The Early Career of Photographer, Dave Mathias, 1955-1965

-by Greg Hoots-

David “Dave” Mathias was born on May 6, 1937 in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of David and Margaret Mathias.  When Dave was five-years-old, his parents divorced, and for seven years he attended a series of elementary schools, as his mother moved several times during and immediately after World War II. In 1949 Dave went to live with his father, and he attended Governor Mifflin High School in the suburb of Shillington, graduating in May of 1955.

As a high school graduation present, Dave’s father gave him an Argus 35-millimeter camera. Dave had developed an interest in photography while serving as the photographer of his high school yearbook.  Neither Dave nor his father immediately recognized the significant role that the camera would play in the younger Mathias’ life; but it wasn’t long before the camera’s impact became apparent to all.

In the month following graduation, at the age of eighteen, Dave Mathias enlisted in the United States Air Force.

On July 5, 1955, Dave departed Reading for basic training at Sampson Air Force Base at Geneva, New York.  During Dave’s twelve-week stint at basic training, he was interviewed as to his special interests or talents that might be of value to the Air Force and his career.  Mathias indicated that he had an interest in photography, and that reply set the direction of his career path.


Dave Mathias, second from left, poses with other Air Force photographer trainees at their school at Lowery AFB, Colorado in this view from 1955.

Upon completion of his basic training at Sampson AFB, Dave was sent to Air Force photography school at Lowery Air Force Base at Denver, Colorado.  After completing a sixteen-week course at Lowery, Mathias reported to his first assignment as an Air Force photographer as a member of the 815th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron at Forbes Air Force Base at Topeka, Kansas.


The 815th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron building at Forbes AFB contained the photo lab where Dave Mathias and other Air Force photographers developed aerial reconnaissance photographs.

In his role as a photographer for the Air Force, Dave routinely took photos assigned to him, but because his assignment was to work the “night shift,” much of his work for the Air Force was done in the darkroom, toiling through the night.


An RB-47 reconnaissance jet sits on the flight line in front of the operations building at Forbes Air Force base. Notice that the air traffic tower was located on the end of the operations building.

The 815th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron operated a group of specially equipped RB-47 aircraft which were produced by Boeing as a variant of its B-47 Stratojet, a medium-range bomber originally created specifically to carry a nuclear payload over 6,000 miles. Among the advantages of the B-47 were its ability to fly at high altitudes and at high speeds.  Introduced in 1951, the six-engine, swept-wing jet was considered an integral part of America’s nuclear deterrent, and a total of 2,032 of the planes were constructed for the Air Force.  Of that number, 290 of the jets were specially equipped as reconnaissance aircraft, tasked with the mission of flying high-altitude photographic missions over the Soviet Union and any other strategic location.


These stacks of drums all contain film from RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft to be processed at the Air Force photo lab, located in the 815th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron building at Forbes AFB. Smaller reels of 35-millimeter film are stacked on top of the 10-inch film cans. This 1957 view shows one night’s work for Air Force photographer, Dave Mathias.

In an interview in 2020, Mathias described the process of developing reconnaissance film. “We printed images from this film as requested after processing and were never advised as to what those images were about. The processed film was put on metal reels that would then go to the printing area, as needed. A lot of it was classified and we were there just to process and print with no identification as to what we were working on. There was a special department, which I never worked in, that handled classified assignments. All of the film was shot with nine cameras on an RB-47 recon flight. All the film was loaded on planes by different crews, not from our squadron. At the end of a flight they would unload all the camera positions and bring the film to us for processing.”

When Dave arrived at Forbes AFB at the beginning of 1956, he was assigned quarters in one of the barracks buildings.  Apart from the barracks housing, Forbes provided more than a thousand houses for airmen and officers at what was known as Capehart Village, an Air Force subdivision on the southwest edge of the base depot complex. Even with those accommodations, many airmen, officers and their families lived off base in private housing.

1957---DAVE IN HIS 1950 CHEVY

Dave Mathias is seen in this view in his 1950 Chevrolet as he drives away from his barracks building in the summer of 1957.

As 1956 drew to a close, Dave Mathias had been at Forbes AFB for a full year, and the job had developed a routine, much like working at a civilian job.  Dave would go to work and spend all night in the darkroom, developing film and making prints.

