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A Combat Photographer's Last Call to Duty

July 12, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD USS MISSOURI — They were together in the beginning. Charlie Potts and the Missouri. He was a World War II combat photographer. Her quarter-deck was the 1945 backdrop for his everlasting cinematography of the Japanese surrender. . . .

Japan's delegation, in silk hats and morning coats, searching to save some dignity, some face, in the moment. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, tieless, hand in pocket, having none of it. The uniform of this day for MacArthur and his men was wash khakis, working dress. Potts' camera didn't miss the nuance.

They were together at the end. Lt. Cmdr. Charles Arthur Potts, USN (Ret.) was carried aboard the Missouri last week as ashes in a cardboard box. The battleship became his great gray catafalque for burial at sea. Where Charlie Potts found peace.

"His physical remains joined all those men he had felt so much compassion for," said Jim Caccavo, a protege, a disciple, the lone civilian mourner who wangled his presence on board for the service. "All those men he had photographed as they lived, all those men he photographed as they died."

That was the bond between Potts and Caccavo. Sudden death at distant wars and the quiet, private, endless grieving it brings. Potts carried his anguish back from World War II. Caccavo's pain was a legacy of Vietnam.

"For many years Charlie carried in his wallet a ragged and worn souvenir card issued to all personnel aboard the Missouri that day," remembered Caccavo, 43, of Los Angeles. As Caccavo wears a souvenir of his war, a Montagnard brass bracelet on his right wrist. "But like many of the great accomplishments in his life, he preferred to keep the card hidden."

When Charlie Potts did talk, it was to his wife, Gloria. He spoke of bending down to change film and barely seeing the Japanese plane that machine-gunned every man standing around him. Of all the human debris of each battle. Of young dead stacked like cordwood.

Most Memorable Footage

"His most memorable footage was of Japanese kamikaze planes," Caccavo said, "including one remarkable segment showing a kamikaze flying directly at the camera, crashing into the ship and killing many American seamen."

That sequence, and others, was spliced into the documentary "Victory at Sea." Potts filmed and produced "The Fleet That Came to Stay." Then "The Fighting Lady."

Guam. Iwo Jima. Okinawa. Nine South Pacific battles in all. What Ernie Pyle was to the written word, Charlie Potts became to moving film. Then it was over. Potts filmed the finale on the battleship Missouri.

He came home to the faculty of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Potts had graduated from there in 1940. He'd taught at the center in tandem with his advertising photography for TRW and Standard Oil, for Westinghouse and Prudential, Max Factor and Libby.

In 1965, Potts was appointed chairman of the center's photography department. He gave up commercial shooting in favor of full-time photographic education.

There were, over those years, 4,000 students who developed as sectarians of the Potts school of film, of his analyses of light, of his interpretations of form.

One listener was Jim Caccavo. The year was 1971 and Caccavo was playing catch-up. For the past two years he had been a civilian combat photographer in Vietnam for the Red Cross and Newsweek magazine. Now it was time for a formal education and broader credentials.

Yet the same hurt that had long gripped Potts also held Caccavo. He was an old man, he used to say, of 26. Then, on his way home from the center, he heard a radio report of a Vietnam helicopter crash and the deaths of four newsmen.

Caccavo telephoned Associated Press. The dead were Kent Potter of United Press. Henri Huet of Associated Press. Larry Burrows of Life. Keisaburo Shimamoto on assignment for Newsweek.

Caccavo knew them all. They'd ducked and drank together from Saigon to Hue. Now they were dead and he wasn't. They'd been photographing a war.

He'd been shooting oranges and buildings. Caccavo took his problem to Potts.

"I asked him if maybe I should take a leave of absence from school and go back to Vietnam where I would be doing something significant. He leaned back, this great big man in his yellow sweater, looked at me from beneath bushy eyebrows and said: 'Yes, I can recall my experiences in the Pacific. Sometimes one feels a call to duty to join one's comrades. Let me know what you decide.' "

It took a while before Caccavo got the message. When Potts spoke of comrades he was referring to dead friends. Their call, he was saying, was rooted in Caccavo's guilt.

"I had no assignment to go to Vietnam, no contract," Caccavo said. "That's when I realized that Charlie knew my desire to return to the war was emotional, not professional."

Caccavo stayed. He graduated to build his own photographic career and to teach photojournalism and documentary photography at the center. He credited Potts with saving his life.

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