1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

The ES-38A

Mobile Photographic Darkroom

Hell  . . .  On Wheels!

The ES-38 Mobile Photographic Darkroom, mounted on a 2-1/2-ton truck and towing a trailer with a field generator

Photo Credit: Infoage.Org

Above:  The ES-38A, Mobile Darkroom Facility, as issued, in the mid-1960s.  Visit Infoage - A Science/History Learning Center and Museum for information on the U.S. Army's approach to designing photographic processing equipment for use under field conditions.  Information on development of the ES-38 may be found on Infoage.Org's sub-site, Camp Evans Oral Histories, at Campevans.org.  At good place to start is Mr. Irv Bauman's oral histories, Tapes 15 and 17A.

The Center of Repro Section Activities

The Reproduction Section's primary piece of equipment was the ES-38A Mobile Darkroom Facility which was comprised of photographic processing equipment contained in a small van that was transported on the bed of a 2-1/2-ton truck.  An open-topped rubber bladder (similar to a small above-ground swimming pool) served the ES-38A's need to store a large and continuous supply of water which had to be obtained whenever and wherever available in the field.

The ES-38A was equipped to process and reproduce 70-mm, 5-inch and 9-inch width aerial photographic imagery, both in negative and positive formats.  Film and photographic papers were processed with the same chemicals.  Equipment included the EN-22, Step and Repeat Printer, used in making contact prints from roll or sheet film; the EN-6A2, Continuous Photographic Contact Printer, used in making contact prints or duplicate negatives from roll film, and the EN-36, Photographic Projection Printer, used in enlarging frames from film to paper.  Also, there were two EH-29 Photographic Film and Paper Processors, wet processing machines used for developing and fixing films and prints.  In full operation, the facility consumed 700 gallons of water over a period of 24 hours.  Electric power was provided by a field generator.

Given "B" Detachment's semi-permanent location on the I Corps Compound, as well as its need to free up the Repro Section's truck for general use in travel to military sites around the city, the ES-38A was removed from its carrier, installed on a temporary foundation, and operated essentially as a ground facility.  During 1966-1967, the van's progressive physical deterioration due to internal chemical corrosion required that it be renovated in the field in order to maintain the Reproduction Section's capability to fulfill its mission.  This necessity provided a welcome opportunity to create additional protected work space to support both normal operations and "B" Detachment's need for a conventional film processing capability to support the emerging Hand Held Camera Program.

"B" Detachment's Reproduction Section Facility

Below, Top to Bottom:  A site-built structure was fabricated to serve as an anteroom for the ES-38A, Mobile Darkroom Facility, photo processing equipment housed in a truck-mountable van.  A rear view of "B" Detachment's Repro Facility in 1966 shows the ES-38A nested beneath a corregated aluminum roof under a lean-to shelter, its two air conditioning units visible in the front wall.  In the foreground is the open-top, filled, water-supply tank.  The bottom photo shows the interior of the ES-38A early in 1967.  Note the piece of plywood covering the opening for one of the two air conditioning units which had been relocated temporarily to the Commanding Officer's office.

The ES-38A Mobile Photographic Darkroom in late 1966 protected by a site-built roofed port and small clapboard anteroom

Photo Credit: MIV

Detachment "B," The First Year

Our first job [upon arrival in DaNang and the I Corps Compound, on February 21, 1966] was to fill sandbags.  We went to this nice beach, and started filling, must have been over 2,000 of them.  We used the sandbags to protect the generators, radio and bunkers for the troops.  So [the] guys who came later were all saved by us!  Hah.

We wanted to build a cocoon around the repro unit to make it a little cooler, so after setting up the water tank and stuff, we started to build a roof over the ES-38, but there wasn't enough wood to make it strong enough, so we tore it down and several of us took the 2-1/2 ton truck and scouted around.  We found a nice pile of lumber, so we loaded a sizable amount and returned to the compound.  Later, we returned and got the rest of the pile!  We used the lumber to not only build a roof, but a complete shelter around the darkroom and made a small office in front also.  We found some tin for the roof.  We went operational on March 15th.

April 12 [we were] evacuated to a hot tin barn, with cots.  Were able to return some 3 weeks later.  Another time several of us were sitting on  top of the Conexes [land-sea type cargo containers used for storage] watching the Air Force bomb some of the VC [Viet Cong] on the other side of the [Han] River when we had a couple of mortar rounds hit 40-50 yards away!  The Conexes were very quickly abandoned!

Bill Smedley, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section/administration, 1965-1966

Rear of the ES-38A showing frame work of the roofed port and the front end of the van with its dual air conditioning units.  The large rubber water storage tank is in the foreground

Photo Credit: MIV

Interior of the ES-38A in early 1967 showing the film processing equipment and stainless steel tubs used for mixing and moving photographic chemicals

Photo Credit: MIV

Repro Operations Threatened In Early 1967

By November 1966, "B" Detachment's ES-38A had been demounted from its transport vehicle and was being operated on the ground, between buildings, just inside of the north perimeter wall of the I Corps Compound.  The van was largely obscured by a site-built clapboard anteroom that offered some protection from Vietnam's frequent rains and utilized metal storage cabinet doors as a makeshift entry way.  In the view above, left, part of the van is visible to the left of the bicycle, behind a waist-high wall of sand bags.  The dark object behind the sand bags is the holding tank for water.  Inside, the van was equipped with stainless steel tables, film processing tanks, hoses, and mechanisms for transporting large format film and photo paper in continuous roll format.  The van was also equipped with two (2) modular air conditioning units, but when this picture was taken, one had been removed and installed in the Commanding Officer's office (note plywood cover at upper left of the rear wall).