It was in the closing days of December of 1957 when one of Dave’s fellow airmen asked Mathias if he had plans for New Year’s Eve.  Dave confessed that he did not, and his friend explained that he had a date for the celebratory evening, but that his date had a friend, and could Dave be the friend’s date?  It was snowing when Dave’s buddy, along with his date, picked up Dave at the barracks and drove the three to Dave’s date’s apartment.  There, he was introduced to Leila “Lee” Benton, a young lady from Osage City, Kansas who was employed as an operator for Southwestern Bell Telephone in Topeka. Dave confessed to not remembering much about the date except for Lee; and the twenty-year-old airman was completely smitten with the Kansas girl.


Dave Mathias shows his bride, Lee, the camera his father gave him for his high school graduation, while the couple honeymoon in Pennsylvania in 1958.

Five months later, on June 1, 1958, Dave and Lee were married, and the young couple traveled “back home” to Reading, Pennsylvania on their honeymoon.  Upon their return to Topeka, the Dave and Lee Mathias moved into an apartment in Topeka, as Dave continued his work with the 815th Reconnaissance Squadron.  For the next two years the newlywed couple enjoyed life in Topeka in the late 1950s.  Dave’s work as an Air Force photographer seemed no different from a civilian job as a photographer, except for the pay.  As Dave’s four-year anniversary with the Air Force was approaching in July of 1959, he was faced with a decision whether to extend his enlistment or to leave the military for a job in civilian life.

After some consideration of the options, Dave and Lee decided that Dave would extend his enlistment for one additional year before returning to civilian life, where he aspired to pursue a career as a professional photographer.  A year later, on July 5, 1960, Dave received his discharge from the United States Air Force after serving for five years.

During his final year in the Air Force, Dave had taken note of a new squadron being established at Forbes AFB.  The 548th Strategic Missile Squadron was being formed to operate nine Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile launchers located near Forbes.  Of particular interest to Dave was the rumor that General Dynamics Astronautics (GDA), the builder of the rockets, employed many professional photographers to take pictures of all of the facets of their Atlas missile program, including the construction of the numerous missile launchers and the installation of their Atlas rockets.

Dave had seen a notice for a photographer’s job with GDA while he was still at Forbes, and he sent a resume to their corporate offices in San Diego, California. At the same time, be began to explore his options for working as a photographer in Topeka.  The most well-established commercial photographer in Topeka in 1960 was Wolfe’s Camera, located downtown.  Having worked as an Air Force photographer in Topeka for five years, Dave was well-acquainted with the folks at Wolfe’s, and he discussed the possibility of working there with the camera store’s management.  But the job that Dave really desired was the General Dynamics position. It paid far more than any position at Wolfe’s, and the work for General Dynamics was a perfect match for Mathias, who had already spent five years with the Air Force at Forbes.


Dave Mathias sits in the side doorway of an Air Force helicopter at Forbes AFB as he goes on assignment photographing the base’s Atlas missile sites in this view from 1961.

By the last half of 1960, work was progressing on all nine of the Atlas missile launchers at Forbes.  The Air Force had a deadline of mid-1961 to have the nine Forbes launchers on alert, and over a thousand men were working on the nine sites.  GDA had hired a photographer for the Forbes Atlas project by the time that Dave’s resume had landed in their hands.  Craig Fishel had been hired as GDA’s photographer at Forbes, but the workload was already heavy with simultaneous construction at the nine launcher sites.  With the impending arrival of the Atlas rockets, the demands on a single photographer to take all of the relevant photos, process all of the film, and ship all of the photos and film to San Diego with all of the needed documentation were considered excessive, and GDA decided to hire a “B” photographer, Dave Mathias. Dave began work as a General Dynamics photographer at Forbes AFB in February of 1961.

All of the field photographers for General Dynamics used GDA-provided Graflex large-format cameras, and each photographer developed their own film and made their own photographic prints which were submitted on a weekly basis to GDA headquarters in San Diego. At Forbes, the photographers worked from a darkroom located on the west side of Highway-75 in Building 13, just south of the Missile Maintenance building.


Dave Mathias sits at the enlarger at the GDA photo lab at Forbes AFB in 1961.

As Dave had suspected, the job with General Dynamics was a perfect match for the Air Force veteran. The huge construction projects at the nine launcher sites were carefully photographed throughout the entire process, and the subject matter was gripping. These nine launchers would hold rockets that carried thermonuclear bombs.

