Many years after the war Jimmy Cross came to visit me at my home in Massachusetts, and for a full day we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and talked about everything we had seen and done so long ago, all the things we still carried through our lives. Spread out across the kitchen table were maybe a hundred old photographs. There were pictures of Rat Kiley and Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders, all of us, the faces incredibly soft and young.
As this vignette makes clear, photographs are often closely linked to memory. Who among us hasn’t pored over old photographs from our own past, or those that have been passed down through generations of family members? Whether they are formal portraits or candid snapshots, photographs remind us of long-forgotten details of our past experiences and previous versions of ourselves.
For historians, photographs are considered to be rich primary source documents, just like letters and diaries. Photographs can quickly convey the details and emotions of historic events in a way that words sometimes cannot, making it possible for modern day viewers to picture the past.
For these reasons, in addition to oral histories and original manuscripts, the Veterans History Project collects original photographs documenting a veteran’s service experiences. In this new online exhibit, we have assembled 12 collections, all of which contain photographs taken by servicemen and women during the Vietnam War.
Our emphasis here is on amateur photography, rather than the work of official military photographers. In flipping through the featured collections, it is obvious that these are not the well-framed, crisp images of professionals. Many of these snapshots are blurry or fuzzy; the lighting is bad, and it can be hard to make out some of the details. These photos were taken by average servicemen and women, only one of whom had any formal training in photography.
Despite their limitations, these photographs still speak volumes. Like all historical sources, photographs were created by an individual; they have an author, someone behind the camera’s lens who chose to shoot a particular subject or scene. The veterans who took these photographs captured some (though not all) of their experiences on film. More specifically, they preserved what they hoped to remember about their time in Vietnam, or what they wished to convey to friends and family back home.
Many of the featured collections begin with photos of basic training, before the veteran shipped out to Vietnam. Once in-country, veterans frequently documented what appeared new and foreign to them. A large percentage of these photos depict Vietnamese civilians, oftentimes children, or individuals whom the veterans encountered on a daily basis, such as street vendors, ARVN or Montagnard soldiers, or those hired by the military to cook and clean.
The landscape of Vietnam was another frequently photographed subject. Within the featured collections, we see not only lush jungle foliage, but also land ravaged by defoliation chemicals and artillery battles. There are photographs that hint at moments of quiet beauty, such as George Shirilla’s snapshot of dawn in the A Shau Valley.
Servicemen and women also captured important elements of their daily routine, documenting everything from C-rations to military equipment, living conditions, and mail call. Richard Segovia’s collection contains a number of “still life” shots of the typical gear carried by ground infantry troops, including a rucksack, weapon, and canteens (and, poignantly, evoking Tim O’Brien’s work again, letters from home are included in this scene).
By far the most frequently photographed subjects? A veteran’s friends and comrades. For every photograph of a veteran, there are three more of his or her buddies, sometimes named, sometimes unidentified, all demonstrating their clear camaraderie. The photographs depict groups of friends graduating from basic training, clowning around in the barracks, and while on duty in hospitals, base camps, and fire bases.
Given the similarities between each veteran’s array of photographs, it can be easy to forget the distinctions between them. But behind each of these photographs is a singular Vietnam experience. Each photo, like each VHP collection, represents a unique, individual narrative.
For example, to a casual viewer, a photograph of a helicopter might appear as just another Huey, a commonplace—and now iconic—image of the Vietnam War. To David Flores, however, the veteran who snapped the picture, there is a story behind that particular helicopter: it provided key support during an extraction from the field following a Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol mission. The helicopter in the photo meant relief and safety and survival.
Sometimes, a caption can hint at the larger context of a photograph, providing critical information about the story behind the image. Captions can identify buddies by their names or by their nicknames (which themselves hint at stories). Captions can also identify a veteran’s comrades who didn’t make it home. In the collection of Marine Lance Corporal Mark Ryan Black, who was killed in action on August 14, 1967, a beautiful photograph of a sunrise or sunset over the treetops contains a haunting caption written by his mother: “Last picture on Mark’s camera when it arrived home.”
More often, though, the full story of a picture is elicited through a veteran’s oral history. Aida Sanchez’s photograph collection includes a candid photo of a young soldier with his right hand on a tank, the Vietnamese jungle in the background. He is blond, shirtless, with a bandana wrapped around his head and a silver chain around his neck. The photo is not eye-catching or dramatic; rather, it looks like a forgettable attempt at a portrait. It is only upon listening to Sanchez’s oral history that you understand the tragic circumstances behind this image. A “short-timer,” this unnamed soldier was scheduled to go home in just a few days. Returning from a visit to another field hospital, Sanchez encountered a combat unit coming back from the field, and snapped a photo of the handsome soldier. Moments later, after Sanchez’s group had resumed their trip back to their own hospital, they heard a loud explosion, and realized that a mine had killed the soldier she had photographed, along with the rest of his unit.
For Sanchez, this memory, and the photograph representing it, is one of the many things “still carried.” Indeed, all of the veterans included in this exhibit still carry with them the memories of what happened in Vietnam. Their photographs, too, have become things carried—and thus these veterans’ decision to donate them to the Veterans History Project is all the more meaningful.