Ask a Veteran

These Museum staffers and volunteers once served their country in the armed forces. Now they serve in a different way.

(Eric Long, NASM)

Most of them no longer wear a uniform, so you don’t always know who among the people you work with have served in the armed forces. National Air and Space Museum photographer Eric Long decided to ask. He suggested making portraits of the veterans in the museum community so we’d know who they are. “It would be a nice way to show our appreciation,” he said. We agreed. We found their experiences—during war and peace—to be an interesting collection of stories, and think you will too. Click on the images above to meet just a few of the veterans who make up Museum’s staff, volunteers and docents. And when you’ve finished perusing our photo essay, ask a veteran you know to tell you a story. You may be surprised by how much a memory will mean to both of you.

Paul Cochran (above) has done the kind of flying you read about in adventure novels. He became a member of the Caterpillar Club when his P-47’s engine blew and he had to bail out at 3,000 feet (he was blinded by engine oil and thought he was at a higher altitude). He saw a V-2 rocket on a mission over Germany, and caught a .40-mm cannon shot while returning from a mission on November 1944. “I was over Holland letting down before crossing the English Channel and landing at my home base,” he says. “I didn’t realize at the time I was also receiving small arms fire.”

Cochran was 19 years old in 1942 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. After attending radio operator school, he was accepted into the Aviation Cadet Program. “I became a fighter pilot,” he says, “which was what I had always wanted.” He took all of his training in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and flew his first combat missions in that aircraft, before the 356th Fighter Group switched to the P-51 Mustang. “I liked the P-51,” Cochran recalled, “but the P-47 would always bring you home.”

A recent profile of Cochran in The Journal (West Virginia) explains that he arrived at Martlesham Heath, a Royal Air Force field, in 1944, and flew the P-47 on about 10 combat missions across the English Channel. Cochran would eventually fly 38 missions. “How the bomber guys ever got to 25 missions is a mystery to me,” Cochran told staff writer Edward Marshall. “I would’ve never had the nerve or the guts to do the things they had to do.”

After the war, Cochran remained in the reserves. When the Korean War began he was recalled to active duty, and was assigned to the newly formed Air Defense Command, helping to open one of the first radar sites in northern Minnesota, almost on the Canadian border.

Cochran has been a docent at the National Air and Space Museum for 13 years. He decided to volunteer after visiting his niece, Barbara Brennan, an exhibits designer at the Museum. “To me,” he says, “the most enjoyable part of being a docent is getting to talk to the public. I try to make each tour educational, pleasant, and funny—I still love it.”

Paul Cochran is pictured above with the Museum’s North American P-51D-30-NA, which is on display in the World War II Aviation exhibition at the National Mall Building.

Carl C. Hansen

(Eric Long, NASM)

When the generals in the Pentagon wanted to see what was going on in Vietnam, they called on men like Carl C. Hansen. Hansen was part of a special unit trained in motion picture and still photography. Teams from the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO), based at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, would spend three months in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, before returning stateside to await their next assignment.

Hansen documented the Tet Offensive, President Nixon’s visit to a combat zone, and the arrival of the first National Guard Unit in Vietnam. Sometimes his work was mundane: He once shot a documentary on which boots best prevented jungle rot. And other times it was heartbreaking, such as when he recorded the daily tasks of the Combat Field Mortuary. “Shooting the mortuary story was the toughest thing I had to do,” he recalls. “About 385 bodies a week were going through there. And we were documenting how the mortuary ran. It was very intense for quite a few weeks.”

Hansen had no intention of becoming a filmmaker. As a young boy on the eastern plains of Montana, he’d considered becoming an architect. The Army had other plans, and offered the 18-year-old a slot in its film school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. “It was excellent training,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I came out of there with the equivalent of a college degree.”

Once in Vietnam, “We had very, very little supervision,” says Hansen. “Our film was flown from Vietnam back to the Pentagon, and we didn’t see the results quite often for months.” It was a different way to work. “You didn’t get to participate in producing the final product, and you didn’t have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes,” he says. “It was so far from the time when you shot it and when you actually saw it, you couldn’t go out and reshoot. That was the frustrating part of the way the organization was set up. But it was interesting; everything I did was interesting.”

After leaving the Army in 1970, Hansen went to the University of Montana, worked on a couple of newspapers, and was a motion picture photographer for NBC News. In 1985 he was offered a position as a photographer at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He stayed there for seven years before transferring to Washington, D.C. to become chief of photography at the Natural History Museum. He eventually became director of Smithsonian Photographic Services, overseeing not only the photography branches of three museums and Smithsonian-wide events, but also curating 3 million of the Institution's photographs.

In 2007, his professional career came full circle when he was walking through the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and realized a photograph on display looked extremely familiar: It was one he had taken as a 19-year-old private in Vietnam.

Carl C. Hansen stands next to a photograph he took in 1969 in Vietnam as part of the Army Special Photographic Office. The image is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

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