Former Marine credits camera with saving his life
By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS Correspondent
Cloverdale’s Robert “Bob” Skelton, the first U.S. Marine Combat Photographer to ever receive a Purple Heart for wounds received in action, credits photography and one very special camera with saving his life during World War II.
The Iowa native studied photography in high school and, in the late 30’s, worked as a projectionist at the local theater, making $15 a week.
For several years, he was also a volunteer firefighter, living at the fire house on duty nights and receiving $1 an hour for any fire to which he responded.
He went to the local junior college for a few months, but really wanted to study at the Naval School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida. “I didn’t like the Navy’s hats very much, though. When I found out I could join the Marine Corps and still go there, that’s what I decided to do.”
He was still at Boot Camp in San Diego when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Twenty-nine days later, instead of heading for photography school in Florida, Skelton found himself on a ship headed to American Samoa in the South Pacific.
He had only been a “regular Marine” for a couple of months when a Marine Corps film crew from Quantico VA arrived. They happened to have one particular camera with them – a 35mm battery-operated Akley – that none of them knew how to operate.
Luckily for him, Skelton did, and this knowledge got him transferred to their unit where he served on the staff of Major General Charles F.B. Price.
Skelton, who turns 91 on December 23, credits this camera with saving his life because it kept him from going to Guadalcanal. He only knows of about five members of his original Platoon who survived the war.
Due to the lack of aircraft carriers, part of his new assignment involved surveying the Ellice Islands to determine their suitability for building air strips. All the islands looked alike, so Skelton devised a photographic numbering system to tell them apart. The natives were paid $1 for each coconut tree they cut down.
The crew was transported to each island by boat and dropped off for a week of study. One of the islands had a total population of fewer than 60 people. There was no fresh water, so they drank coconut milk and accepted the hospitality of the Islanders who fed them and gave them shelter.
Another project was to determine how well a ship’s cargo had been loaded at the starting port by photographing the cargo area of arriving ships.
He was also there in 1942 when Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker was rescued after spending twenty four days adrift at sea.
Skelton was in a foxhole taking pictures when the bombing started in Nanumea, Ellice Islands. The shrapnel lodged in his spine between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. He was treated at a mobile hospital, where he was presented with the Purple Heart, before being put on a hospital ship back to the states.
He spent the next six months in Mare Island Naval Hospital. In February 1944, he was given a medical discharge and mustered out with only $150.
Taking a Greyhound Bus to San Francisco, he rented an 8’ x 10’ room with a bathroom down the hall for $15 per month. With no disability pay, and down to his last couple hundred dollars, Skelton knew he had to find a job.
He headed over to the Chronicle Building to meet with Harold Turnblad, head of the Associated Press’ San Francisco and Pacific Regional office.
Turnblad took a liking to him and referred him to the Gabriel Moulin Studios where he landed a position making prints in the basement for $1.10 an hour. It wasn’t long before Skelton had $150 in the bank and could eat out regularly at Fosters Cafeteria where hamburgers were only fifteen cents – twenty cents if they included cheese.
He went on to become a well-respected commercial photographer, with high profile clients like Gumps. He used his GI Bill to take flying lessons since a number of his clients wanted him to go on location shoots.
He later became a photographer for the Redwood Empire Association, with one of his assignments being advance publicity for the Cloverdale Citrus Fair in 1947.
In 1960, he built the Skelton Photography Building which, to his knowledge is the only building ever built by a photographer in San Francisco. It has since been torn down and the site will soon be home to the new Transbay Transit Center, currently under construction.
Skelton was President of the Northern California Photographer’s Association when he brought renowned photographer Ansel Adams into the group. One night, when Adams was scheduled to be the group’s guest speaker, Skelton was afraid he might not make it so he personally picked him up at his residence and brought him to the meeting.
Before building their home in Cloverdale about 12 years ago, Skelton and his wife Judy lived in Sonoma, where he was named Volunteer of the Year for the California State Parks System for a movie he produced about General Vallejo. He was also given a distinguished service citation by The Sonoma League for Historic Preservation.
Currently, he serves on the Cloverdale Historical Society Board, a position he’s held for more than 10 years.
Asked to sum up his career, Skelton simply says, “I had a lot of fun and looked forward every day to going to work.”