Sunday, April 21, 2013

Military Monday - Patric Levi Lanham: An American Hero

Patric Levi Lanham
c. 1939
            On December 7, 1941, Patric Levi Lanham, a 26-year-old naval photographer from Tennessee stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, rendered his government—and his fellow Americans—a great service.   Acting on the spur of the moment at his own initiative, “He grabbed a camera and started shooting film of the ships exploding.  Fragments went through the peak of his hat, but he kept on shooting anyway.”[i] 
A destroyed Vindicator, Pearl Harbor

At the time, there was no direct telephone hook-up between military authorities in Pearl Harbor and decision-makers in Washington, D. C.  Pat’s pictures were sent to Washington by courier to help satisfy President Roosevelt’s need for information about the extent of the damage. 

For this accomplishment, Pat was presented at the captain’s meritorious mast by Captain A. C. Read, commandant of a naval air station, and  “was cited as follows by Rear Admiral P. N. L. Bellinger, commander of Patrol Wing No. 2: ‘For extraordinary initiative and disregard of personal safety in the attack on the U. S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor territory of Hawaii by Japanese forces on Dec. 7, 1941, in photographing the attack and damage from naval air station, Pearl Harbor, despite the severe enemy bombing and strafing to which the station was being subjected.’” [ii] 

Born in Tazewell, Tennessee, on August 25, 1915, to Fred and Mossie (Brooks) Lanham, Pat enlisted with the Navy in 1936 at the age of 21.  Apparently he was given training in photography after enlistment, and on July 31, 1939, he was assigned to a naval receiving ship in New York, New York. 

USS Memphis
Naval records show that a year later on August 31, 1940, Pat was aboard the USS Memphis (CL-13), an Omaha-class light cruiser named for the city of Memphis, Tennessee, appropriate for a Tennessee native, most would agree.  The Memphis is known to have left San Francisco for Alaska at that time, where it remained in operations until early 1941.  Pat’s rank at this time was Photographer 3rd Class.

USS Wharton
On August 30, 1941, Pat was assigned to the Wharton, a ship originally built for the Munson Steamship Line but acquired by the United States Navy in November 1939 and used as a troop transport and hospital ship in the Pacific throughout the war.

Three months after the war began on February 28, 1942, Pat appears in the records at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. According to his obituary, Pat was in a combat photo squadron in the Pacific and the Atlantic during most of World War II.  His action shots must have been particularly well done as some of his footage was used in production of the 1944 movie A Wing and a Prayer, starring Don Ameche.  The plot centered around an aircraft carrier on a decoy mission in the Pacific “with orders to avoid combat, thus lulling Japanese alertness before the battle of Midway.”[iii]

Pat continued his navy career beyond World War II, taking flight training and serving as technical advisor and project superintendent for naval training films at the Naval Photographic Center in Annapolis.  As part of his work, he studied movie making at RKO studios in Hollywood, and his training film twice won top awards. 

In 1948, Pat married North Carolina girl, Gladys Elizabeth Allen, and within a few years they had a family of two sons and a daughter.  Sadly, Pat’s life was cut short by cancer on July 2, 1954.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on July 6.  Having entered the Navy as a high school graduate, Pat, at the time of his death, held the rank of Lieutenant Commander symbolized by the gold oak leaf insignia (photo of Pat's own insignia at left).

F6F Hellcat Night Fighter
Still today, nearly 60 years after their uncle’s passing, two of Pat’s nephews—Richard Cunningham and his older brother, namesake Patric Cunningham—remember occasions in the early 1950s when they were about ages 5 and 9, respectively.  Playing in rural Tennessee on their family’s 30-acre farm, they remember looking up into the sky and seeing their Uncle Pat flying over, tilting his wings left and right in a friendly USA greeting, as he would be heading in or out of Pensacola in his Grumman F6F Hellcat.  The last of the Hellcats rolled off the assembly lines in November of 1945, but they continued in use after the war as night-fighters, some of which were converted for photo-reconnaissance, making this Hellcat, the F6F-5P, just the ticket for a Tennessee boy with a knack for photography and flying.


“Claiborne Navy Photographer Cited for Pearl Harbor Bravery.” The Knoxville Journal.  15 May 1942.

Crawford, Rod.  “Summary of A Wing and a Prayer.”  Internet Movie Database.  n. d. Web.  21 Apr. 2013. <>

“Former Tazewell Man Dies While Serving with Navy.” Claiborne Progress.  7 Jul 1954.

Goebel, Greg.  “The Grumman F6F Hellcat.” 1 Jan 2003.  Web.  21 Apr. 2013. <>

Image of destroyed Vindicator.  "Attack on Pearl Harbor."  Wikipedia.  8 Apr. 2013.  Web.  21 Apr. 2013. <>
“USS Memphis (SSN-691).”  Wikipedia.  26 Mar. 2013.  Web.  21 Apr. 2013.  <>

“USS Wharton (AP-7).  Wikipedia.  17 Nov. 2012.  Web.  21 Apr. 2013.  <>

[i] “Former Tazewell Man Dies…”
[ii] “Claiborne Navy Photographer Cited…”
[iii] Crawford, Rod.

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