Map Makers At Work

I was going through some photos in my collection for some Facebook friends and ran across a collection of old shots I acquired while assigned to the 320th Engineer Company (Topographic) back in the late 1990s. I say ‘acquired’ because I just happened to find them lying around my office as part of some left over historical records from the old 649th Engineer Battalion (Topographic). All are 1970’s vintage photos that highlight the map making activities of the 649th. The 649th provided comprehensive topographic support – survey, map production & distribution, terrain analysis, and geographic intelligence analysis – to US Army Europe (USAREUR).

In the early 1980’s I was assigned to the 649th at Tompkins Barracks in Schwetizingen, Germany. I served as the commander of one of the terrain analysis detachments. I have a lot of good (and some not-so-good) memories of the 649th and the Soldiers that served in the unit. Fifteen years later I found myself back in Germany. By then the 649th had been deactivated and my unit, the 320th Engineer Company (Topographic), was the last surviving remnant of the 649th. The 320th had received a lot of left over equipment and paperwork from the 649th and one of my duties was to sort through it all to determine what was worth keeping and what could be trashed. During this process I found the photos you see in this post.

All of these photos were rejects, shots the photo editor didn’t think were worthy of using in a presentation. That accounts for a lot of the grease pencil ‘mark outs’ you see on many of the images. The interesting part is that the pictures that made it past the editor and into various publications or presentations are long gone – either packed up with the unit’s archives and locked away in an Army records warehouse or tossed into a trash can. Only the rejects survived to make it to my desk long after the battalion inactivated.

The 649th rarely made a new map from scratch. Most of the work involved updating existing maps or creating specialized overlays (like military operational graphics) to be overprinted onto existing maps. Still, the battalion had all the functional components necessary to create a new map:

  • Topographic and geodetic survey
  • Photomapping and cartography
  • Layout, photolithography and printing press operations

To accomplish these tasks each topographic company within the 649th was divided into three platoons – the Survey Platoon (topographic & geodetic survey), the Photomapping Platoon (photo control, compilation and drafting) and the Reproduction Platoon (layout, photolithography and press).

So let’s take a look at these processes as practiced by Soldiers of the 649th. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive overview of map making; there are some large gaps in this tale simply because I don’t have any photos depicting specific steps. The real goal here is to highlight the Soldiers and their activities.



Each map starts with two things – stereo aerial photography and a topographic survey to ‘tie’ the photos to their location on the face of the earth. Army topographic units relied on US Air Force photomapping squadrons to provide the aerial photography. Once the topographic unit got the aerial photography in hand it was up to the surveyors to go out and collect precise location data for points visible in the photographs – things like road intersections, prominent terrain features or pre-positioned survey point targets.


APPS – the Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System. The APPS permitted surveyors and terrain analysts to precisely determine points on the ground using georeferenced stereo images. The system consisted of a point positioning stereoscope hooked to an early HP desktop computer. Each set of stereo images came with a computer tape that held the ephemeris data for each image. The operator would pick a point on the image in stereo (road intersection, building roof, etc.), tap a foot switch and the computer would print out the point location in latitude and longitude. The APPS was often used by surveyors to collect photo control point coordinates without having to do a formal field survey. For its time this was a revolutionary system.



Surveyors ‘turning angles’ with a conventional theodolite (probably a Wild T2). The instrument would be set up over a known control point and used to measure the precise angle to other control points. The operator would call out the angle readings and the Soldier standing behind with the notebook would record the readings and do quick checks of the angle measurements to ensure the readings were accurate.



What are the surveyors in the previous photo aiming at? One of these, of course! This is a Wild survey target. It would get set up over a control point that is key to the survey. The theodolite operator adjusts the crosshairs in the theodolite telescope so they bisect the white ‘arms’ and ‘skirt’, of the target, then reads the angle of measurement.



 If a theodolite measures angles how do we measure distances? Well in the 1970’s we used microwave distance measuring equipment called the Tellurometer. The system consisted of a master and a remote unit and measured the time it takes a reflected microwave signal to return the master unit, which was then converted into distance. While I don’t have any hands-on experience using these units, I do remember sitting in on several meetings at the 649th where the surveyors discussed what a headache they were to operate and maintain. By 1980’s standards this was old technology and the units the Army had adopted were becoming maintenance nightmares. But in their time these distance measuring units were a revolutionary time saver. Note the headset the soldier is using. He’s actually talking to the operator at the remote unit via a built-in radio link. The two operators had to continuously coordinate settings and monitor performance during the distance measurement operation.



