1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

The Reproduction Section

Photo: Restricted Area sign posted outside of the Reproduction Section facility in 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Sign on "B" Detachment's Reproduction Section facility.  The building was "stick built" by the U.S. Navy's SeaBees, who came down the coast from their base at Red Beach to construct the building on the I Corps Compound in 1967.  The literal translation of the Vietnamese wording on the bottom portion of the sign was never determined.

Photographic Capability of the U. S. Army

 Signal Corps

Supporting the Military Intelligence Mission

Photo: The insignia of the US Army Signal Corps

The Photographic Reproduction Mission

In order to create its intelligence product -- annotated and evaluated aerial photography -- each MIBARS detachment incorporated a Reproduction Section, typically referred to as the "Repro Section," "Repro Shop," or simply "Repro."  The Repro Section processed, printed and duplicated aerial imagery for the detachment's internal use and for eventual distribution to staff operational planners and tactical commanders on the ground.  Unlike "B" Detachment's primary mission personnel, who were in the Army Intelligence Corps, the Reproduction Section was composed of an Army Signal Corps Lieutenant and Signal Corps photographic technicians who were assigned to 1st MIBARS.

Amid the continuing double entendre remarks and winks from the remainder of the detachment about the imagined activities of the "reproduction" section, the Repro crew worked well with the intelligence analysts and labored diligently to produce copies of the imagery that formed the basis of the 1st MIBARS mission in I Corps.  The job was hardly an exciting one.  Four or five photographic specialists took turns duplicating and making positive paper print rolls of aerial film for the use of the Interpretation Section and for distribution to supported units.  This was its only role, one that was carried out seven days a week.  

The Reproduction Section's Product

Section operations centered around the ES-38A, Mobile Darkroom Facility, which was Repro's counterpart to the Imagery Interpretation Section's Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF) but much smaller.  The ES-38A could accommodate only two workers at a time.  It was cramped, hot, humid and aggravating, and it was a maintenance headache.  Nevertheless, "B" Detachment was fortunate to have the services of dedicated men who were mechanically inclined and able to keep the processing equipment working.  When operations were threatened by the physical deterioration of the ES-38A, the men of the section worked together to dismantle the van, repair substantial sheet metal damage, supervise it's placement into a new facility, and re-install the processing equipment.  It was an excellent example of teamwork and the application of collective ingenuity, skills and available resources to overcome a serious problem.

Photo: A Reproduction Section staffer performs a quality check on a roll of aerial images printed on paper from negatives supplied by the US Air Force

Photo Credit: MIV

Right:  The Reproduction Section's primary product -- continuous rolls of paper prints made from aerial camera film -- is shown above being examined for quality.  Also shown, one of the numerous hand-cranked devices for moving roll print stock over viewing tables (shown here) or for moving roll negative stock over light tables (see Interpretation Section), as well as the black metal film canisters (background) used for storing and transporting film.  This photograph was taken in the Reproduction Section's expanded facility late in 1967.

Program Overview -- 1967

The aerial imagery utilized by "B" Detachment was, for the most part, taken by reconnaissance aircraft of the U.S. Air Force's 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, and its subordinate tactical reconnaissance squadrons, flying out of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport and transported to DaNang by the MIBARS organic Delivery Platoon or by USAF courier flights.  The film could be comprised of either positive black and white transparencies or negative images, and the ES-38A could print either format.  While the Imagery Interpretation Section's analysts sometimes did a priority evaluation -- or "read-out" --  of incoming imagery by viewing positive transparency films on a light table, comprehensive interpretation efforts generally awaited the availability of paper prints.

Arriving at "B" Detachment in the fall of 1966, the replacement "Repro" Officer,  received the following briefing by the departing Signal Corps lieutenant:  "All you have to do is sit at the desk [in the adjoining shelter], pet the dog, and make a PX [Post Exchange] run every morning and afternoon.  The year will pass quickly."  However, as the war began to heat up in 1967, some of the battalion's Reproduction Section chiefs -- one of whom was assigned to each 1st MIBARS detachment -- were able to move their operations beyond their assigned role of essentially watching fully capable senior NCOs supervise fully capable darkroom technicians.  The expansion of activities included exploring options for improving facilities, field-testing new equipment, and taking a leading role in the initiation of the battalion's developmental air photographer-observer capability -- otherwise known as the Hand-held Camera Program.

