Robert Skelton, a former Iowa boy who went to war in the South Pacific as a Marine in 1942 and took most of his shots with a bulky camera, died Monday at age 92.
The combat photographer was awarded a Purple Heart for serious injuries that permanently impaired his mobility but did not impede his post-war career in commercial photography.
He built studios for Skelton Photography on San Francisco's Main Street in 1965. Over the following quarter century he employed as many as 16 photographers and produced images for clients such as Gump's, Standard Oil, U.S. Steel and Southern Pacific Railroad.
Skelton and his wife of 49 years, Judy, settled in Sonoma in 1989 and relocated to Cloverdale in 2000. Right up to his death following a brief illness, he shot photos prized by Sonoma County people — most recently, vibrant pictures of roses.
Throughout Cloverdale's Del Webb retirement development, neighbors looked forward to Skelton stopping by as he wheeled about on his red electric scooter, a bright orange cap on his head.
"He always liked people so much," Judy Skelton said. "People always liked him."
Robert W. Skelton was born in 1921 in Eagle Grove, Iowa, and as a child was intrigued by photography. With war looming in the fall of 1941, he struck upon a plan to enlist and request enrollment in photography school at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
However, his wife recalled, "He didn't want to join the Navy because he didn't like the white hats." So Skelton enlisted in the Marines, knowing that Leathernecks trained at Pensacola, too.
But he was still in boot camp in San Diego when the Japanese Navy's attack on U.S. forces in and near Pearl Harbor drew the country abruptly into the war. Skelton was shipped to the islands of American Samoa.
There, a bit of good luck led to an encounter with a Marine Corps camera crew unfamiliar with the operation of a particular camera. Skelton pitched in and promptly was assigned to their unit as a photographer.
Much of his work involved shooting areas of Pacific islands deemed suitable for the construction of air strips. Judy Skelton said he also took beautiful shots of native people and villages.
In the fall of 1942, Skelton photographed flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker following his rescue 24 days after he and the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress ditched at sea.
The following year, the war ended for Skelton in an excruciating and terrifying moment. He was on Nanumea in the Ellice Islands when Japanese planes launched an attack.
Shrapnel struck him and lodged in his spine, temporarily paralyzing him. In time he was loaded onto the hospital ship USS Solace and delivered to Vallejo's Mare Island Naval Hospital.
He was treated and rehabilitated there for six months. "He had to learn to walk again," Judy Skelton said.
Once he was back on his feet, Skelton was discharged. Deciding to stay in the Bay Area, he looked for a job as a photojournalist but was deemed unsuitable because he walked with difficulty and that was physically demanding work.
So he turned to commercial photography, hiring on at San Francisco's Gabriel Moulin Studios as a print maker.
"It didn't take him long to get into his own business," his wife said.