Scans from a year of overseas military service …
Some friends have been urging me to scan photos I saved from my tour of duty in Vietnam from 1963-1964. Photographers, here’s my advice:
If you must keep photo albums at all, buy photo corners, if they still make them, four for each photo. Don’t buy the nifty kind pre-gummed albums into the pages of which you just place your photos and lay down the clear plastic overlay.
In ten years, possibly 15, the gum will become brittle and snapshots will start to fall out. In 43 years, there will be no evidence any gum ever existed. When you lift the album, a hundred or two hundred photo memories will fall in a disorganized jumble on the floor.
These galleries are not war albums. There was a war, but it was undeclared and for the most part still very remote to us, in 1963-1964, from where I served: an electronics outpost in III Corps, in the central highlands plateau of Vietnam, in a small town named Ban Me Thuot.
I found most of the country was absolutely beautiful. For the most part, the townspeople were still very friendly and nice to us. The Montagnard “mountain people” villagers were industrious, competent and delightful. We could trade long underwear for AK-47’s with the Special Forces, if we wanted (it could get chilly in the highlands), but these and other trophy firearms were, for us, primarily vanity pieces. It was a very different Vietnam than that which the media presented to the world later, when the thousands of combat troops arrived and the war heated up in earnest.
The slide scans begin with the little 2-1/2 by 3-1/2 prints developed at a local shop from 16mm film. These are not great quality, and the early ones do not even show the countryside as it was then; they show life in the compound and at the jobsite as I, an inattentive 19-year old technical specialist, saw it.
I started by scanning only a representative sample of the first album. The link to the newer Jalbum Galleries (10 Galleries, 20-36 shots per gallery) appears below, with more being added as time allows.
Galleries 1-6 were shot with a compact 16mm film camera, a Rollei I think. Image quality compared to about what you would expect from the earliest webcams of the early 1990’s. About halfway through my tour, I purchased a Nikkorex 35mm SLR with a nice 50mm lens, and photo quality improved greatly in galleries 7-10!
The one link below is to the album for all 10 Galleries. Images are keyworded, though there is no filter/sort/search capability in the gallery browser.
- Vietnam Galleries 196-1964 – Ban Me Thuot
Vietnam Gallery (1) September 1963 – Ban Me Thuot
Vietnam Gallery (2) August 1963 – Ban Me Thuot
Vietnam Gallery (3) July 1963 – convoy to Ghia Nghia and Dalat
Vietnam Gallery (4) August 1963 – Dalat
Vietnam Gallery (5) September 1963 – Ban Me Thuot
Vietnam Gallery (6) 1963-1964 – Enlargements and maps
Vietnam Gallery (7) March 1964 – color slide teasers, out of sequence
Vietnam Gallery (8) 1964 – B&W jumbo prints with the new camera
Vietnam Gallery (9) April 1964 – last roll of color slides (more B&W to come)
Vietnam Gallery (10) 1964 – Ban Me Thuot: B&W jumbo prints
Today, I do not even particularly like or admire that 19 year old kid in my past who took these pictures, but that kid somehow did manage to get through the experience with his eyes and mind partly open, and he was spared the horror and the baggage that affected so many brave troops who followed.
As the last rolls of film reveal, preparation for combat and the reality of war stepped up during my brief, early tour. There are some photos of war dead being ferried to or from our local airfield. They were Vietnamese casualties, but first and foremost they were human beings who got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. The photos are part of the record of that era, but to this day it is difficult to find appropriate words.
Completely apart from consideration of the governments and militias that stage wars upon a land, is the land itself and the stories of those who live upon it, struggling to live as best they can under trying and difficult circumstances. It’s my personal opinion that the war, which so terraformed that land and so scarred its peoples and the battle-weary veterans, was primarily characterized by loss of purpose. Rain forest and jungle heal quickly; people, less so. If reports are true that Vietnam has once again become a vibrant and developing country, it’s been a long and difficult road for the Vietnamese people.
- I find a December 16, 2016 note from Ken Legendre concerning date of the Ban Me Thuot fire. WordPress didn’t give me an email “Approve” link and I’m very late getting around to processing it (April 2017). Ken writes:
“Guys, The correct date for the Bungalow fire is Dec 19th 1969; not the 17th. I was there with the Signal Detachment Co. C, 459th.”
I hope that some of these photos show that land and those people as things were then.
Alex Forbes copyright ©2007. Updated 10-12-2013.
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