 Here is the back of the Tellurometer unit showing the instrument settings panel.



This picture shows the only Soldier in this series that I’ve met. CW2 Thomas (on the right) is demonstrating a new Hewlett-Packard calculator to a visiting British Army officer. CW2 Thomas was one of several survey warrant officers assigned to the 649th. We met at Fort Bragg, North Carolina years after this photo was taken. The Hewlett-Packard (HP) calculator is interesting because they were widely adopted by surveyors due to their rugged construction and advanced functions that were well suited to surveying applications. While I don’t think any HP pocket calculator was ever officially adopted by the Army they were in wide use at the Defense Mapping School where our surveyors were trained. Many of the HP calculators found their way into survey units through local purchase by individual units.




Photomapping is the process of compiling a topographic map based on information seen in the aerial photographs. Military topographic maps consisted of at least five distinct information layers, each with its own color – cultural features (black), water (blue), vegetation (green), contour lines (brown) and boundaries and built-up areas (red). It is the job of the cartographer to extract each of these information layers from the aerial photography to create a map manuscript. First the cartographers would rectify each aerial photo by removing any tip or tilt in the photo and tying it to the survey control points. Then they would use a device called a multiplex plotter to project the photos in 3D so the cartographer can trace out the key features while viewing the photos in stereo. Once the information is traced onto a manuscript sheet it is passed over to other cartographers who precisely trace out the collected information using the precise symbols we see on the finished map.


This photo shows a cartographer setting up a multiplex plotter in preparation for tracing out a new map information layer using photomapping techniques. The multiplex plotter used a stereo pair of aerial photos to project a 3-dimensional image of the terrain onto the white disc or platen of the mutiplex tracing ‘table’ (the device with the white disc seen sitting on the table). The tracing table has a small tracing dot engraved on it that sits directly above a pen holder. The stereo images have been transferred to two small glass diapositive images, and in this picture you see the cartographer holding one of the diapositives in his left hand as he mounts it into the projection stage. The tall ‘can’ in his right hand is the projector assembly that contains the projection lamp, lens assembly and filter. One diapositive is filtered red, the other blue, and the operator wears a pair of glasses with one red and one blue lens (just like the old-time 3D movie glasses), enabling him to see the projected image in stereo.


multiplex plotter

Here we see a cartographer tracing data from the projected image onto a manuscript sheet (usually a sheet of dimensionally stable material like Mylar). You can see entire image projected onto the the table surface just under his forearm, but only the small area projected onto the multiplex table platen is in focus. Engraved on the center of the platen is a small tracing ‘dot’, and mounted directly below it is a tracing pencil. The cartographer carefully adjusts the platen up or down so the tracing dot appears to rest directly on the ground on the stereo image and he then begins to trace out features. He traces one layer type onto each sheet; one sheet for cultural features, one sheet for hydrology (water), one sheet for vegetation etc.



Once a manuscript map layer is drawn it is turned over to other cartographers who carefully trace out the data using approved map symbols and line types. This is called the compilation process, where the cartographers compile the data into standard formats. Map compilation is precise and exacting work, and a cartographer can spend days, sometimes weeks, working on a single sheet.



Once each manuscript layer is complete it the information it holds is photographically ‘burned’ or transferred to specially coated plastic called either scribe coat or peel coat (seen above). The words ‘scribe’ and ‘peel’ describe the manner in which the orange coating (seen above) is removed to create clear windows through which a photographic negative can be exposed. Because of the unique nature of the orange coating it completely blocks all the light wavelengths that a film negative is sensitive to, so the orange areas come out black (or unexposed) when the negative is processed. Cartographers use specially designed scribing tools to carefully etch away the areas that represent point or linear features like individual buildings or roads. For larger areas like lakes or farm fields a sheet of peel coat is used, which allows large areas to be carefully cut with a sharp knife or razor blade and peeled away.



All military maps have grids, and the grid on each map is unique based on the area of the world it covers. Calculating and drawing these grids requires great precision and accuracy since the grids must be exact or the grid coordinates a Soldier derives from an improperly gridded map could be hundreds or thousands of meters off. Here a cartographer is setting up an automated plotting device used to precisely draw the grid for a particular map sheet. Automated tools like this greatly reduced the human error often encountered when drawing grids and speeded up map compilation.


