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Buffalo-born Army veteran put a lens to postwar Japan and barely missed a date with death

Martin E. Scheeler, 90

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Sacramento, Calif.

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1945-47

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialties: Paratrooper, photographer

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

As a boy growing up in Buffalo’s Kensington-Bailey neighborhood, Martin E. Scheeler discovered he had a passion for photography and dreamed of making a career out of it.

Scheeler wasted no time making his dream come true after graduating from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. He opened up a freelance photography business in Kenmore and specialized in weddings and family reunions. But you might say a negative presented itself in his career when a draft notice shuttered his enterprise.

“For the first 13 weeks in the military, I was trained on how to kill people,” says Scheeler, 90. “I was supposed to be part of the invasion of Japan, but they dropped the atom bombs, and when I arrived there, I served in the occupation army.”

With his soldiering skills no longer necessary, the Army put his photography skills to work with the 11th Airborne Division in northern Japan.

“First, they trained me as a paratrooper, and then I was put in charge of a photographic lab and took photos of paratroopers jumping from planes,” Scheeler says. “The photos were used as promotional material because we had a hell of a job getting volunteers for the airborne. It was a dangerous job. People got killed jumping – mishaps like chutes not opening.'

In time, he was promoted to chief photographer for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, where, on an almost daily basis, he took pictures of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers.

“Old Doug was a great person,” Scheeler says. “He knew your name and would say hello, but he didn’t spend much time with you, unless you were taking his picture.”

And why was that?

“He was a publicity hound.”

As for Scheeler, you might think the closest he got to experiencing danger, with the enemy defeated, was the flash and pop of a camera bulb. But that would be incorrect. On one of his photography assignments, he barely missed a date with death.

“I received an assignment to fly over Hiroshima and Okinawa and take photographs of the devastation from the atom bombs,” he says. “I went out to Tokyo airport and sat in a C-47 transport plane for more than a half-hour. The pilot finally showed up late in a Jeep putting on his clothes. It turns out he had had a late night with his girlfriend. When we landed in Kyushu airport, the plane that was to take us above the bombing areas had not been able to wait any longer for us and left 15 minutes earlier.”

Scheeler said that an hour later, sirens started blaring and a search-and-rescue team was assembled.

“A PBY aircraft capable of landing in water took off,” he says. “I asked what was happening and was told the airplane that we had missed had gone missing. You know, they never found any of the people who were on that aircraft. It was very fortunate that I missed that doomed plane.”

After the war, Scheeler returned home to Buffalo but decided against resuming freelance photography.

Selling insurance would be a more financially rewarding career, he determined.

Scheeler says he also made an even more rewarding decision by marrying Dorothy “Dot” Dunn, of Kenmore, about the same time he narrowly missed a call-up to active duty in the Korean War.

“My reserve duty had just ended a couple months before that war started in 1950,” he said.

In 1966, the couple, who by then were the parents of seven children, moved to Sacramento, Calif., in search of more opportunities.

“I left Metropolitan Life Insurance and was a freelance insurance salesman in Sacramento, and I did pretty good,” Scheeler says.

He says he and his wife also did pretty good on the West Coast when it came to children, rounding off their offspring to an even number: eight.

Scheeler says he and his wife are still doing “pretty good.”

On Sept. 9, they will celebrate 66 years of marriage.

“She tells me what to do all the time,” Scheeler says of his wife, “so that I don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.”

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