I enlisted in the Army as a 17-year- old recruit from a 4-mile hollow in Hernshaw, West Virginia, in 1955. Years later, when it came time to do my security clearance, I had to own up to my real birthdate. I had changed it from April 19, 1938, to Sept. 9, 1936. I spent my first five years in armor, with a two-year hitch at Fort Hood, Texas, then a four-year hitch in Korea and Hawaii. After a tour with a tank company in South Korea, my ears got so bad I knew a change was in order, so I sought admission to a career training school. Photography was not my first choice. It ranked third after transportation and becoming an electrician. But photography had a vacancy. Honestly,
I was not even experienced at shooting pictures with a Brownie Hawkeye. I went to the Army’s photographic training school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, for a motion picture course, which was fortunate since Frank Capra Jr., who had been drafted, was teaching. I liked the creativity, travel and excitement. I came out with orders for Norway. That’s when they ran me through a top-secret clearance. I was then reassigned to NATO headquarters in Naples, Italy. In the meantime, I was stationed at Fort Ord, California, working with a crew filming Army tests. I had three hots and a cot, as they say.
I spent four years in Europe—with assignments in Italy, Greece, Sardinia and Turkey. In Naples, I served as staff photographer to the commander in chief of NATO for Southern Europe. In 1965 I was stationed at Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, D.C., in charge of the Army’s Medical Center Signal Photo facility.
In November 1965 I was accepted into the Army’s most prestigious photographic organization, the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office, or DASPO, for a tour of duty with its Pacific Detachment headquartered in Fort Shafter, Hawaii. We had teams all over Southeast Asia. I became totally involved in both motion picture and still photography. At times we found ourselves working in civvies and were authorized to travel anywhere in the world to make films that were deemed “of interest” to the Army.
I was a staff sergeant and spent much of the next four years in South Vietnam. We held State Department diplomatic passports and high-level security clearances and lived in a three-story villa in Saigon. We were not combat photographers per se, but that did not keep us out of the line of fire.
My team was assigned to move into the countryside with any unit expected to see action. I was involved in operations Oregon, Thayer, Baker, Billings, Abilene, Attleboro, Crazy Horse, Hawthorne, Kolekole, Pegasus and Mosby, which were mostly search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong.
One time I was with a 1st Cav helicopter unit that flew a sortie of six Hueys over a chaplain service for the film A Soldier’s Christmas, a big picture story about Christmas in a war zone. I was wounded during Mini-Tet on May 6, 1968—exactly 13 years after I was sworn into the Army—while covering the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 199th Airborne Ranger Battalion in an old French cemetery near Tan Son Nhut air base, which the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were attempting to take.
I was very protective of my equipment, especially at night in the field. I would tie socks to my stuff so I could strap it across my body to keep it close by. I slept with my arms wrapped around my gear, armed with a .45.
I had worked so long in film that when I shot still photos I gave more thought to composing the shot, which strengthened my photos. I only had one still camera: a twin lens Rolleiflex. My photo of troops unloading from a helicopter was chosen in 1984 by Congress for the Vietnam Veterans National Medal [a commemorative item sold by the U.S. Mint]. In 1999 the image was chosen for a postage stamp, a huge honor, especially since DASPO photos are not given individual credit lines.
In 1969 I went to work in the Pentagon’s pictorial division, where I had a film and photo crew. I was noncommissioned officer in charge of the pictorial division, U.S. Army Photographic Agency, which covered events in Washington. In 1971 I rejoined DASPO Pacific and filmed the closing of bases in Vietnam in 1972 and 1973. I returned to the Pentagon in late 1973 and retired from the Army on May 31, 1975.
I packed up my memories for 20-plus years, until someone one day gave me a Vietnam cap that says, I Proudly Served. I didn’t adjust well to civilian life. It seemed more frustrating to be out of the Army than in it, even though in war everything is against the grain; it’s immoral and wrong and destructive. Nothing is ever normal when you try to pull away.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.