Map Reproduction

Once the cartographers completed the map compilation phase the manuscript sheets were turned over to the Reproduction Platoon for all the steps necessary to print the final map. This normally involved preparing negatives from the scribe and peel coat layers prepared by the Photomapping Platoon, editing and correcting the negatives, making press plates and finally, printing the map.


To speed up the map compilation process cartographers made heavy use of pre-printed text. Things like standard place names (cities, towns, etc.), major feature names (rivers, mountains, etc.) and road identification symbols (highways, autobahns, etc.) would all be identified using standarized text that was prepared by the Reproduction Platoon. The cartographer would submit a list of feature names with text style and size requirements and the Reproduction Platoon personnel would provide the information on clear adhesive backed sheets that were created using a photo transfer process. Here we see a Soldier setting up some text as requested on the order sheet attached to the clipboard.



One of the last steps in map production is making the negatives from which the press plates are produced. Here we see a Soldier from the Reproduction Platoon doing a final check of a negative before approving it for plate production.



The final step before going to press is the plate making or ‘burning’. Press plates are just thin sheets of aluminum specifically sized to fit on a printing press. A map layer negative representing all features of the same color (black, blue, green, brown or red) is placed on top of a press plate that has been coated with a photo sensitive emulsion and the two are placed in a vacuum frame plate maker that uses a high intensity lamp to ‘burn’ or expose the positive image onto the plate. Once the plate is burned it is washed to remove the emulsion and the resulting image is what gets printed on the map. In this photo we see a Soldier from the Reproduction Platoon doing a final cleaning of a press plate before sending it on to the press section.



The 649th ran a number of presses of different size and capacity, everything from small trailer mounted presses capable of producing only 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 scale maps to large format presses permanently installed in the battalion’s base plant and capable of producing over-sized maps and other geographic products. In this picture we see a press operator from the Reproduction Platoon loading a press plate onto a van mounted Harris offset press.



Here’s a photo of one of the 649th’s presses installed in its baseplant at Tompkins Barracks in Schwetzingen.



Here’s a photo of the feeder end of another one of the 649th’s large format presses. In this photo it looks like already printed map sheets are being fed back through the press to add another information layer or military overprint.


Map Distro

The very last step in map production is actually map distribution. The 649th also had a Map Distribution Platoon that stocked and distributed the printed maps to units all across Europe. The platoon was responsible for getting the most current maps into the hands of the front line soldier as quickly as possible. The 649th maintained a map distribution warehouse at Tompkins Barracks and at several contingency sites around Europe. The platoon even had specially designed vans that were mobile distribution warehouses that could service forward deployed headquarters. Here we see Soldiers from the Map Distribution Platoon restocking maps at the distribution warehouse at Tompkins Barracks.


And there you have it, Army field map production circa 1970. As I mentioned in the start of this post I’ve taken a lot of liberties by overly simplifying the map making process with the intent of highlighting the Soldiers and activities of the 649th. If any readers recognize any of the Soldiers shown in these photos (or if you happen to be one of these Soldiers) I’d love to hear from you. You can either add a comment to this post or contact me at oldtopographer(at) If I’ve made any factual errors in the map making process, or if I’ve mis-identified any of the process shown in these photos please leave a comment here and I’ll make the necessary corrections. Thanks, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane!

– Brian

40 thoughts on “Map Makers At Work

  1. I was in 656 when it ended and became 649. HHC Survey 82E. Warrant was Brown, squad leaders were Clark, Kameda, Teet, and Terry. I was in Clark’s squad with Kimmons, Kearns, Peterson, Harada, Merritt, Barnett, and one other whose name eludes me. Chief computer Cadena.

  2. Hello, I was 83F20 Offset Pressman at Thompkins from 1973 thru 1975. I have plenty of pressroom photos that I took in 1975, just before I rotated out. I certainly know all the names mentioned in Wade’s comment above. In fact, I kept in touch with Carl Abt for over 30 years! I can add photos if anybody is interested… Great review of what we all did. I had a blast in my 2.5 years in West Germany!

  3. Hi fellow 656 Topo members. I ran Tompkins theater from late 1969 – 1971. Does anyone remember Franz “Shorty” Krebs? Best damn room attendant ever.

    • Carl, My name is Al Picklo, I took over edit section after you lefted. Sgt Schmitt was in charge at the ramp. You also trained me to be projectionist at the theater. Brucehurd (sp) was a buddy of yours. You introduced me to Alberts, home of the Heavy Duty sandwich!!! The boys would meet there after the movie was over, theater swept out, film put back in shipping containers..Good old days!!

    • Carl , I too was a 656 member and also worked at the theater along with Dulfer who also has a post here. We were also roomies and alert drivers. I was there 71 to 74 and again later 74 to 77. I seem to remember you , did you go by Cubby or such? Never met Shorty, a little before my time. Did you room with Al Picklo ? if so I can put you in contact

  4. I was in the survey section in 1975 and 1976. 82E20. Spent most of my time TDY in the Saar. Goodtimes.

      • I was stationed at Tompkins barracks from 1975 to 1978. We had only 9 women in the whole battalion. We were the ones who processed all the maps for all of Europe. It was real different time.I learned A lot of about the maps and the Army.Many memories

      • I believe the first pic was an E-5 whose last name was Sabin. That’s all I’ve got.

  5. I was just sent a link to this site from a fellow Topo Ranger who I served with in the 649th/656th Engr Bn. I served in the Photomapping Platoon (81C) from 72-74. The soldier in them photo scribing the grid is SP4 John “Woody” Woodburn. We went through basic together, Ft Belvoir and onto Tompkins Barracks. Rick O’Neill and Altenburg (noted above) were also in the platoon. Our PSG was Tokehesha (sp) and the 1SG was Tadakuma (sp). Two great mentors. As noted in the blog, we rarely made new maps, but I do remember making one new map of the training area in West Berlin that was used by the US, French and British troops. I was very fortunate to make two TDY trips to Berlin before the wall came down. I still have copies of some of the products we produced. I have fond memories of my time at Tompkins. After leaving active duty I took my 81C skills to work for the company that made Esso/Exxon Road maps. My supervisor there was also a former 649th soldier. I have not lost my interest maps and mapmaking. I look forward to keeping in touch through this blog. Thank you Brian for your work here.

    Frank Dulfer

  6. My name is O’Neill , I am the guy in the color picture above , much to my surprise. I did two tours in the 649th and in the previous 656th topo. First tour was on the Carto ramp and the second tour was in HHQ S-3 edit section. Curious how you got these pictures but I enjoyed it. I will pass this site on to other guys who were also there.

    • I remember you Al ! And I remember all the other guys on your list. Where are you now and what you been up too ?

    • Rick, thanks so much for commenting! I’m honored to meet one of the Soldiers in the pictures I posted. You ask how I got these pictures, well here’s the story – I was stationed with the 320th Engineer Co (Topographic) from 1998 – 2000 in Hanau, Germany. The 320th was the successor to the 649th after it was deactivated in the mid-90’s. The 320th became the ‘dumping ground’ for a lot of left over equipment and historical paperwork from the 649th, and I found these pictures in a box of old documents that was about to be thrown away. I had served in the 649th back in the early 1980’s and I recognized the significance of these photos, so I grabbed the box and took it home. Fast forward a decade or so and I decided to stand up my website and got to work digitizing the pictures. So there you have it!

      – Brian

      • Brian- I hope the 320th was as great a unit as the 656th/649th was Man, did we ever have some great times !

  7. I do believe that the colored picture in the photomapping portion was of Glenn O’Neal, date time,1976.
    This picture was taken in the S3 production section.
    People assigned than were
    CW2 Harry Mazza
    SFC Ralph Gordon
    SSG Pete Karibian
    Sp5 Glenn O’Neal
    Sp4 Bowden
    Sp4 Leroy Cressy
    Sp4 Ron Altenburg
    And me, Sp4 Al Shimizu,

    • Ron Altenburg worked for me in both Germany and California as Terrain Team NCOIC. He deployed as Corps Terrain Team NCOIC to Desert Shield/Desert Storm. I remember him fondly.

      • Scott, Ron was a good friend of mine at the 649th in fact we had an apartment together in Schwetzingen. Here is another story on Ron. His first re-enlistment was somewhat of a problem for him somuch so he was unable to make it to make it to the ceremony. Like good friends, myself and Bean Wever ,our squad leader at the time , decided to help him to the next ceremony. Bean and I positioned our selfs outside the barracks door on the day of the next ceremony dressed up like a mock honor guard and when Ron came out we escourted him to the ceremony and stood beside him while he was sworn in. True story

  8. Thank you very much for this effort, Brian. I served in the 649th in 80-83 and again in 90-92. I am a former 82E; 82D; 82B; 821A; 215D.

