Robert Capa, a celebrated photojournalist and dashing romantic figure of the time, covered the First Indochina War between France and its colony Vietnam then fighting for its independence in the wake of WWII. I first learned his story on a recent visit to Vietnam. His career was hampered by European anti-Semitism because of his Hungarian-Jewish surname, Friedmann. By 1936 his daring photos of the Spanish Civil War carried the credit Robert Capa.
Courageous and brilliant, he was tall, dark, and handsome, fluent in five languages, and had a long affair with Ingrid Bergman. In all, he covered five wars, hitting Omaha Beach with the first wave at dawn on D-Day, missing only Korea. In 1947, along with Henri Cartier Bresson and others, he co-founded Magnum Photos, the first worldwide cooperative for freelance photographers.
In the early 1950s Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French war had by then been raging for eight years.
He had said he was finished with war a few years earlier, but he accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas, soon after the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu; however, the war continued to rage on until the signing of the Geneva Accords two months later. On May 25, 1954, the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his jeep and walk up the road to photograph the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine. The Vietnamese doctor who pronounced him dead at the field hospital asked Mecklin, "Is this the first American correspondent killed in Indochina?" Mecklin said yes. The doc said, "It is a harsh way for America to learn."
When I recently went to Vietnam I knew there were a couple of places I wanted to visit that were not on the planned itinerary. One is in Saigon, now officially Ho Chi Minh City. It is the War Remnants Museum (WRM), formerly the American War Crimes Museum; the Vietnamese found the original name not conducive to attracting a sizeable segment of the tourist trade. A fine sense of irony led the Vietnamese to locate the museum in the building that housed the wartime offices of the United States Information Service.
I had become aware of the museum in 2003 when the Toledo Blade broke the story of the multiple atrocities during the Vietnam War committed by Tiger Force, a small, US elite unit whose mission was so perverted that “Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers. Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed— their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs.” Even though the investigation reached the Pentagon, no one was ever held accountable.
But decades before the story broke, American atrocities had gone unpunished, hushed up. Jeff Sharlet, a friend of mine from Indiana University (IU) in 1966, had been an Army linguist early in the war. What he saw and learned there eventually led him to found an underground newspaper for GIs, Vietnam GI (VGI). Another GI from IU, Joe Carey, who’d served as a combat photographer in Cu Chi, was slipped a roll of film by a fellow GI; that film contained a grisly photo of smiling GIs posing with the severed heads of their Viet Cong (VC) victims, whose bodies lay sprawled before them. Joe gave Jeff that photo; he ran it in VGI in 1968.† Among the Blade’s illustrations for its exposé were photos from the WRM, including the one from Joe Carey’s unknown photographer, right off the grainy pages of VGI, complete with caption.
Arriving at the WRM I was surprised to find a permanent exhibit called Requiem, homage to the photographers and journalists killed or missing during the Vietnam War. The space had been tastefully redone, the mounting of the exhibition professional, new photos—many never before seen in the West—added, others moved from former locations within the museum, including the one from VGI. What was it doing in Requiem? Who was the photographer? Was he KIA or MIA? We don’t know, but, thanks to two famed photojournalists, we have Requiem,* a book covering the lives, work, and deaths of wartime photographers and journalists on which the exhibit is based.
Who were the men and women from many different countries who risked life and limb to chronicle war through a lens, their common language? They were from all walks of life, had but little in common; what they shared was motivation to get THE picture while staying alive. The Vietnam War was certainly the place to get that picture; staying alive was the hard part. Some of the photojournalists are famous, some not, and some unidentified, but they all gave their lives in brave pursuit of chronicling war.
“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” These memorable questions were posed before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. The reference was to soldiers in the war that had become America’s quagmire. Soldiers didn’t have the option of laying down their arms or refusing to fight; civilian [as opposed to military] photojournalists had a choice, but stayed because Vietnam was where the action was.
The last Western photographer to die in Vietnam was Michel Laurent, a young Frenchman who’d made a name for himself as a teenager during the student uprising in Paris, 1968. Prague Spring followed, then Palestine, Cairo, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, and more. He was known for holding his ground and framing a perfect shot, not just continuous snapping and hoping for a good, if not a great, picture. No guts, no glory. He was driving along Route 1 to meet the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA), shot while trying to help a wounded colleague, and died two days before the war ended, age 29.
Sean Flynn, actor and son of Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn, went to Vietnam as a freelance photojournalist and soon made his name as one of the high risk photojournalists who’d even go into combat to get his photos. He’d covered the Arab-Israeli War of ’67, then returned to Vietnam with plans to make a documentary about the war. When news of North Vietnamese advances into Cambodia broke in 1970, he rode his motorcycle into Cambodia along with Dana Stone. Stone had arrived in Vietnam in ‘65 on a freighter via Hong Kong, where he picked up his first camera; he didn’t even know how to load the film. He fell in with photographers and soon became a combat photographer of note himself while going out on missions with Green Berets from their Danang base.
While traveling by motorcycle on assignment in Cambodia in ‘70, the daring freelancers Flynn and Stone were captured by communist guerrillas. They were never heard from again; their remains have never been found. It is thought that they were held captive for over a year before being killed by the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist group.
Hiromichi Mine, a Japanese university graduate with a business career in mind, loved photography so much that he took a low paid position with United Press International (UPI) and landed in Vietnam in ’64. He took one of the most famous prize winning shots of the war, a grim reminder that the VC and the NVA were not the only problem for pilots in Vietnam. The incident captured in the photo below shows a Caribou loaded with ammunition over the Central Highlands that flew into the line of fire of a US 155mm howitzer, killing all aboard. The photo won a World Press award and a prize at the UPI Picture of the Year competition.
Mine was the first Japanese and the first UPI correspondent to die in the war, the 10th newsman. He was fatally burned when his armored personnel carrier, traveling between Hue and Phu Bai, hit a 500 lb. bomb and caught fire. He died in 1968 at a Phu Bai Marine aid station only 12 days after beginning his second tour as a photojournalist.
Charles Chellappah raced cars and motorcycles and dreamed of being a photojournalist, so he left his native East Indies for Singapore where he found work as a freelancer for AP, the Associated Press, as one of “Horst’s [Faas] Army” of young photojournalists. His dream became a nightmare 25 miles north of Saigon in the dense jungle near Cu Chi called Hell’s Half Acre, a blood-soaked place of VC tunnels and camouflaged snipers. His close-up photos of combat and casualties worried AP photo editor Horst Faas, a fearless photojournalist himself, so much that he warned Charlie, the youngest of the Singaporeans in Vietnam, to be careful, he was taking too many chances, tempting fate.
Two days later, Charlie was out with a US 25th Infantry patrol sweeping a road when a mine exploded. With the company commander and a medic, he was helping the wounded— while snapping photos— when the VC detonated a second mine, killing them all. The roll of film in Charlie’s camera survived to tell the dramatic tale of the action up until the end in ’66. Frame 24A below shows a soldier bent over a wounded comrade.
Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hungary, Algiers, Cuba—tenacious and fearless Dickey Chapelle, born Georgette Louise Meyer, wore pearl earrings and tucked wildflowers into her bush hat while accompanying the Marines from World War II to Vietnam, writing and photographing for Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, The National Observer, and National Geographic. She wrote of herself in 1945 as having “a fine incipient case of split personality, the masculine lined up against the feminine.” Never sure where she fit in, Dickey endured a string of epithets ranging from sex-crazed broad to naïve CIA agent.
By the time 44-year-old Chapelle won the 1962 Overseas Press Club’s George Polk Award for “exceptional courage and enterprise abroad” for her work in Vietnam she was well-known, but hardly the household name she longed to be, though she also won the National Press Photographers Association’s 1963 "Photograph of the Year" award and the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association Distinguished Service Award. In the photo below, Chapelle caught a South Vietnamese soldier about to execute a VC prisoner.
She returned to Vietnam in 1965, then 47, and found it a struggle to meet the demands of combat coverage, but knew she had to be out in the field to get the story and photos that would sell. After shrapnel tore out her carotid artery later that year, a Marine commander eulogized her, saying, “She’d spread her poncho in the mud like the rest of them and eat out of the tin cans like she hated it, the way we do…. In fatigues and helmet you couldn’t tell her from one of the troops and she could keep up with the best of them.” It is said her last words were “I guess it was bound to happen.”
First buried where she fell, her body was repatriated and laid to rest with full Marine honors back in her native Wisconsin. Long time war correspondent Dickey Chapelle was the first woman of her profession to be killed in Vietnam.
Charles Eggleston was a former US Navy combat journalist who had won two Bronze Stars for valor, among other military honors. A resident of tiny Gouverneur in New York State’s Adirondack mountains, he didn’t relish the idea of returning home to small town life, so jumped at the chance to work for UPI in Saigon. Twice wounded during the Tet Offensive in early 1968, he died in Rocket Alley near the Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport.
At the time of his death during intense fighting against VC infiltrators in a densely populated area near the airport, Eggleston was being interviewed about his exploits by another correspondent. “Oh no! Oh no! Charlie has been shot! Oh my God, my God....Charlie has been killed!.... He's got it right in his head! Ooh Jesus! I saw him stand out in this alleyway... (the interviewer’s heavy breathing makes it impossible for him to continue speaking)”††
Charles Eggleston, war photojournalist Signal Mountain Sharp Eye, by Eggleston.
The illustrious historian Bernard “Bernie” Fall was the only photojournalist to cover and write about both the French and American wars in Vietnam in English. Later as a scholar he wrote several well-known studies on the French war in Indochina. His books, with many of his own illustrations, on the French catastrophe include Hell in a Very Small Place, the history of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the site of the French defeat in 1954; and Street Without Joy, ‘La Rue Sans Joie’, the name given by French Far East Expeditionary troops to the stretch of coastal Route 1 from Hue to Quang Tri where they were frequently ambushed by the Viet Minh.
Fall once quipped that his interest in Vietnam happened by chance, and it had been “a sort of bad love affair ever since.” He returned to Vietnam many times, notably in 1965, the year the US Marines landed at Danang, officially signaling America’s boots on the ground involvement that would continue escalating for years, leaving over 58,000 American troops and unknown millions across Southeast Asia dead. His coverage appeared in a number of publications, including The New Republic, The Nation, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times Magazine.
Two years later Bernie was on his sixth trip to Vietnam accompanying a squad of Marines during an operation on the Street Without Joy northwest of Hue recording the events that transpired. His last tape, recorded on 21 February ‘67, abruptly ended, “it’s a little bit suspicious. Could be an amb—.” He stepped on a booby trap and was killed by the explosion. Fall had clearly warned that the Americans, like the French, would lose their war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Had he lived, we’d surely be reading his books on the American war.
*H Faas and T Page, eds, Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina, 1997. Note: Faas himself was legendary; wounded several times; he was a courageous editor and the first photographer to win two Pulitzers, one for his Vietnam photos, another for an execution in Bangladesh. He conceived of Requiem as a memorial for his fallen colleagues, especially Sean Flynn, whom he never stopped searching for. Faas died in 2012, age 79.
Page was celebrated for his work as a freelance photojournalist in Vietnam and Cambodia during the ‘60s. A near-death experience led him to view his life as 'free time', to take photographs in dangerous situations where other journalists would not venture. He was captivated by the excitement and glamor of warfare, which helped contribute to his style of photography. In Dispatches, Michael Herr wrote that Tim Page was the most extravagant of the wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam. His unusual personality was part of the inspiration for the spaced-out photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now††
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† Sean Flynn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSWUKOPTt2g