Insofar as Dave had been designated the “B” photographer, he often got the less newsworthy and less desirable assignments. Dave rose to the occasion, demonstrating excellence in his work, regardless of the job. One type of photo assignment that fell to Dave was the aerial work.  Lots of photographers, for example, don’t particularly enjoy hanging from the side of an airborne Air Force helicopter; however, Dave loved the aerial work.  When those assignments came, Dave contacted an Air Force helicopter pilot at Forbes with whom he was well-acquainted, and the pilot, eager to log airtime, would fly Dave to the nine launcher sites.  When the missiles were transported from Forbes Air Force Base to the individual sites, Dave photographed the transport of the rocket and the installation of the missile into the launcher site.

1961 site6 Keene

Dave Mathias took this aerial view of Site No. 6 at Keene, Kansas in 1961 as contractors continued to work on the site.

By the fall of 1961, the Atlas program at Forbes AFB was running at full-speed. A total of ten rockets had been delivered to Forbes by specially prepared Air Force C-133 transports, and each of those missiles had been serviced at the Missile Maintenance Building at Forbes before being installed in the nine launchers.  The tenth rocket was stored at Forbes as a spare, should there be a failure of any of the nine missiles on alert.


An Atlas missile passes through downtown Osage City on its way to Site No. 4, located near Burlingame in this 1961 view by Dave Mathias.

On July 28, 1961, General Dynamics-Convair transferred control of the nine missile launchers to the Air Force.  General Dynamics still maintained a presence in the missile program at Forbes, as GDA engineers staffed offices at Forbes and provided technical support to the members of the 548th Strategic Missile Squadron who operated the nine sites.


An Atlas missile on a trailer enters the launcher complex at Site No. 6, Keene, Kansas in this 1961 view.


An Atlas missile is seen being delivered to Site No. 6 at Keene, Kansas in this 1961 view.

The work for photographers at the General Dynamics facilities at Forbes had lessened considerably after the nine missile sites were transferred to the Air Force. Dave had taken the job with GDA with the understanding that it was temporary.  However, as the work was concluding at Forbes, General Dynamics had a new offer of a job for Dave Mathias.  They wanted Dave to go to Schilling Air Force Base, just 120 miles to the west of Topeka, near Salina, Kansas, where a new General Dynamics project was underway.  At Schilling there were twelve Atlas launchers under construction.  Unlike the nine Forbes sites which were horizontal “coffin” launchers, the twelve Atlas-F sites at Schilling were vertical silos which held the 75-foot rockets in an upright launching position on a platform elevator deep in the ground.


Atlas rocket number 552 is seen in this Dave Mathias view from 1962 taken at a Schilling AFB launch site.

In November of 1961, Dave and Lee packed their belongings and moved to Salina, Kansas.  Salina, like every town located near an Air Force base, continually experienced a shortage of available housing, so Dave and Lee purchase a mobile home and had it placed on a lot, as the couple made their first big move.  The move to Salina was a big one for the Mathias family, as at the time of the move, Lee was pregnant with their first child, and four months later the young couple’s son, Bret Mathias was born at a Salina hospital.

Dave’s work as a photographer was often recognized for excellence.  Apart from his knack for composition and his ability to place the camera in a location which would capture the essence of the subject matter, Dave’s work was recognized and recognizable by the extreme sharpness of his photos. When looking at a portfolio of his work during his time with GDA, one is inclined to believe that Dave Mathias never took a bad photo.


Atlas missile 532 stands on the top of the platform elevator at a type-F silo near Schilling AFB, Salina, Kansas in this 1962 night view by Dave Mathias.

It was during his time at Schilling that Dave’s photos gained recognition through their publication in General Dynamics’ national corporate magazine and their entry in company-sponsored photo contests. A November 8, 1961 edition of General Dynamics News featured a story about the General Dynamics Astronautics workers who were departing Forbes Air Force Base with the activation of the nine Atlas-E missiles.  Included in the story was an extraordinary photo by Dave, showing of one of the nine Forbes missiles erected at a launcher with a Kansas farmer baling hay in the foreground. The article notes that photographer, Dave Mathias was “on the move” to Schilling AFB.


This view of two Kansas farmers baling hay with an Atlas missile erected in the background was taken in the summer of 1961 by Dave Mathias.


Dave Mathias’ photo of two farmers baling hay appeared in the General Dynamics News of November 8, 1961.

