Phil Elsner – Star Group Member

The best part of our Association Member group so far has been getting to see everyone interact and tell their stories.

Since the group started, Phil Elsner has been such an enthusiastic and highly involved group member. Curious about his story, and what drives his love for the ship, we talked with him about his time in the Navy and on board the USS Yorktown.

We asked Phil what made him want to join the U.S. Military, to which he told us that as a kid he had a dream that he was in the Navy. He thinks it may have come from watching the show, “Victory at Sea,” for so many years. Later in life, at the age of 21, it was 1964 and he was walking into Coney Island. There was a big draft going on and looking across the street he saw the enlisting booth for the Navy. Phil walked a cross and enlisted right then and there. A week later, he would receive his draft notice. There certainly is no better confirmation that you are on the right course of life.

In August of 64’ he was sent to the Great Lakes Training Center where he would be for three months before coming out as a Seaman Recruit. When Phil went in for his physical, he remembers seeing a lot of the same people that he went to high school with. So many were becoming a part of the military. Some drafted, some enlisted, but all ready to serve. There wasn’t much talk about the happenings of Vietnam at that point of bootcamp. Things didn’t heat up for a little while longer.

It wasn’t until December of 1965, after coming out of Anacostia Naval Air Station in DC, that he would board his next duty station, The USS Yorktown.

Coming out of Anacostia, he was an Airman Apprentice, but having finished photography school in New York just a few years earlier, Phil asked someone where the photo lab was. Phil was directed to the room and told the person at the front desk, “I’d like to join the lab.”

The man said, “alright,” and handed him a film pack, one used for 4×5 cameras. He told Phil to go back into the dark room and load the pack. Phil was able to easily load the pack, prove his knowledge, and was welcomed on board as a photo mate!

In a week or two the ship was off to Vietnam.

We were so curious to hear what kinds of things photo mates captured with their cameras. Phil told us about their role in processing the images that pilots would take on their fly over missions. These missions took place over the beaches of Vietnam. They were hunting submarines and also picking up pilots who pitched in the ocean.

Many of the images caught by pilots would show the Russians and Chinese ships bringing in all the ammunition’s of the north. The aircrafts were not allowed to attack due to rules of war, but they flew very low over the ships and were able to see Russians on the flight deck playing chess. The Chinese trollers would have their guns mounted and pointed up at the planes.

Most of the shots needing developing were secret pieces of intel, but all were printed on 8×10 pieces of paper and taken up to the next deck to be studied.

Photo mates would also capture some less top secret subjects including celebrations. If the ship was in port on liberty, there were times when men were being reenlisted or some other sort of gathering. Photo mates would be there taking photos for the ship’s newspaper. Many of their photos would also be included in the ship’s Cruise Books. Today Phil still has a few of the Cruise book’s that he was able to contribute to and even some of the undeveloped images.

Looking back at his time there are a few memories that stand out including the acetone and raisin drinks had on occasion down in the lab.

At one point during Passover, Phil was able to coordinate with all of his Jewish crewmates a way for them to still participate in their Passover customs. It was a big effort getting permission from all parties and being allowed off the ship, but it was an undeniably special day.

Today Phil volunteers aboard the USS Intrepid and lives in New York. He has been volunteering there for 7 years now and enjoys every day he has spent educating our next generations and seeing the history live on.