Lee Embree (July 9, 1915 – January 24, 2008) was an American Army staff sergeant and photographer who took the first air-to-air photographs of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Embree took the pictures of the attack from onboard an Army Air Corps B-17 which he happened to be flying on from California to Hawaii on December 7, 1941 as the Japanese attacked the Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor.
Embree first enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1936. By 1941, the year of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Embree had become a staff sergeant.
The day before the attacks, Embree was assigned to be a passenger on one of the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses, which were based at Hamilton Field, California. Embree, and the rest of the personnel on the planes, were headed to the Philippines from California. Their trip included a refueling stop at Hickam Field, which is located near Honolulu, Hawaii. Embree, who was being permanently transferred from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the Philippines, brought his Speed Graphic camera with him for the trip.
The 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, which included 12 planes including the one Embree was flying in, arrived in the skies over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, just 30 minutes after the start of the Japanese attack. According to a story in the Peninsula Daily News, the planes would have arrived even earlier if the squadron had not conducted a navigation check shortly after leaving California. All of the B-17s were defenseless. The planes carried no machine guns or ammunition in order to carry more fuel and less weight on the long flight from California.
Embree, who was 26 years old at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, managed to take photographs from the air of the damaged USS Arizona using his personal camera. He also took pictures of Japanese planes and even the pilots’ faces as they were flying past his B-17.He recalled in a later interview that he could see Japanese fighter pilots, “grinning from ear to ear.”
The American squadron of unarmed B17s were hit by both Japanese and friendly fire. American forces on the ground mistook the planes’ Army Air Corps insignia for the Japanese rising sun flag. Embree survived the attack because he had switched seats with a flight surgeon on another B17 before taking off from California. They had switched so Embree could connect his mounted camera to the B17’s 24-volt electrical system for the routine California to Hawaii flight.A bullet hit some incendiary flares on that B17 during the attack, which killed the flight surgeon and another man on that plane.
Embree snapped a number of pictures of the attack, but eventually stopped. In an 2001 interview, he explained “Many people have asked me why I didn’t take more photos from the air…I can only answer that I was so flabbergasted at what I saw that I forgot about the camera that was in my hand.”
Embree’s plane ran out of fuel by the time of their third circle over Pearl Harbor and was forced to land, even as the attack was still in progress. While the Japanese had destroyed the hangars and airplanes at Hickam Field, they had strategically not damaged the airfield, which allowed Embree’s plane to land. Embree and his crew quickly evacuated their planes, and removed anything that might catch fire, and fled into the brush surrounding the base. They stayed in the bushes that night, living off of cold sandwiches, coffee and sheltering under a tarp.
Lee Embree took his film to a camera shop the next day, December 8, to be developed. The camera shop developed Embree’s photographs, but refused to return his 4-by-5-inch film negatives. Instead, Embree’s negatives were sent to Washington D.C. at the orders of the United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox.According to Embree, “The next time I saw one of my photos, it was on the front cover of an Australian magazine.”
Embree’s negatives were returned to him years after the Pearl Harbor attacks. They were sent to Embree in a brown envelope which was covered in Army postmarks from across the Pacific Ocean.
Some of Embree’s historic photographs later appeared in Life Magazine, Time Magazine and other publications. Copies of many of his Pearl Harbor photographs are currently housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C.
Embree remained based at Pearl Harbor as an aerial photographer until February 1942 when he was stationed in Fiji for the following nine months. During World War II, Embree became a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps.He served in a number of locations and theaters throughout the Pacific, including New Caledonia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands). He visited Santo Thomas University in Manila, which was used as a POW camp by the Japanese, soon after its liberation by United States forces.
Embree enlisted in the Air Force Reserve in 1945.He officially retired as a major from the military in 1957. He and his family lived and worked in Southern California for many years. Embree moved to Port Angeles, Washington, in 1988.
Embree continued working in photography after he left the U.S. military in 1957. He continued snapping his trademark aerial photographs as late as 2003, when he documented the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Hood Canal Bridge graving yard as well as the celebrations for the Port Angeles Fourth of July festivities.
Embree was interviewed in 2003 by a production crew for the Discovery Channel for a documentary on the Pearl Harbor attacks. He also appeared in the KCTS series Stories of the Northwest in 2007. The locally produced series, which focused on the lives of World War II veterans in the Pacific Northwest,was aired as a compliment to PBS’ The War.
He actually outlived the local Juan de Fuca Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The Juan de Fuca Chapter was formed in 1991, fifty years after the attack, but disbanded in 2004 due to the deaths of members from old age.
Embree’s photographs, as well as his Speed Graphic camera, goggles and dog tags, were placed on display at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, in 2007.
Lee Embree died at his home in Port Angeles on January 24, 2008, of a kidney infection at the age of 92. He was buried at Mount Angeles Memorial Park.He was survived by his second wife, as well two children, three grandchildren, three stepchildren and five step-grandchildren.