WINNSBORO — As Winnsboro native Ernie Ferguson looks back on his life, he finds much of it framed in photographs he shot, a career that might not have been afforded him were it not for his service in the Navy in World War II and the G.I. Bill.
He grew up in Winnsboro, graduating from Mt. Zion and then attended college briefly at Randolph Macon College, a small, Methodist college in Virginia. By then the United States was becoming more involved in World War II and he decided to enlist in the Navy.
Ferguson completed basic training and enrolled in a V-12 training program at the University of Virginia. He then attended midshipman’s school at Cornell University. He liked the V-12 program’s guarantee he could further his education once the war ended.
Ferguson served aboard an all-wooden 110-foot vessel, a service craft submarine chaser which was the smallest commissioned ship in the Navy. The boat was made entirely of wood so it could traverse harbors without setting off mines. Sonar also had a harder time detecting wooden craft. Ferguson said the same ships were used in World War I and World War II.
“We were the only true enemy that U-boats ever had,” he said.
The sub chasers carried depth charges and if they could locate a boat underwater the advantage went to the allied crew. However, if the German boat were allowed to surface the allies would be in peril due to its heavier armor and armaments.
“If we ever saw a U-boat rise, we knew it could blow us out of the water,” he said.
Serving country, crew
From 1942-44 he was stationed in the Marianas in the South Pacific. By the time he reached the Philippines in 1944, the war was over. Ferguson said thankfully that he never saw combat during his patrols.
The crew of 28 included three officers, of which Lieutenant Junior Grade Ferguson was one. He requested to serve on a small craft because he thought it would be more fun and that there would be closer camaraderie among his crew.
On the sub chasers there were three officers. Sailors were on duty for four hours and off duty for eight hours. When you were on duty, it was your ship to manage, he said, but just because sailors were off duty did not mean they were idle.
The boat had to be kept clean, had to keep men fed and keep things under control and in order. One essential task that he dreaded took place about once a month — placing the boat into a floating dry dock so he and his crew could scrape barnacles off the bottom. The job took one to two months to complete, and then the crew could be back at sea again.
His two brothers served in the Navy, one older and one younger. Another military cousin of his, Brother Lyles, served in the U.S. Army.
The sub chasers did patrol duty among the smaller islands and did escort duty, providing submarine protection for bigger ships in the harbors.
Some of his duties included reading and censuring the crews’ letters, helping get provisions aboard, ensuring the armor was in working order, and seemingly constantly painting some part of the ship or another.
“I enjoyed the Navy. It was pleasant to be in. I don’t regret that choice one bit,” he said.
After the war he stayed in the Naval Reserves for 17 years. A third generation member of the military, Ferguson said his father served in World War I as a major in a field artillery unit and his grandfather served in the War Between the States.
Ferguson’s grandfather is thought to have fired the final shot at Gettysburg as a member of Pickett’s Charge. His grandfather was imprisoned in Canada the remainder of the war and later became a Methodist minister. Ferguson also is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and is proud to be a grandson of a man who fought for states rights and his way of life.
After the war, Ernie Ferguson completed college on the G.I. bill, earning a photography degree. He returned to Winnsboro and set up a photography studio. As one of, if not the only, photographers in town, he said he photographed every school child in Fairfield County, white or black, from 1947 until he branched out into the postcard photography business in the 1960s.
He still has the negatives and fillers from that era and said he can still make prints of those students upon request.
At its zenith, his postcard business Photoarts Corporation made a million sales per year across South Carolina. He shot post card scenes in Georgetown, Beaufort and Charleston among other places. He also did some business in Georgia and North Carolina.
He and his daughter still work at photography and postcards, though he is now retired at age 89. During his career he worked with big film, small film, 35 mm, 4x5 negatives in press cameras, and 4x5 positives. He developed his own black and white photos and said he has bought chemicals and equipment in hopes of restarting that as a hobby in the future.
Ferguson has a digital Nikon camera and continues to dabble in photography, though he said much has changed since his professional days using his Canon camera with film, filters, light meters and darkrooms. Recently he was a judge at in the Columbia Camera Club Contest along with two others. They judged a show of pictures related to South Carolina.
He has been married 55 years to his wife, Betty, a Chester native who once taught at the Mt. Zion School, the high school Ferguson graduated from. He will participate Monday in a Veteran’s Day program at Richard Winn Academy and loaned the school his old uniform for the occasion.