Korean War Legacy Project

Donald Stemper


In 1953, Don Stemper’s motive to enlist in the Air Force was one based both on survival and his interest in infrared photography which is also used in aerial and map-making photography. While at Lackland Air Force Base, they placed him in a Casual Squadron so they could scour Mankato, MN, asking the town questions about him before giving him clearance to work with classified map-making material. He was then sent to Fort Belvoir, VA, where he would continue training with the Department of Topo, and he earned top honors as a print master which would eventually open doors for him to become an instructor at the base. His story is compelling as he describes the importance of topography during the war and their ability to become mobile when the men on the front line needed them. Although he did not engage in military combat during the Korean War, he remains an active member of the local Korean War Veterans Association Chapter and continues to help these veterans earn the respect they deserve. He would later be recruited to work for National Geographic until he retired.

Video Clips

FBI Scoured His Home Town Asking Questions

Since Don Stemper and his family had printing skills, he had a huge interest in infrared, aerial, or map-making photography. While at Lackland Air Force Base, they put him into a Casual Squadron which is where the armed forces put you when they don't know what to do with you. He heard from family members that the FBI had scoured the town of Mankato, Minnesota asking questions about Don Stemper in order to receive clearance to do undercover work for the Armed Forces. He learned later that these strategies was standard protocol before giving someone who was working with classified material and map-making technology. While he was in this holding pattern, he pulled duty over trash cans.

Tags: Basic training,Civilians,Communists,Home front,Letters,Living conditions

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Importance of Topography: Life or Death

Don Stemper pulls out a map and uses it to explain the importance of topography. These skills proved that the tiny details could mean the difference between life and death, winning, or losing the war effort. He says accuracy is so importance during war.

Tags: Basic training,Fear,Front lines,Living conditions,Personal Loss,Physical destruction

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Mobile Topography Units

During the Korean War, the US military had mobile TOPO (an acronym like M.A.S.H) units in trucks that were like a caravan vehicle. They included cameras, printing presses, plate making, survey and drafting equipment, as well as ink and paper just behind the lines because that's where the information was coming from. All these tools were needed to create the maps at any time and diligence was crucial. He is very proud of the work he did and in his mapping instruction.

Tags: Front lines,Living conditions,Physical destruction,Pride,Weapons

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Process of Making the Maps for the Soldiers

Don Stemper explains in detail the process of how the US military photograph images from both sides of the plane. Using stereo-projectors and drafting tables with special magnifying eye wear, mappers drew the contour of hills so troops knew the exact height of each hill directly from a flat photograph. The details were then added to the map and copied onto plastic with specific colors to identify certain landmarks.

Tags: Front lines,Pride,Weapons

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