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Earl Rossman

Earl Rossman, Veteran of WWI and WWII, Adventurer.

Earl Rossman was born March 9, 1891, on a farm in South Dakota to Jewish parents, his mother was from Poland and father from Bessarabia (later Moldova). Growing up, he became interested in the early days of photography. In 1916, twenty-five-year-old Earl traveled to New York City to study law. When the United States entered WWI in 1917, Earl enlisted in the Navy reserve. He was given the rank of Lieutenant. His ability with photography was used in Naval Intelligence.

After the Armistice in November 1918, Earl Rossman returned to New York to pursue his law degree and got a part-time office job in a skyscraper. From his desk he looked down on the bustling harbor. He sometimes heard the motor of a Curtis “Jenny” biplane overhead flying the first scheduled Air Mail service. Adventure was calling.

Earl learned that the American Museum of Natural History was hiring photographers to film around the world with a team of explorers. He eagerly joined. His first expedition was to film big game in the Congo. Earl’s fame as a photographer and cinematographer grew. In 1923, Earl Rossman was hired by the Explorer’s Film Company to film an Alaskan documentary at remote Inuit villages
at Point Barrow, in the northernmost part of Alaska. The natives called him “Man who hunts with a box”. Earl traveled by dogsled filming with a hand-crank camera in fifty degrees below zero temperatures. He filmed such scenes as a reindeer roundup into a corral of ice, natives spearing seals and the aurora borealis.

Earl Rossman spent two years in the frozen North. He wrote a book about his adventures entitled “Black Sunlight” and wrote and filmed an Inuit love story called “Kivalina of the Ice Lands” starring amateur native actors. His movie was released in 1925. The book was published in 1926. The documentary, “Dangers of the Arctic”, was released in New York City in 1932. This was the first time that most people saw scenes of igloos and dogsleds.

Because of his experience as an Arctic explorer, Earl Rossman was chosen to be the cinematographer for the Detroit Arctic Expedition led by Australian explorer George Hubert Wilkins who was intent on discovering if there was a continent lying under the mass of ice and snow in the Arctic. The attempt in 1926 by land and air was beset with problems. Early on one plane crashed and the other had mechanical failures.

Rossman and his crew were lost for nine days and about to kill their dogs for food when they were rescued. The Arctic expedition was terminated. Earl Rossman returned to New York. In 1928, the Navy asked him to reenlist, and Lt. Earl Rossman moved to Baltimore, Maryland. He was assigned to film Naval Aviation facilities including the construction of
lighter-than-air aircraft called the Zeppelin Akron.

In 1930, thirty-nine-year-old Earl Rossman met Olivia Zenore, thirty-four, who had recently moved to Baltimore. She had been born in Zenorsville, Iowa, a town her family
founded where they owned a short-lived coal mine. Olivia was a former vaudeville actress. Lt. Earl Rossman and Olivia Zenore were married. Olivia converted to Judaism. Their only child, Berta, was born in 1932.
In 1942, Earl, Olivia and their daughter, Berta, moved to Dayton, Ohio. Earl had been assigned to Air Force Intelligence as a Captain stationed at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Captain Earl Rossman was the head of a film team in 1946 charged with documenting the atomic bomb tests at Bikini atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. Nuclear testing at Bikini, between 1946 and 1958, consisted of twenty-three nuclear weapons by the United States. The huge blast in 1954 caused global fallout which prompted international calls for a ban on atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons.

Earl stayed in the military until his retirement. In 1969, Earl and Olivia Rossman retired to Brownsville, Texas. They were members of Temple Beth-El. They may not have socialized much because I found no one in Brownsville who remembers them.

Olivia Rossman died on December 1, 1975, at age seventy-nine. Earl Rossman died June 2, 1982, at age ninety-one. The are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery. Their tombstone is engraved, “Together Forever”.

P.S.: Earl Rossman’s further adventures included the following:

He was the first to fly over and photograph Mt. McKinley (now Denali) in Alaska, the highest point in North America.

In 1931, Earl joined a well-organized South American Expedition to film head-hunters in Ecuador who shrunk the heads of their enemies.

Navy Lt. Rossman worked on an underwater film with Dr. William Beebe, developer of the Bathysphere, in 1934. This was the first underwater deep-diving device which allowed two persons to view deep sea creatures never seen before. The film called “Titans of the Deep” was narrated by Lowell Thomas.

The Pathé Film Company of France had invented the short newsreel that ran before the feature movie in early cinemas. Earl Rossman worked in 1936 as a Pathé newsreel cameraman to report on the war in Ethiopia. Ethiopian Emperor Halle Selassie recognized Earl’s bravery by making him an honorary general in his army.