Medical assessment throughout modern times has come to a pretty solid conclusion that the human appendix has no known function; that humans can live normal, healthy lives without it, and therefore the appendix is, by most definitions “useless.”
Do not, however, try to convince Melbourne J. Gauthier of that.
As he was being shipped across the Pacific Ocean, one dreary night in 1941, Gauthier (“M.J.” as he was to become widely known) felt a twinge in his abdomen that would change his life. Ominous clouds of war were floating everywhere in the world, and Gauthier was on his way to the Philippines to do his part as an anti-aircraft gunner in Uncle Sam’s army.
“The appendicitis hit and they operated on me on a ship,” Gauthier says. “Then they dropped me off at a crippled children’s hospital in Honolulu for a one-day layover to recover. On Dec. 6, I got out of the hospital and went to Schofield Barracks. The next day, I got up early, and it was a beautiful morning. Then all hell broke loose. There were explosions everywhere. Planes were strafing everything in sight. We were supposed to have maneuvers that day, so believe it or not a lot of guys thought that’s what was going on. Then, we realized this was for real!”
Gauthier continues, “I grabbed an M-1 rifle and realized I didn’t have any ammunition. Nobody did until a guy came running by and gave us clips (of ammunition). I started shooting at the planes overhead. I took dead aim on one and it went down. One of the guys quickly patted me on the back and said, ‘Hey, that’s great shooting! You got him!’ Of course, there were about 500 other guys shooting at the same plane.”
Gauthier also took other shots at the planes, these with a vintage 12-shot aim-and-press-the-shutter-button Kodak camera that he had with him. Up to that point, Gauthier’s only experience with a camera had been photographing the cows that occasionally wandered down Main Street in his hometown of Bunkie, La.
“All of a sudden, almost as quickly as it began, I was hustled onto a truck and driven out of there. I wound up at a house with a lot of other guys who were living in “tent city” outside Schofield. I had just about forgotten about the pictures I shot … and my camera. A few days later I’m called in by the brass and they’re all looking at the photos I shot and one of them asks, ‘You shoot these?’ Yes sir, I said. ‘You know you’re not supposed to take photos of this?
No stills! No movies!’ At this point I’m thinking I’m going to be court-martialed and Heaven knows what else.”
That is when Gauthier’s bout of appendicitis turned into a brilliant, albeit unplanned, career move that would lead to a life of world travel and the highest awards with which his profession could honor him.
“One of the officers turned to me and asked, ‘How’d you like to go into a photographic outfit?’ I jumped at the chance. I was handed a 35-millimeter motion picture camera and I had never even heard of such a thing .. I didn’t know where to begin. I was sent to photography school and was later assigned to the 53rd Intelligence Division, never having gotten anywhere near my original destination of the Philippine Islands.
“I was all over what they called the Asiatic Pacific,” Gauthier says, “all the way down to the equator. I was filming anti-aircraft guns that the enemy set up on all those islands. My pictures would be used for our guys to go in and knock out those guns. I shot from land, from planes, from ships … anywhere I could. I was 21 years old and doing my part to win the war.”
After four years and four days (“I went in June 3, 1941 and got out June 7, ’44”) M.J. Gauthier headed home. But after what he had seen in the Pacific through the lens of a camera, he could no longer be content photographing country scenes. He enrolled in photographic artistry school in San Antonio, graduated in nine months and headed for the bright lights of New Orleans.
Gauthier landed a gig with Motion Picture Advertising (later to be known simply as MPA), where his moving images of items including automobiles, mayonnaise, home furnishings wound up influencing buyers.
In 1955, Gauthier took his talent for catching images in a bottle to the still-embryonic medium of television when he joined WDSU-TV and became part of the “first family” of television in New Orleans, working with names like Wayne Mack (The Great MacNutt), Terry Flettrich and Mel Leavitt with images of the city.
All of a sudden, it was Pearl Harbor all over again: exotic times and places, and exciting over-the-back-fence stories to make his accountant neighbors green with envy.
“No doubt, it was not your every day job,” Gauthier says. “It was news. And that was incredibly exciting. It was a high without drugs. I didn’t know from one day to the next where I’d be or what I’d be doing. There was no long-term planning.”
Like winding up in Cuba just before the arrival of Castro and his army of Fidelistas in 1959.
“There was going to be a big celebration in Cuba,” Gauthier says. “I was there to photograph it. Mayor (Chep) Morrison was there. Truckloads of parade floats came in from New Orleans. Then Castro showed up and it’s a full scale uprising. We were told that we had to get off the island at that very moment. Mayor Morrison and I got on the last plane out of Havana. If we had missed that plane, we may still be in a prison in Cuba. And for all I know, all those floats are still down there.”
Shortly after he was appointed America’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States by President John F. Kennedy, Morrison was killed in a plane crash on a mountainside in Mexico. The WDSU News Editor didn’t give a second thought to sending Gauthier to video the crash site for New Orleans and the world to see.
When a volcano erupted and flattened cities in Costa Rica and left hundreds buried under rubble, Gauthier was sent there.
When Hurricane Audrey smashed into Cameron, La. killing more than 650 people, Gauthier was there before the winds died down. “I covered hurricanes from Florida to Texas,” Gauthier says.
When a mob of Ku Klux Klan members attacked a cameraman colleague from CBS outside a courthouse in Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960, that cameraman fended off his attackers by waylaying several of them with a handle from his camera. Several of the Klansmen naturally took full advantage of the cameraman’s defensive action to sue him and CBS for “great and permanent bodily harm.” Unbeknownst to the KKK, Gauthier had filmed the entire incident and offered his film as evidence. The Klansmens’ suit was thrown out. In fact, Gauthier and the Klan had many run-ins across Mississippi during those hectic and dangerous days of the 1960.
And, of course, much of New Orleans has seen itself through Gauthier’s lens: from police shootouts to courtroom drama; from auto fatalities to heart-tugging features that moved thousands of television viewers to reach for their checkbooks to support a worthy cause.
For capturing the world for others to see, Gauthier was named United Press International and Associated Press TV Photographer of the year. He has captured more awards from such organizations as the Press Club of New Orleans and the National Press Photographer’s Association than he has room to display in his home.
For his documentaries on the KKK and about New Orleans “City in Crisis,” Gauthier was honored with two Emmys, the television equivalent of the print media’s Pulitzer Prize.
Gauthier sits back one morning at Café du Monde. As he recalls his lively past, he looks 30 years younger than his 89 years. And as he talks about his adventures around the world and on the streets of New Orleans, it’s difficult to believe it’s been nearly 25 years since Gauthier turned in his camera at WDSU-TV and retired from sharing his view of the world with us.
The noise of dropped cups bouncing off the tile floor, rattled spoons and crying kids is deafening, but only a whisper to Gauthier when he compares the din in the coffee house to the raucous symphony of hurricanes and exploding volcanoes and screaming mobs of Ku Klux Klansmen after his scalp, or to a Japanese fighter plane taking dead aim at Pearl Harbor and at a man armed with only a drugstore-bought plastic Kodak camera.