Born: Racine, Wisconsin, 1947 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment 1st Air Cavalry Division, Quan Loi 1st Air Cavalry Public Information Office, Phouc Vinh, and Cambodia Rifleman and Combat Photographer, 1969-70
From the Artist:
At first the army took advantage of my art and photography education by putting me in the infantry. One day, not long after going into the jungle as a grunt, I was moving with my company along a trail system when we came across some NVA dead. The other new guys and I were led forward along the path, like initiates to some terrible fraternity; sprawled on the ground were three dead men, their broken bodies in stark contrast to the riot of living vegetation around us. It was not so much their wounds—although they were horrible the first time and every time—it was their eyes. They had flies in their eyes, and ants. I waited for them to blink, to brush away the insects, but they did not and could not.
A captain in clean, pressed fatigues and aviator sunglasses flew into the bush to pin medals on a few of the men in my company. Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts that looked as out of place on the filthy, sweaty jungle fatigues as did the captain himself in that spot. After the brief pomp, as he was waiting for another bird to lift him back to a hot meal, a bunk, and a shower, I asked where he had gotten his sunglasses. I said that I was a photographer and had spent so much time in darkrooms that the tropical sun was killing my eyes. Even through his dark glasses I could see that a random cosmic thought had hit him. A few weeks later I was reassigned as a combat photographer.
Later, the captain was given command of an infantry company. I was with them the day he walked them down an NVA road named the Jolly Jungle Highway and into an ambush. I still have the Leica camera that collected its own Purple Heart that day.
Mostly I went out and worked with line companies in the bush, but also I had to cover such distasteful things as award ceremonies (row after row of people getting generally useless medals pinned on them), accidents, suicides, and the Sunday hospital tours. On these the three generals from Division would visit wounded and sick men in the major field and evac. hospitals. We would have to shoot a Polaroid of the general as he talked to each injured grunt, zip it off, and then slip it to the general so he could present it.
One day, working our way down a ward, we came to a guy so badly wounded that I knew if he lived neither he nor his family would want to have a picture of him in that condition. I tried to hide the camera, but he had seen the flashes. He started to cry because he knew he was so badly f****** up that I would not take his picture. I hated myself that day. I hated the war, the general, and my craft. I still wonder if that poor grunt made it.
I took a series of photographs at the site of a huge NVA cache in Cambodia—possibly the biggest found in the war. It was called the City Cache because it had dozens of buildings: storage bunkers filled with cases of weapons, classrooms, training and hospital and staging areas. The NVA built split-bamboo walkways throughout the City Cache so they could move munitions in the rainy season. It was first spotted by helicopters and my old line company, Charlie, 1/5, was sent in to explore it. Photographers weren't allowed there, but because I knew the battalion commander, he let me go in. For about three days I was the only photographer there.
Looking back, I see that I was very lucky. So many people I knew were not. I spent enough time in combat to learn that it is hours of incredible boredom and living in the dirt like a miserable animal, punctuated by moments of great terror.
I almost did not go. I did not believe in the war, but I also felt I had a duty to go. My first son was five days old when I left for Vietnam. At the Seattle-Tacoma Airport on my way to Fort Lewis, I saw a big sign that said Air Canada. I thought about it for about half an hour and then called my wife. She was willing to sell everything we had, take the baby, and meet me in Canada. But for whatever reason, I could not do it.
I have started making photographs again, after almost twenty years.