  9. This is really great to find! I was an 81C cartographer stationed at Tompkins from Feb. 77 to July 79. I love these old pictures. The first picture in the Photomapping section of your article (soldier setting up the multiplex plotter) immediately struck me as a soldier with the last name of Helmut (pretty sure that was the name, and pretty sure that is him). He left very shortly after I arrived. Anyway, thanks for preserving this bit of history!

    • Hi all! I was stationed there with 630th En Co. In 1983 to 1985. I was Spc Jan Knippel. I was a mechanic in the 630th. Anyone remember SGT Hawkins, SGT White (gerbil)? SFC Lott was our platoon SGT. Also I bunked with Cindy Sessions, Dana Swanson and Mary Curry.please let me know if you know where anyone is. I actually saw, then, 1Lt Gray, now a full bird Colonel, in Qatar in 2006 when I was there.we had a blast at Tompkins.And Germany. I miss those days.

  10. Brian I was in the 579th Engineer Detachment (survey) from Dec 79 to May 84. The only Brian I remember is Brian Sch…… I also worked with him in Cheyenne if recall correctly? Is that you??

  11. I was recently going through some old stuff and came across a map. I remember I found it in the trash some time ago, and thought it was neat. It is a topographical map of Wiesbaden, Germany, and the surrounding area. I found this page when trying to find out where it came from, on the bottom corner it says “printed by the 649th Engr Bn (T).” On on side it says “Distribution limited destroy when no longer needed” under the map, and on the other it has a red “cancelled” watermark over the map. If anyone is interested in pictures or the map itself (I could mail it if you want), email me at matthew j foran @ gmail . com (remove the spaces first).

  12. I was with the 649th Topo Engineer at Tompkins Bks from 1973 to 1976 and Karl Abt was plt Sgt. People in plt. Sfc melvin cowan,pfc David king, spc Robert Davis, spc5 wade bake,three females and others I don’t remember. So if any of you are still alive contact me please I would love to hear from you. Some of you we were transferred to an infantry unit at ft polk,la

  13. My last 6 yrs were at Ft Belvoir, Va as a DS at D Co 610th, then Instructor at DMS. 1991-97.

  14. i was an 81q , now defunct , terrain analyst , i think their called Geo spatial engineer’s now , was in 89 thru 92 served with the 100th Engr Co out of Fort Bragg , also am a Desert Storm Vet

      • Brian….Larry Holland here….I was in the 579th survey detachment from 1985-1988 at Tompkins. I was TDY most of that three year period all over West Germany. I am glad to see ur keeping some history of the battalion and I did not know that the battalion had been deactivated. I need to know if u have any TDY records of the 579th survey between 1985-88? I am living in St. Petersburg, FL now and go to the Bay Pines VA. I have fought two types of cancer and still fighting one of them thru the VA. I was in the field TDY towards the east or towards Berlin much or the TDY time or at Tompkins….proving this can be tough without some TDY records? Any leads or knowledge would be helpful as my squad of the 579th was most likely in the field during the Chernobyl disaster which was in April 26 1986 and the fallout was intense for several weeks and month after that date as far west as Heidelberg. I will put my email on some other military sites to see if any of my old buddies in my unit are still around who remember this? 1st Sgt Claude Heath wrote an article on one of the other sites and he was my 1st Sgt at Ft. Bragg and then in the 649th Battalion while I was there and sat on my E-5 board. Did u know him? Thanks and please get back with me….Larry Holland

      • Larry, good to hear from you. Unfortunately I do not have any TDY records for the 649th. If they existed when the battalion inactivated they were either destroyed or packaged up with all the other battalion records and turned over to records management. I strongly recommend you join the 649th group on Facebook and see if any of your fellow surveyors might have some record of the TDY activities. My wife and I were living in Frankfurt during the Chernobyl incident and while I suffered no ill effects she developed thyroid cancer which we suspect was related to the fallout. Keep in touch and let me know if you need any further assistance!


    • i served at Tompkins barracks from April’71-Dec.’72. I worked at the “ramp” as an 81C with SFC Tok ,SSG Denny Johnson and CW2 John Maxwell. I would love to get on a blog with others who served in the 649th at the same time.

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