Keith Van Ness

Current portrait of Keith Van Ness in his Leisure World® home

Keith Van Ness

by Paul Roberts

Keith was a natural for service in the U.S. Army, inasmuch his antecedents, reaching back to the Revolutionary War, had honorably served their country. In addition, his father, Clarence, served in the Mexican skirmishes, chasing Pancho Villa, and in World War I in the Signal Corps as an aerial observer in the nascent flying corps. At the end of the war he was one of the founders of the American Legion, the major organization that represented the returning doughboys. It was only natural that Keith would gravitate to work that had such an impact on the outcome of the war in the Pacific. Drawing on his artistic abilities and his brief stint with the Army Map Service before Pearl Harbor, he was properly placed in the Engineer’s School at Ft. Belvoir, VA for three months of training in photogrammetry, surveying and photo interpretation. Upon completion of these courses, he was assigned to the new 949th Engineer Aviation Topographic Company. On the face of it, it didn’t seem very promising, another attempt of the military to discover solutions. Their mission, initially, was to develop a high-resolution aerial camera system that utilized a vertical and two oblique cameras that operated simultaneously to take aerial photographs of a greater area. To remove any distortions and prepare target maps the system was mounted in a B-25 bomber, flying several missions over an area until they got optimal results. Another series of field sets were run to see the results when done in high heat and humidity conditions.

Shortly after the Marines and Army had taken Guam in the Marianas, the 949th arrived to set up shop, in spite of holdout Japanese lurking in the jungle and caves, refusing to face the reality of defeat. (On 5 November 22 Japanese holdouts, living in isolated caves, saw a discarded Life Magazine which referred to the end of the war, and then decided to come out of hiding and surrender). The two airfields were expanded to accommodate the Super Fortress bombers, B-29s, whose needs for different charts were readily supplied. Keith and his team closely studied the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos taken by B-29 photographers during their air raid incursions over Japan. Using their precision optical equipment they could identify power and aircraft manufacturing plants, airfields, bridges, naval bases and shipyards. From this intelligence they would determine what type of charts to prepare. They ranged from a Target chart, Photomosaic map, Radar Navigation, Radar Approach and special charts. One map showed an accurate, detail of what a pilot would see as he approached the city of Tokyo. Another showed the oil refinery at Yokkaichi, identifying all buildings. (This is before space satellite photos 50 years later that could accurately zoom in on a person walking in a street!)  

In July 1945 they printed thousands of leaflets that demanded Japan surrender unconditionally, or face total annihilation of the homeland. This threat was made before anyone knew about the impending A-bombs to be released. But the threat was ignored. At the same time, the 949th was ordered to add concentric rings around recently printed maps of Hiroshima, pinpointing targets, which were rushed to Tinian Island. On August 6th the B-29 navigator of the Enola Gay, using the map with the concentric circles, selected the target and released the first of two bombs on the city, obliterating it. Three days later, after the Japanese High Command ignored leaflet warnings, the act was repeated on Nagasaki. About one month later the country got the message and threw in the towel. Another confirmation that most United States military missions were carried out through the employment of the Air Force, resulting in success.

Now, 71 years later, President Obama has visited the city of Hiroshima, paying his respects to the people, but tacitly confirming the reality of the situation. The dropping of “Big Boy” obviated a planned invasion of Japan that fall, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The 949th Engineer Aviation Topographic Company didn’t go without recognition for their contribution to the successful resolution of the Imperial General Staff’s hesitancy. In a Commendation letter, Lt. General N F Twining, Commanding General of the 20th Air Force, lauded them for their remarkable speed and quality of workmanship, especially in providing Mine Target Charts needed for minesweeping the harbors and beaches prior to the occupation of Japan. In addition, every member of the Company was awarded a Bronze Star, an unheard of gesture in the military.

One day, as Keith walked by the POW stockade, a prisoner, a former teacher, spoke to him in English, saying that he could do a beautiful painting for him in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. He handed him his Army-issued large handkerchief, and wound up with a magnificent work of art that hangs prominently in his home in Leisure World® today.

Keith’s post war career continued almost in a similar vein, getting a degree at George Washington University, and working for the DMA (Defense Mapping Agency), which later evolved into the more sophisticated NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). He worked with the early computer UNIVAC, and after 37 years and two heart attacks, he called it quits. But retirement grew boring and he then embarked on another career, selling real estate, specializing in subdivisions that were under productive, turning them around successfully. Lately, he’s been on the Leisure World® Board of Director for Mutual 13, and is on the PPD Advisory Committee. That’s his way of slowing down!

All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland