Alain Boniec worked with photography planes during the Vietnam War aboard the USS Constellation.
DR. PHILLIPS At 19 years old with only about $200 in his pocket, Alain Boniec landed in Washington D.C., on the run from the French military. He wasn’t running because he didn’t want to serve; he ran because it was the wrong country.
Boniec was born in France, but became a United States citizen in the 1950s. So when the French military sought him out after his 19th birthday, Boniec knew he couldn’t serve in a foreign military and keep his American citizenship, so he left for the U.S.
Arriving in D.C., Boniec knew no one - his entire family still lived in France - and ended up meeting a Catholic priest who had served in the U.S. Air Force. It was that priest who helped Boniec eventually join the U.S. Navy - a decision that forever impacted Boniec’s life.
After enduring boot camp in Chicago, Boniec’s superiors inquired about his skills and schooling. With a background in art and photography, Boniec was assigned to attend a photo school in Sanford, which eventually landed him a position as a flight deck technician. His primary job was maintaining all camera equipment on the North American RA-5C “Vigilante,” planes that were used to photograph damage assessment before and after attack missions in enemy territory.
Aboard an aircraft carrier, Boniec spent 11 months in the Mediterranean Sea before getting reassigned to the USS Constellation.
“I was home not three months, and I was sent to Vietnam,” he said.
Working on the flight deck was risky business, he said. As he checked a plane’s cameras, aircraft were taking off and landing around him on the flight deck.
But when his commission officer was shot down while taking photos of a strike zone, Boniec said he had seen enough of war.
“That was very instrumental in my getting out of the Vietnam War,” he said. “I just didn’t want to go back to Vietnam. It was tough.”
To this day, he still gets tears in his eyes whenever he looks at the rubbing he made of his friend’s name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C.
But looking back, he said the experience was invaluable.
“It gave me pride to be an American, sad that we were fighting a war that was going nowhere, and it gave me direction in my life,” Boniec said.
A Disney Career
After leaving the Navy in 1969, Boniec returned to Florida and eventually went to school to further his education in photography.
“Back in the old days, the photographer had to know what he was doing,” Boniec said.
His first job out of school was working at a studio, but after a few months, Disney called and offered him a position working with the marketing and publicity department. Boniec accepted, never imagining he would stay there for more than a few years.
“I went to Disney thinking I’d be there for three years,” he said. “Before you know it, it’s five, 10, 15, 20, 25 years.”
He still has a copy of his first photo that made it onto the front page of the Orlando Sentinel - a photo of Gerald Ford back when he was serving as a congressman. From there, Boniec’s Disney career took off.
“I was publishing two to five pictures every week in the Orlando Sentinel,” Boniec said. “We would take shots of anything and everything.”
And that “anything and everything” often included photos of distinguished guests at Disney, including Richard Nixon, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Bush Sr., Tiger Woods, Sally Ride, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Julie Andrews, Alan Shepard and even Roy Disney. It was usually the top-secret clearance he had received from the Navy that allowed him to photograph such well-known visitors, he said.
“It was extremely rewarding,” he said. “You name it, I have done it, and I thank Disney. It made me a better person.”
A blue notebook full of his old photographs from those days showcases some of the most notable people he’s photographed. Most of the photos even have been autographed.
Back then, he was so immersed in the Disney life that he resided on Disney property and served as a councilman and mayor for the city of Lake Buena Vista.
In addition to photographing politicians and celebrities, Boniec documented the opening of Epcot and Disneyland Paris. His fluency in French helped him land the gig in Paris, he said. But returning to France was nothing short of nerve-wracking. He had been blacklisted for a decade because of his decision to leave the country at 19. He still remembers the moment when the customs officer took his passport.
“I could have poured a glass of water off my hands they were sweating so bad,” Boniec said. “It felt like an eternity went by. Then he said, ‘Bonne journée (good day).’”
After 30 years at Disney, Boniec retired, but he never fully left. He still does contract work for the company from time to time.
Now, his favorite thing to photograph is nature.
“Travel and nature right now is my retirement,” Boniec said.
But he’s about to add being a grandfather to his retirement fun, as his first granddaughter is expected to be born in December.
“I’m in trouble,” he said, laughing.