One of Dave Mathias most famous photos produced for GDA was taken at Forbes AFB, in 1961.  Rocketdyne engineers working on the Atlas project used a large spherical pressure tank to test the propulsion systems.  Dave squeezed his 5’ 5’’ frame into the tank which was only 33-inches in diameter, and while seated cross-legged inside the sphere, he photographed the engineer from inside the tank.  Mathias’ photograph was selected by General Dynamics along with the works of seven other GDA photographers as entries in the Western States Photo Exhibit in Los Angeles, California in 1964.  The eight GDA photographers were recognized with Awards of Merit for their photographs.


General Dynamics Astronautics photographer, Dave Mathias positioned himself inside a 33-inch wide pressure tank to capture the technician’s image from the body of the tank.


This award-winning photograph by GDA photographer Dave Mathias shows an engineer testing pneumatics. Mathias was inside the pressure tank when this 1961 view was taken.

By the fall of 1962, the Atlas-F launchers at Schilling were approaching completion, and again, Dave Mathias’ future with GDA seemed unsure.  Dave, never one to be shy in his enthusiasm for his work, offered his services as a photographer to GDA at any other missile installations or at the General Dynamics factory in San Diego.  The head of the still-photography department at GDA was impressed by Dave’s talent as well as his motivation to work, and in the fall of 1962, General Dynamics offered him a position as a photographer at their factory in San Diego. GDA agreed to pay for the move of Mathias’ mobile home from Kansas to California, and in October of 1962 Dave began work as a photographer at the General Dynamics Astronautics factory. Dave was one of a team of ten photographers who worked for GDA at the California missile factory, but for the first time, he no longer had to perform darkroom work, as General Dynamics employed full-time technicians to develop film and produce prints.


Dave Mathias took this aerial view of the General Dynamics Plant in San Diego in 1963.

Dave’s work at the GDA factory not only included photographic assignments within the factory but also included photographic work at the Point Loma and Sycamore Canyon missile test sites. Dave’s work in California continued to win acclaim as General Dynamics entered his photos in competitions, both in California and nationally.


Dave Mathias photographed this moonlight view of the Sycamore Canyon missile test site near San Diego in 1964.

In June of 1964, Lee gave birth to the Mathias’ second child, Mindy, born in San Diego, and the Mathias family enjoyed the mild California climate at their home in El Cajon.

Early in 1965, all of the Atlas-E and Atlas-F missile sites were decommissioned, and the rockets were transported for storage at Norton Air Force Base in California. While the Atlas rockets were eventually used, primarily in the launching of satellites, for all intents and purposes, the sun had set on the Atlas program.


This view of the Point Loma Atlas test site was taken at sundown by photographer, Dave Mathias in 1964.

In June of 1965, Dave received notice that he was being laid-off by GDA.  Dave and Lee decided to sell their home in El Cajon and return to Kansas.  Upon their return to Topeka, Dave got a job as a photographer for the State of Kansas, and Lee continued her job as a telephone operator for Southwestern Bell. After two years, Dave left his position with the State, and he purchased half-interest in Wolfe’s Camera commercial photography business in 1967.  Twelve years later, in 1979, Dave changed the name of the business to Photo 1, and in 1984 he became the sole owner.  No commercial photographer in the history of Topeka has ever produced such a volume of work over such a long timeline as Dave Mathias.  Dave’s collection of negatives from his Photo 1 work are now held at the Kansas State Archives.

My final question for Dave was, “to what do you attribute your longevity and your enormous success as a photographer?”  This quiet-spoken man answered immediately and directly.  “From the time I met my wife of fifty-five years, till the present time…everything I have accomplished is because of her love and support.  Nobody does it all alone.”  Dave’s selflessness was touching.  In 2013, Dave suffered a great loss when Lee passed away after fifty-five years together. The bond created by their partnership sustains him, today.

Now, sixty-five years after launching his career as a professional photographer, Dave is still taking photographs.  Not only is he still taking photos, he is still doing aerial photo work. One thing is unchanged despite the passage of 65-years. Even today, it seems that Dave Mathias never takes a bad photo.

Dave provided the Flint Hills Special Digital Magazine scans of many of his photos from the earliest days in photo school at Lowery AFB though his assignments with General Dynamics at Forbes AFB, Schilling AFB, and the GDA factory in San Diego.  Below, one can view the photos in a gallery format or as a full-screen image.

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