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Oyler: Columnist recalls military map duty

By John Oyler
Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

We had a lot of positive feedback from our column about climbing Mt. Fuji 60 years ago, including some questions about what we were doing in Japan in 1954.

If my memory holds out, there will be a few more columns on my ill-fated military career.

In July 1954, I was stationed in a neighborhood called Oji, in northern Tokyo. Our specific unit was the 34th Engineers Company (Cartographic). We were part of the 64th Engineers Battalion (Base Topographic), which included three other companies – the 29th (Survey Company), the 95th (Reproduction Company), and the Headquarters Company.

Some time later, our battalion was absorbed by the 29th Engineer Battalion (Base Topographic).

The mission of our battalion was to produce high-quality maps of the Far East for all of our services as well as for those of some of our allies. Most of the maps we produced were similar to the familiar USGS “7 12-minute quad” currently in use. Each of these sheets maps a portion of the earth's surface covering seven and a half minutes of longitude (about six and a half miles) from east to west and seven and a half degrees of latitude (about eight and a half miles from north to south at a scale of 1:24000 (one inch equals two thousand feet).

These were multi-color maps — blue for water; black for buildings, streets, and small roads; red for major highways; green for woodlands; and light brown for contours. Separate plates were drawn for each color, then superimposed in printing. Our company was responsible for taking source data from land surveys and aerial photogrammetry, or the science of making measurements using photographs.

I worked in the projection section that consisted of two GIs, two Japanese mathematicians, and a dozen Japanese draftsmen. Our problems were characteristic of the overall difficulty of representing the irregular surface of something nearly spherical on a two-dimensional sheet of paper.

Mapmakers invented different ways to display latitude and longitude on a flat surface. The mathematics on which these methods are based is called projection.

In elementary school, we all learned about Mercator's Projection and the way it distorted geography at the higher latitudes — the common example being Greenland. The task for our section was to convert latitude and longitude into two dimensions that were easily decipherable by the map user.

We encountered major problems when we began to produce maps for the French government, in support of its effort to suppress a rebellion in French Indochina. We had great difficulty producing modern military maps based on the source maps they provided.

Eventually, with a little help from the Army Map Service, we were able to develop the necessary mathematical process to make a transformation that worked.

The Indochina project was frustrating as the French troops kept retreating toward the relative safety of Saigon almost as rapidly as we supplied them with useful maps. I distinctly remember the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, not realizing that in a few years, American troops would be dying in that country.

Another interesting project was a large scale mapping of about two dozen invasion beaches in Japan; our client was the U. S. Marine Corps, represented on site by two middle-aged master sergeants with waxed moustaches.

We never knew the purpose of the maps, whether they were to help us defend Japan or for us to invade Japan.

The GIs who were map compilers worked in darkened, air-conditioned cubicles. Their task was to look at a three-dimensional stereographic image and draw the appropriate contour lines.

This was done by projecting a dot of light that was at a specific elevation and moving it until it appeared to be on the surface of the ground, then moving the cursor along the hillside to draw the contour.

It sounds easy, but it took a lot of willpower to do this successfully for an extended period of time.

I was impressed with the work our unit did and was pleased to learn, many years later, that we had received a unit commendation. That helped make up for the military aspects of the assignment, none of which appealed to me.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or

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