The demands of the operating environment in Vietnam proved detrimental to the early model ES-38A, which deteriorated steadily under the effects of high heat and humidity, caustic photographic chemicals, and continuous operation.  Open joints, at the junction of the floor and walls, trapped chemical-laden water and proved to be a breeding ground for corrosion that attacked the van's aluminum structural components and covering.  The film processing equipment, which was made of stainless steel, was largely immune to deterioration.  However, the lower portions of the interior walls -- which could not be cleaned effectively due to the wall design and the fixed equipment sandwiched around the periphery of the van -- eventually disintegrated, allowing rot to spread from the inside of the van to the frame of the structure and to the outside walls.  By mid-1967, the unit was only marginally light tight and in danger of eventual structural collapse.

"B" Detachment reported the deteriorating condition of the ES-38A, and a manufacturer's technical representative visited the I Corps Compound in early 1967 to conduct an on-site assessment of the damage.  However, with no replacement units available, and with the van's outside aluminum surfaces perforating, Repro Section personnel took the steps necessary to keep the ES-38A operational.  This field repair of the ES-38A included dismantling the equipment housed in the van, cutting away the corroded sections of the van's side walls, arresting the progress of the corrosion, and closing the resultant openings with new aluminum sheeting.   In accordance with a systematic plan, the repair was undertaken in conjunction with the construction of a new site-built structure for housing the van.  The van, which was "butted" into one end of the new building, continued to function until the structure was completed around it.  At that time, the photo processing equipment was dismantled and removed from the van, connected to water and power supplies, and operated from the concrete floor of the new facility while repairs were made.  Thus, continuity of operations was maintained at all times.

With "A" Detachment At Bien Hoa, A Similar Problem

". . . the Reproduction Section was in its van shelter sitting on the ground, with a wooden shack added on to store chemicals and supplies.  Later, the condition of the shelter became worse as corrosion from photographic chemicals ate the floor out of the shelter.  A new photo lab was built between the II Section and the old shelter next to the berm on the edge of the compound.  The major processing equipment was removed from the shelter and used to furnish the new photo lab.  Additionally, water tanks were obtained to help keep the processing water cleaner."

Edward Jones, "A" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1966-1968 

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

"[We had an] ES-38 maintenance [technician].  Due to a supply delay he had to work around shortages. In place of fuses he used "fuse wire."  I still say it was lead!  Working in the van with minimal AC, sweating was a problem, compounded by [the possibility of] your dog tags making contact with the exposed fuse block. Folks traded positions [in the van] trying to avoid overheating, and you could hear through the door when ID tags made electrical contact."

John Shimashita, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1967-1968

Field Repair of the ES-38A

The ES-38A van showing holes made by corrosion from photographic chemicals

Photo Credit: MIV

A welder fabricating replacement vertical spars for use in the field repair of the ES-38A van

Photo Credit: MIV

Interior of the ES-38A van after replacement of the corroded wall with new sheet aluminum

Photo Credit: MIV

Above, Left:  The ES-38A van showing perforation of one of the exterior walls due to corrosion from inside of the unit.  Above, Center:  This view shows the interior of the ES-38A van with its equipment removed and after the corroded metal had been cut away from the walls of the van.  The ground outside is showing beyond the spars, two of which are severed.  A welder from a maintenance company in DaNang, shown at the photograph's upper right, kneeling with back to camera, repaired the spars and covered gaps in the van walls with sheet aluminum -- a difficult job under the best of conditions.  Both sides of the van required repair.  Above, Right:  The interior of the ES-38A after patching and repainting.  Later models of the ES-38A Mobile Darkroom Facility  were said to have been designed to be more resistant to the harsh climate and photographic chemicals through the increased use of composite flooring materials and elimination of the open joint around the baseboard with seamless moldings.  Right:  Another view of the damaged van wall that was repaired on the ground in the I Corps Compound by this talented metal worker. 

Interior of the ES-38A van showing the extent of the damaged aluminum wall that required removal

Photo Credit: MIV

A New Repro Facility Constructed

Repaired ES-38A van shown reinstalled in the new Reproduction Section Facility.  The covered port for vehicle maintenance is shown in the foreground

Photo Credit: MIV

Reproduction Section senior NCO performing maintenance on an ES-38A photo processing component

Photo Credit: MIV

Left:  In this photograph of the motor maintenance area, the repaired ES-38A is shown in the background, newly installed in the Repro Section's expanded production facility.  The lighter band at the bottom of the van's side wall shows the extent of the corroded aluminum -- interior and exterior -- that was cut away from, and replaced on, both side walls.  Right:  The Repro Section's resident mechanical genius for much of 1967 who helped keep the reproduction mission in operation, shown here performing maintenance on a component of one of the EH-29 Photographic Film and Paper Processors after reinstallation in the repaired van.

Reproduction Section MAIN PAGE

ES-38A -- A Closer Look

Facility Improvement

Expanded Capabilities

Scenes From the Repro Shop

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