Apart from researching personnel of the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit, I have also been working to track down other Canadian military photographers. Three years ago I was fortunate to come across a veterans story online, posted by The Memory Project;
One of the stories sent in by the veteran’s to the project was Capt. (ret’d) Paul J. Tomelin, BEM (British Empire Medal), a veteran of the second world war, and a talented military photographer who served for approximately 18 months in Korea. Some of Mr. Tomelin’s photographs from the Korean War continue to be printed to this day in newspapers, and magazines across Canada and the world. One of his most famous shots, titled The Face of War, depicts the young and bloodied face of Private Heath Mathews, C. Company, of the Royal Canadian Regiment with whom Mr. Tomelin kept in contact with after the war.
Shortly after contacting the people at the Memory Project and explaining my research efforts into Canada’s military photographers, I was forwarded Paul Tomelin’s contact details. I first spoke with Mr. Tomelin in March, 2013.
“I was always interested in photography, even long before joining the Army, but I could only afford a box camera.”
When war broke out in Europe, Mr. Tomelin, like many of his buddies at the time, signed up to serve overseas. Requesting a non-combantant role, Mr. Tomelin reluctantly enlisted in the infantry, but once the mandatory training was completed, he requested a transfer to serve as a stretcher-bearer.
Mr. Tomelin goes on to explain his involvement with photography, “When I was in Europe I managed after the war to pick up an Agfa folding camera, 120 folding camera, and managed in the Netherlands to get a few rolls of film. Thats when I started taking a few pictures. When I really got into it was in Dawson Creek, B.C. I was stationed in Dawson Creek for almost a couple of years and we had a hobby darkroom and I managed to cash in a hundred dollar savings bond and bought a 35mm camera. I think it was a Robot (that took) one inch square photographs, and got taking photographs and developing the film, prints, and got going that way.”
With some of the money left over from the savings bond, Mr. Tomelin also picked up a series of booklets, one on photographic composition, and the other a Kodak products manual, both of which he says, “I practically memorized.”
When the Dawson Creek installation was closed down, Mr. Tomelin found himself posted to Edmonton as a switchboard operator, “I intentionally became familiar with the commanding Public Relations officer, who was Major Alex Stirton.” (Major Stirton had been a combat cameraman with the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit during WWII.)
Because Mr. Tomelin had showed an interest in photography, Major Stirton would send Paul out with his Speed Graphic on a few assignments. At one point Major Stirton had arranged to have a washroom from a nearby abandoned building retrofitted into a darkroom. When not on one of his shifts as a switchboard operator, Mr. Tomelin would spend time helping Major Stirton in the darkroom, “We had quite an operation going.”
When the Korean war broke out, Mr. Tomelin volunteered right away, and with the help of Major Stirton managed to secure a spot with the Brigades, 25th Public Relations group and soon travelled overseas following the first contingent of troops, as a Public Relations Photographer,
“A 4 x 5 Speed Graphic camera, that was my major weapon.”
In Korea, Mr. Tomelin explained how transportation was a major problem because the Public Relations Unit was located at rear Brigade. In order to get to his assignments he was forced to use creative methods to get into the field, “Since we were located along a MSR (Major Supply Route), if I couldn’t get transportation from my own unit, I would go out to the MSR and hitch-hike!”
As a Sgt. cameraman, Mr. Tomelin’s assignments depended on getting to the front and even though hitch-hiking became necessary, it restricted his choice of destinations. As fate would have it, Mr. Tomelin soon found a more appropriate solution, “I had a sergeant friend in the RCEME workshop (Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) who had a sergeant friend with a nearby Marine unit who had a ‘buckshee’ (spare) jeep that was not on inventory. He said, ‘well look, I can get that jeep for a case of gin for you if you want.’ Once again, Mr. Tomelin was fortunate to have a contact friend working at the NAAFI (canteen), “I had contacts there and I could get a case of gin or whatever for next to nothing…so I had my own transportation. And for maintenance my friend in the (RCEME) workshop took care of that!”
