formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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July 31, 2007 Charlie Grabien, part 3

Liberty Gazette
July 31, 2007

The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

“Wow, I’ve never seen those stories in print before,” Charlie Grabien told us last week, after the first of three installments on ‘aviation according to Grabien’. We are nothing short of honored to bring to the public eye the unselfishness of those who have served our country. And speaking of this local boy – here’s more…

Shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis began Charlie was stationed in New Orleans. Transferred from the Photo Lab into Special Services, he worked as part of the team responsible for managing sporting activities, the gym and weight room, theatre, and library. Service men were required to pass a test for push ups, pull ups, chin ups, sit ups, standing long jump, jump and reach, and Special Services conducted the testing and kept records. “I learned a lot of things working in that section. We built a golf course out of a swamp, and a clay court tennis court. We had a swimming pool, baseball field and football field.”

As part of Special Services, he also received training for motion picture projection and was given responsibility for running the theatre, and booking all the films. Having worked as a photographer, expanding his repertoire in these areas was a good fit. The movie, “Five Weeks in a Balloon” was filmed on an island controlled by the U.S. military where the incoming ships were checked in by Navy. A remote place “where the Mississippi River splits and goes around the island, maybe a mile long and quarter mile wide, the island had all kinds of trees on it,” Charlie explains. “In the movie, they were supposed to crash onto this island in the Pacific. I got to go down there and meet the actors, including Red Buttons. Funny thing was, I had actually caught a crash on film myself.”

Off an island near Korea back in 1952, standing in a doorway on the flight deck of a carrier, Charlie was taking shots of aircraft landing. A Corsair coming in for landing conked the arresting hook and broke it off. The plane was coming straight at Charlie. With his 35mm movie camera in his hand, he just stepped back, mesmerized, continuing to film. “The airplane hit right where I had been standing, it bounced off, and they got the pilot out,” he says, still in amazement today. It was a great shot, and who could blame him for wanting to keep the film? But the Navy sent it to headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, where it was analyzed and later put in archives. “That shot is in two different movies,” Charlie grins. From the archives, Charlie’s film work appears in “The Fighting Lady” and another movie, the title of which he couldn’t recall.

With such a wide variety of experience, life was anything but routine – which is good, because Charlie and his comrades at the Naval base in New Orleans were always ready for the unexpected.

“We used to have Marines manning the gate to our base, but suddenly one morning the Air Force was there.” That morning the family’s plans called for Charlie’s wife to take him to work and take the car, but as they approached the gate they learned all access was suddenly restricted to military personnel only. “They called from the back gate for a pick up to take me onto the base. I had no idea what was going on, but as we drove down the back road into base I saw Air Force guards walking with guard dogs – it seemed like they were everywhere.” Charlie started asking questions, but “all they’d say was it was something about the Cubans. Nobody really knew much,” except that once on base, no one could leave. Having become a staging area, all branches of the military were present. “The Navy and Air Force, and two detachments of Marines came in and set up where they were building the new runway where they had a bunch of C-54 Skymasters (the first plane used for low level parachuting) arrive and park,” he recalls.

Amid the sudden change came Charlie’s orders: although no longer working as a photographer, as the only qualified photographer on base at that time, Charlie was called upon for a photo mission. “They weren’t telling me anything. I didn’t know where we were going, but was told that when I got there I was to take pictures of anything that looked out of place. My instructions seemed very vague.”

Charlie climbed into the F-9 Cougar fighter jet and once airborne, the pilot explained the mission and what to photograph. It was the first time he’d ever seen that Navy pilot before. “We had no F-9 Cougars that were photographic planes – this one was different – so he had to have come in from somewhere else,” adding to the suspense and mystique.

The Air Force, Air National Guard, and Navy were making photo runs over Cuba, searching for evidence of suspected threats. “I made a run over Cuba lying in the nose of that plane. In addition to the automatic cameras, they wanted shots taken manually by a real person. There was a window straight down and one to the right and to the left where a camera smaller than their auto cams would work.” So Charlie squeezed down into the nose of the F-9, lay on his belly and snapped photos as they flew fast and low – 150 feet off the ground –straight across to the Naval Air Station at Guantanamo, across Cuba, and back to New Orleans. Charlie never saw that Navy pilot again, and after developing the film he didn’t see the photos again either.

About five days later the men were allowed to leave the base. “That’s when I learned more about what was happening. Until I was back in my own house I had no access to radio or TV. My wife knew more about what was going on than I did at first.”

The pictures he took became the property of the Navy and went to the archives, but some have since appeared on television history shows. “There was a missile on the track you could clearly see in one of the photos.” As it turned out, one of the photos showed two missiles on a ramp on the ground. After seeing that picture a few times on history shows, Charlie said, “I can’t say for sure because my name’s not on it, but it sure looks like what I snapped a photo of from the belly of that airplane. You can see two missiles there, one lying down and one standing upright.”

Seeing those photos years later brings back memories of the mood of that time. “We were on full alert, ready for anything. I had my family packed and ready to leave. We had tape on the windows like you would if a hurricane was coming, the car was packed, and we could have left in 10 minutes.”

Honorably discharged while in Florida, Charlie was on active duty from 1951-1963, and then on reserve, for a total of nearly 16 years of service to our country. We thank you, Charlie, for your service.

Come back next week for one more installment of hangar flying with Charlie. Until then, blue skies…

Mike and Linda can be reached at

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