I have an original U.S. WWII Army Air Force Graflex k-20 Aircraft camera. Is there any way to tell what missions my camera was used on? I do have the serial number for it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ My guess is that such fine grained information is not available because nobody really cared enough to write it down because it didn't really matter relative to life and death at the scale of the war. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    Nov 30, 2017 at 4:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @benrudgers while that statement is in itself true, the military usually tracks all equipment for the purpose of proper maintenance cycles and mission readiness. This camera was also used in surveillance during world war 2 so it very well may have held great importance in terms of life and death during the smear. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2017 at 4:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ One starting point would be locating a resource that identifies units to which Graflex k-20 cameras were assigned since this is necessary to search for camera maintenance logs. The next step would be finding those units lists of missions. Lastly, a resource identifying the particular cameras used on those missions is needed. I'd describe the first step as likely to be substantially challenging. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    Nov 30, 2017 at 6:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Apart from the serial are there any other stamps etc made into the camera? (I can't really speak for the US stuff but WWII British gear is filled with after manufacturer stamps which can be useful to identify stuff such as which regiment it was assigned to, constructiondates etc, it can help narrow it down where it may have been!) \$\endgroup\$
    – Crazy Dino
    Nov 30, 2017 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CrazyDino there is a contract number on the camera stamped next to the serial number. Additionally there is a sticker from the Department of he Interior, Fish and Wildlife service. Serial number : USN 42-2427. Contract: NXs - 7310 \$\endgroup\$ Dec 2, 2017 at 15:52

1 Answer 1


The K-20 was near ubiquitous among U.S. Army Air Force units that did any kind of photographic reconnaissance. You'd literally be looking for a needle in a haystack.

It's highly unlikely you could use the serial number to trace the camera from the manufacturer to a unit that might have used it. It's more likely that you might find the serial number in maintenance logs or inventory records of any specific unit that used the camera. Your biggest problem is the sheer number of units who used the K-20 and the geographic distance between various locations of any records that may have survived.

If a unit used your particular K-20 in action during WWII and if the maintenance or inventory records from that particular unit are still in existence then probably the only way for you to find it would be to manually examine such records of such units line by line looking for your particular serial number. It's highly doubtful that any such records regarding recce cameras have been digitized, and certainly the case that all of them collectively have not survived, much less been digitized. You'd have to use some old fashioned pre-information age shoe leather to do your search.

Folmer Graflex Corporation only made the K-20 under license from Fairchild, who designed the K-20, between the years of 1941-45. If your K-20 is one of the 15,000 or so K-20 cameras branded as a Graflex it certainly was made during the war years. As was the case with much of the wartime industrial production of the U.S. near the end of the war, it is possible your example was produced too late and never left the U.S. before the war ended. Although a totally different category, most of the surviving WWII "warbirds" in the U.S. were examples that were manufactured near the end of the war and never left the U.S. before the treaties were signed. Some were used by training units here in the U.S. at the end of the war and in the following years before they were replaced by newer technology.

Fairchild, who was a major defense contractor that specialized in imaging devices that worked with visible light, radar, and x-ray, continued to sell the K-20 after the war, but they no longer licensed other companies to do so after the cessation of hostilities.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I did find some graflex mentions in the national archives (and even an assignment for Ansel Adams!) - it seems that the Forest Service utilized a lot of these. You're right though - most of the records are references and will need to be looked at physically as they haven't been scanned. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Nov 30, 2017 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ A lot of other federal agencies that did survey photography wound up with surplus K-20 (and other aerial type) cameras after the war. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Nov 30, 2017 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ On a brighter side - there was a K-20 on board of Ebola Gay taking photos of mushroom clouds. Likely not your K-20, but the same model. That is some connection to history, isn't it? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2017 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Corey Those newsreels of returning GI's pushing aircraft and ground vehicles overboard into the sea may have implications regarding attitudes toward boxes of routine paperwork at the end of the war. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    Nov 30, 2017 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @osullic But it is, literally, a common figure of speech. :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 1, 2017 at 23:21

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