This alleviated the problem of transportation, and Sgt. Tomelin was able to drive to his assignments untethered, and without restriction in his movements, “I was enjoying myself so much in Korea that I volunteered for an additional six months. So, instead of one year, I spent a year and a half in Korea.”
During those additional six months, Mr. Tomelin states, “I got some of my better photographs during those six months, the Face of War included.” Mr. Tomelin explains how he got the shot,
“I noticed a soldier leaning up against the side sandbag hilltop regimental aid post. I wanted to get a photograph of him earlier, but I would have had to do it with a flash and I felt that wouldn’t reproduce the images as well as natural light, so I kept an eye on this soldier as he he moved in the lineup. He was less injured than many of the others and he was getting close to the entrance. It was getting to be around four o’clock in the morning and daylight and he happened to be at the black entrance to the regimental aid post and I realized that if I didn’t get it now I wouldn’t get it. So, I raised my camera to take his photograph and he pushed himself away with disgust that he didn’t want his photograph taken. He was going to leave so I raised both my hands and I said, ‘please just go back the way you were’ It took no persuasion, he dropped right back against the sandbags and asked ‘where do you want me to look’. I just raised my arms and more or less pointed over my left shoulder the direction in which he was looking generally and got him looking over my shoulder and I raised the camera again, focused and took the photograph.”
Mr. Tomelin goes on to say, “There are many Face of War photographs but I challenge anyone to recall any other face of war photograph that has a dramatic impact of that one – I got that on my calling card. I’ve had many veterans, and other photographers tell me that there’s no other face of war photograph that can match the dramatic impact of that one.”
Having shot over 600 photographs during the Korean War, Mr. Tomelin commented on some that he was particularly proud to have shot. One of these was a shot of a father and son,
“Father and Son. The Wheelers. Particularly proud of that one because they’re both natives. Because they’re father and son but they’re both natives, they’re not immigrants to Canada they’re both natives. I had to take their photograph as a father and son. I could have taken the photograph of the two of them just sitting side by side but I realized that the rifle, the sons sniper rifle would tie in the admiring father and son. Just the son was a sniper. His father had volunteered to serve another six months so he could go back home to Canada with his son. The expression of pride is what I enjoyed reproducing the most. I am particularly proud of that photograph. I like the composition.”
Upon return to Canada in 1953, the Army announced that Sgt. Tomelin had been awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for distinguished service in Korea. Soon after, Sgt.Tomelin, at the request of Major Donoghue of Prairie Command in Winnipeg, was posted to the Prairie Command Public Relations as a photographer. Later on that same year Sgt. Tomelin was selected as one of only two photographers to be sent to England to photograph Canadian activities in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
In 1957, Mr. Tomelin was a transportation officer (Captain) with the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Middle East. Although he was not posted there as a photographer, Mr. Tomelin states, “I carried a 35mm camera with me all the time.” Shooting Kodachrome slide film at the time, Mr. Tomelin used a Contax IIA camera to take pictures. Although Mr. Tomelin retired after 29 years in the service, he continued in his public life taking photographs and was a member of the Central Okanagan Photographic Society in Kelowna, B.C. for many years.
In 2014 I was fortunate to fly out to British Columbia and meet face to face with Mr. Tomelin. Having suffered a fall, Mr. Tomelin had been staying at the Cottonwoods Care Centre, located in Kelowna, B.C. We chatted about many of his photographs, and I pointed out that I had seen a poem that he had written, “This prayer (was written) I think it was in Korea – to remember our fallen comrades. It made me feel sad. Brave many men who lost their lives.” I asked Mr. Tomelin if he could recite it for me,
A Veteran’s Prayer
Help us to remember
And every day
Our fallen comrades
So that we
Who live on
We thank you
For your love
Which you gave
Through your love
To find peace
And all around us
In memory of
Our fallen comrades
Help us to remember
Help us to remember
I want to thank everyone in the Tomelin family for helping me, especially Daniel, Kathy, and Laura who helped arrange my visit to see their father, and who supplied me access to many of their fathers photographic treasures. Mr. Paul J. Tomelin passed away peacefully on March 5th, 2016.