Raw Material For the 1st MIBARS' Intelligence Products Came Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
The 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing

". . . the 460th was activated . . . as the 460th Reconnaissance Wing in mid-winter 1966. Stationed outside Saigon at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the recon-wing operated throughout Vietnam from 1966 until 1971. [The] . . . 460th performed day and visual, photographic, radar, thermographic, and electronic reconnaissance missions. With three flying squadrons, a reconnaissance task force, and several support squadrons . . . this wing [was] the largest and most varied in the Vietnam war zone. Additionally, the seven different aircraft flown by the wing made it the most diversified. Pilots drove the Martin RB-57 Night Prowler, the Douglas EB/RB 66 Destroyer, the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom, the McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo, Douglas RC/EC-47 aircrafts. During the campaign the wing earned four Presidential Unit Citations and two outstanding unit awards. The wing deactivated on 31 Aug 1971." 

From The Military Zone (dot) com

Photo: One of the several types of fighter aircraft modified to obtain aerial imagery during the Vietnam War, this one being a McDonnel-Douglas RF-4C

Photo Credit: National Museum of the Air Force.  Visit their website at www (dot) nationalmuseum (dot) af (dot) mil

Photo: US Air Force courier aircraft at DaNang Main Air Base

Photo Credit: Don Skinner, "B" Detachment, Reproduction Section, 1968-1969

Above, Top:  The McDonnell-Douglas RF-4C was the photographic reconnaissance variant of the famed Phantom II fighter-bomber, one of the several types of aircraft that flew such missions during the Vietnam War.  For the special needs of the RF-4C, the Phantom's usually droopy nose was straightened to accommodate camera equipment.  A forward-looking camera port is located at the front of the shark's teeth motif, a downward-looking port under the motif, and side-looking ports on each side of the aircraft just above the rear of the motif.  Some photo-recon craft were equipped with flares that could be dropped to facilitate night-time photography.  Above, Bottom:  The USAF Scatback Flight from Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon utilized a North American Aviation T-39 Sabreliner for the 7th Air Force's night combat courier missions.  According to the Vietnam Security Police Association web site -- "'Scatback' was the in-theater classified courier airlift system transporting elements of the daily HQ 7th Air Force FRAG order [FRAG order, a fragmentary order, issued on a day-to-day basis to change an existing operations order -- Site Administrator], pre-strike/gun camera/BDA photos, intel papers, official mail, small cargo and passengers . . ."  Scatback also provided DV/VIP [distinguished visitor/very important person] combat airlift services throughout the SEA [southeast Asia] theater of operation."  For 1st MIBARS, its raw materials (i.e., the imagery for analysis) were produced by reconnaissance aircraft such as the RF-4C and delivered to the various detachments by the courier flights using the T-39.  

The initiation of the Hand-Held Camera Program provided an opportunity to move beyond the limitations of the ES-38A and explore possibilities for the application of conventional photography to aerial surveillance.  After the first Hand-Held photography flight, so anxious was the Repro Section to do something novel that -- instead of taking the exposed film to an established lab for processing -- the Section senior NCO developed the film in the only vessel available, a trash can, dipping it back and forth through developer, fixer and wash.  Printing of the pictures was accomplished using a Japanese manufacture "Lucky" brand amateur photographic enlarger that was purchased by the Commanding Officer at the local Post Exchange.  Later, developing tanks, trays and other items of processing equipment were obtained through scrounging and various supply channels to support this work, although the facility did not in any way approach the level or capabilities of a production photo lab.  No conventional darkroom equipment was issued to "B" Detachment by the Army, nor were the detachment's aged 35- and 70-mm cameras updated or replaced.

One or two of the Reproduction Section specialists began to process conventional films and, using the Lucky enlarger, were able to produce custom cropped enlargements of portions of 9-inch aerial reconnaissance film for special use in reports and briefings.  Outside of the Repro Officer, section personnel did not generally participate in photo-observation flights, deferring instead to Imagery Interpretation Section analysts  who could benefit most from an opportunity for first-hand observation of the countryside and battlefield for objects mostly described in intelligence keys or seen in aerial photographs.

Follow the links below to learn more about the Reproduction Section and its operations

ES-38A -- Mobile Photographic Darkroom 

ES-38A -- A Closer Look

Facility Improvement

Expanded Capabilities

Scenes From the Repro Shop

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