Norman T. Hatch, Who Filmed Grisly World War II Combat, Dies at 96


Somehow, he escaped the war unscathed, having fired his pistol only once.

“When I was looking through the viewfinder, I was living in the movie,” he said. “I was disassociated with what was going on around me.”

His raw footage was edited into a 20-minute film titled “With the Marines at Tarawa,” which won the 1945 Academy Award for best short documentary.

“With the Marines at Tarawa” (1944) U.S. Government Office of War Information

Years later, after he had long left the service, Mr. Hatch recalled that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been reluctant to release gruesome images of dead Marines floating in the waters off Tarawa, but that the journalist Robert Sherrod had convinced him that bringing the grim battle home would rally Americans behind the war.


Mr. Hatch in a 2013 photo. His footage on Tawara Atoll in 1943 was used in “With the Marines at Tarawa,” which won an Academy Award for best short documentary.

Matt McClain for The Washington Post, via Getty Images

It had been Mr. Hatch’s choice to risk his life to get those images.

“I was told by guys on the front line that I didn’t have to be there, and I would quietly tell them that I did,” Mr. Hatch told NPR in 2010. “The public had to know what we were doing, and this was the only way they would find out.”

A month before the Oscars, which Mr. Hatch did not attend, he had landed with fellow Marines on Iwo Jima; his footage there was incorporated in another documentary, “To the Shores of Iwo Jima.”

Mr. Hatch assigned his colleague Bill Genaust to film the Marines’ flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi. A small flat had been installed, but a larger one was ordered to be placed on the island’s highest point. Mr. Genaust’s footage was used to confirm that the historic photograph of the flag-raising, by Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press, had not been staged. Mr. Genaust was killed in action a week later.

Norman Thomas Hatch (he was not named for the Socialist leader Norman Thomas, his son said) was born on March 2, 1921, in Boston and raised in Gloucester, Mass. His father, Irving, an ex-boxer and Pinkerton strikebreaker, was an auto dealer. His mother was the former Ruth Frances Colby.

Norman was an early camera buff, joining his friends on expeditions to a downtown burlesque theater to secretly photograph the dancers. After graduating from high school, he joined the Marines at 18; his parents, he said, could not afford to send him to college.

As a Marine he trained with documentarians who worked for Time Inc. creating the “March of Time” newsreels. He was then assigned to the Marine Corps Photographic Services Branch as a staff sergeant.

A propaganda film featuring Sergeant Hatch and his footage was released in 1944 as “I Was There Tarawa.”

“I Was There Tarawa” (1944) Video by Nuclear Vault

He married the former Lois Rousseau. Besides his son, he is survived by his wife and a daughter, Colby Hatch.

After the war, Mr. Hatch sold photographic equipment and later ran a photo agency. He also worked as a civilian audiovisual adviser in the Pentagon and as a consultant to the White House press office and to Congress. He rose to major in the Marine Corps Reserve.

He also collaborated with Charles Jones on a book titled “War Shots: Norm Hatch and the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Cameramen of World War II” (2011).

Tarawa measured about 400 acres, and after the battle the casualty toll raised questions, even among those in the Pacific Theater high command. In his autobiography, in which he was critical of the Navy, Lieut. Gen. Holland McT. Smith wrote: “Was Tarawa worth it? My answer is unqualified: No.”

But Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who became commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, disagreed. “The capture of Tarawa,” he said, “knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

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