographic efforts on Iwo Jima. Hatch also won the National Headlines award for Photography in the Pacific and the Secretary of Defenses Meritorious Civilian Service Medal.

After the war, he continued working on films as a Marine and when his commission was up, Hatch went to work for Bell and Howell Films in Chicago.  However, he missed the Marines and the East Coast, and so he took a civilian job at the Department of Defense and moved back to the Washington, D.C. area. This time, he and his wife Lois, whom he had married in 1942 before he headed to the Pacific, settled down to raise their family.

The Hatches have two grown children who also live in Alexandria.  Hatchs son, Tom, works at the Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, and his daughter, Colby, works in Social Services for the City of Alexandra.

Norm Hatch is not immersed in film or still photography these days although he does have an office on Mount Vernon Avenue called Pictorial Press International.  He retired from the Department Of Defense after a 23-year stint in the Public Affairs office. Hatch went on to say that he is not taking any photos himself these days, but he has good photographers working for him. While maintaining that he no longer focuses on World War II, he has vivid memories. At the end of the day, while he is proud of the Academy Award that was won with his battle footage, Hatch is most pleased knowing that perhaps he helped save the lives of his fellow Marines – lives that were perhaps saved as a result of, as Hatch said, What they learned through virtually witnessing real battles.