A Vietnam Vet Recalls His Hitch In-Country . . .

 
 

• MCB-71 - A Navy Seabee Outfit in Vietnam, 1967.

See a short video interview with David, as he recalls his year “in-country” as a Navy photojournalist. Click on this link to view this short video documentary:

 With a Camera and a Curious Mind . . .


Click here to see a few pages from The Transit, the monthly tabloid I wrote, photographed and edited while our uint was training and deployed in Vietnam.



Looking back, 40 years ago.


Last summer I realized it was 40 years since I been in Vietnam as a Navy Photojournalist. I spend most of 1967 in Vietnam with a Seabee Outfit (MCB-71), in Chu Lai, on the beach by the South China Sea, 60 miles south of Danag. It was a lot like M*A*S*H, with bazar characters, booze, and the sounds of war all day long. I am now looking back at the more than 100 rolls of film I shot while there and  brought back with me from that period. They have been languishing in the attic all this time.

In the summer of 2007, a team of student filmmakers from the school I founded here in Maine used my Vietnam story and photographs for an exercise. One of those attending the one week workshop: The Art of The Interview, a fellow Vietnam Vet, Daryle Perryman, interviewed me. The class used my photographs from Vietnam to create an 8-minute a story of my experience 40 years ago. The video is called: With a Camera and a Curious Mind.

   

The sound track was written, preformed, recorded and mixed by another Vietnam vet, blues musician Blind Albert, who is not really blind and who’s real name is Vince Gabriel. You can see his video atblindalbert.blip.tv/#520780


1967 - Notes on the Vietnam experience


The Sixties were an exciting time for me. I was in my 20s then . . . it was a time of adventure and discovery. The draft hovered over me as an obstacle to my future. I could not commit to a career until I’d dealt with the necessity of serving in the military. Kids these days have no idea how this screwed up a lot of lives. Kids ran away to Canada and never came back. Many of those who did serve went off to play war, and many of them also never came back. To stay out of the Army and the short life of a “grunt”, in 1962 I joined the Naval Reserve in Boston. I was between college semesters, working in radio and television during the day and running the Unicorn Coffee House on Boyleston Street in the Back Bay at night. This was a folk music mecca, rivaling the Club 47 in Harvard Square. By 1965, I had to go on active duty. I spent a few months on a destroyer (The Compton, DD-709), a carrier (The Lake Champlain, CVS-38), then a fleet oiler (The Calooshatchee, AO-98). I received my rating as a Journalist Third Class in the summer of 1966, I was transferred off the oiler to a Seabee Outfit (MCB-71) in Davisville (RI) for sea duty - the outfit was headed for Vietnam. I cheered when I received my orders. As a born storyteller and college educated journalist and self-made photographer, I was overjoyed to be going to photography and write about something important - a war, my only war.


My outfit was sort of a M*A*S*H unit, from–the movie and TV series. Our outfit was full of characters, booze, hard work, and danger. An occasional VC rocket would landed in the camp. One blew up the privy next to my office hooch, scattering the contents all over the walls and roof. I spend the better part of 1967 in that hot war wracked country writing stories about the work my outfit was doing, making photographs of the work and the Vietnam people. For some, the hitch it was drudgery. For me I was on a National Geographic assignment . . . I was there photographing how the Vietnamese lived . . .  my work as the unit’s PR guy was only a means to that end. I had free access to a lot of Vietnam as I toured around reporting and photographing the projects our construction crews were doing. Then, once a month I’d fly up to Tokyo to the Stars an Stripes center, the all military newspaper, where our unit’s monthly newspaper was put together and printed. That took me 4 or 5 days each month to create the newspaper, leaving me just 3 weeks in Vietnam to build up enough stories and images to fill the next issue. I was busy little Seabee, but the Transit, as I’d named the tabloid, was awarded “Best Overseas Unit Publication” in all the services, for all three quarters we were in Vietnam. I received the Navy’s Medal of Commendation from the unit’s skipper for my work. I’d made the unit famous through my photographs and reporting. After leaving the service in the winter of 1967, I wound up the editor of weekly newspapers in Vermont.


Back to Vietnam: Each month I flew up to Tokyo to layout and print the Transit was grulling trip. First a helicopter to Danang, where I waited for a flight to Japan. This could take a day or two. Same on the return. After getting the tabolid printed, I’d catch the daily Star s& Strips flight, a C-130, a 4-engine prop cargo plane, out of Kadena Airfield in the evening for the overnight flight to Okanawa, where we’d drop a pallet of papers, take on fuel, and fly to Taiwan to do the same there, then on to Saigon. By the time we arrived in Saigon I was wiped out. The trip took 24 hours, nothing to eat but crackers from vending machine. I slept on top of the newspapers in the back of the plane, my pallet of tabloids among the load that filled the cargo bay. Once in Saigon, the real work of trying to get back to my outfit in Chu Lai began. I’d gotten to know an Airman at the Tan Son Nhut  Airfield who ran the cargo transfer service that would ship my pallet of newspapers north to my camp. He took pity on me and let me bunk in with him for a night while I waited for a north-bound flight. As we rode into town from the airport, I got get to see the bunkered city of Saigon from the back of his Vespa.  We negotiated the busy streets of this once grand and beautiful city, now home to the homeless, cooking fires on the curb as refugee families huddled in cardboard shakes against walls to former villas. The city sank. It was dusty and very hot that summer of 1967. The entrance to apartment building in which we stayed was a maze of sandbags. The lights often went out at odd hours, but a shower was wonderful. Rejuvenated, we’d go out for dinner at a family run Vietnamese restaurant, which could have been in Chinatown in New York City or Boston, the decor was the same. These ventures into Saigon were my only taste of Viennese food, as back at our base, we ate what the Navy provided. We were restricted from venturing into the local villages and warned against drinking the local beer or partaking of the local cuisine, as it could be poisoned.


The trip back to camp could take a day or two, compounded even more by the fact I was  shepharding boxes of toys back to the boys at the base: cameras, lenses, radios, tape recorders, binoculars, watches, recorders,  things I bought in Japan . . . I was a traveling PX. Since I was the only guy in camp that got to escape the heat and the fear for a week each month, brining back this equipment was my payback. I was worried the entire trip that I’d lose a box, or fall asleep and get robbed. I never did. I brought back what was asked for.


While in Vietnam that year, I am sure death sat next to me a dozen times. I came close to being blown up by a road mine (image at the top). Six Marines died that morning. I photographed the aftermath as the Army swept the road, finding two additional mines, one under the axel of a JP-5 Jet fuel tank truck. The two Arm guys driving were short-timers, they had less than 4 more days left in-country. There were white faced and shaking when I photographed them and heard their story–which became a full page story in Stars & Stripes a few weeks later. I was shot at by a sniper. He missed. I spend many nights in a mortar pit outside my office hooch, clad in olive green underware, a flack jacket and helmet as rockets rained down around our camp. On a  photography trip into the back country with a squad of buddies, the truck were were in broke down miles from the base.  We had our weapons, a case of grenades, two cases of C-ration sand three cases of beer. We hunkered down beside the truck preparing to wait out the night and the VC ambush we were convinced would happen around dusk. I was nervous. Seabees are trained to defend themselves, but we are builders not fighters. No one in the squad had fired their weapon in defense before, including me. Toward night fall an Army 4×4 came along the road, and towed our disabled truck back to the base. As the song goes . . .Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.”


Being in the Navy, ashore, meant we could drink, and drink we did. There were four bars in the camp for a total of 800 men: the Enlisted-mens’ club, The Acey Ducy Club for the Second and First class enlisted-men, a Chief’s Club, and an Officers Club. There was pot around, but being a battalion of older men, I was 27, drinking was the preferred way of relieving the stress of being in Vietnam. After dinner, a shower and change into civvies, I and most of the camp would walk over to their respective clubs. Being a Third class petty officer, mine was the Enlisted men’s club, a palm thatched, single story bar, on the beach . . . right out of Mitchner’s South Pacific. There, I’d drink beer with my buddies, until the desire to pee drove me outside to a 55-gallon drum sunk into the sand, surrounded on three sides by plywood for privacy. I’d pee, than stagger to my office hooch to write for an hour and then to sleep. I’d built a bunk in my office, which I shared with two seamen during the day. I’d moved out of the hooch where my squad bunked because the First Class Yeoman who ran the hooch wanted us up at rivalry and was not pleasant about it. I liked my privacy, where I could write, turn-in when I wanted to and get up just in time to appear at morning muster to be counted.

The articles I wrote for the Battalion monthly newspaper and the photographs I made and the memories I have brought back, are still with me. Some day I’ll create a book to honor that experience and continue writing about what I have started here.


With a Camera . . . . And a Curious Mind

A Navy  Photojournalist Looks back at Vietnam  40+ years . . .

A Portfolio of my Images from Chu Lai, Vietnam, 1967

That’s me, age 26, in the base barber chair waiting for a hair cut, reading my own newspaper.