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07-09-2009, 02:37 PM - 1 Like   #31
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Spotmatics & Thousand Yard Stares

Yep, the US Army issued Asahi Pentax Spotmatics. They were just getting them in issue when I arrived in-country (Sept 66'). The thing is that when Vietnam cranked up, they wanted photographs and LOTS of them by military photographers. The problem was that at that time the predominant thinking in photographic circles was that the only REAL camera used 4 x 5 (or larger) film. But using them in a tropical battlefield was an exercise in futility.
The military reluctantly adopted the 35mm SLR as the tool of choice. However, they didn't have any in the supply chain, so they ended up going to the open market place and obtaining equipment right off the shelf. Some units had Nikon others had Canon, etc. this created a maintenance nightmare, but it worked at the time. I ended up with a Leica M3 (best 35mm camera and lens I've ever used). I got the Leica because none of the guys wanted a rangefinder system. Since I started out in photography using a rangefinder 35, I had no problem with it and it was a damned sturdy camera.
Thousand Yard Stare (an old man's look on a young man's face). I've never heard it put that way, but it's right on target. It doesn't take much time on a battlefield to put some years on you. Bear in mind that I was only 21 at the time that picture was made. At 21, I was about 3 years older than most of the guys. You certainly tend to age quickly and it will definately change your perspectives about a LOT of things.
Someone earlier asked "what was our role as photographers and what we tried to convey in our pictures". Our "official role" was to document the war in every aspect possbile for general news release. We also had special assignments for very specific purposes. We might for example be asked to fly over a potential assault area to get photographs for potential LZ's or for photographic recon to see what the terrain features might present as obstacles. Hence, we picked up the phrase f-8 and BE THERE from the civilian photojournalists with whom we regularly worked. The phrase actually had a specific meaning: It's more important to be ON SCENE when the action starts than it is to worry yourself about the aesthetics of the photograph.
My team received an assignment from Department of the Army in late 66' to get "coverage of medical treatment and facilities". We spent several weeks on that mission alone. We took pictures of Combat Medics treating wounded soldiers, evacuation of the dead and wounded, pictures of guys getting shots for the clap ... all kinds of stuff. We then went back and got pictures of surgeries, and treatment in an evacuation hospital, then further to the rear for the same stuff in a field hospital. Some of the pictures were used for training purposes as well. The assignments were as varied as the mind can imagine.
On one operation, we uncovered and NVA base camp complete with an underground medical facility, photo lab, weapons storage, mess hall, etc. In the course of checking it out, there were LOTS of documents which we were tasked with copying in the field. Getting good copies of typed or written documents is a whole photographic specialty in itself, but we got it done. Film for those documents were sent to the rear for the intel people and our film went on a separate helicopter out than the original documents. That was done so that if one of the birds went down in flames, they still had the intel!
As far as what we tried to convey in our pictures, that was an individual thing. Everyone is different, has different motivations, etc. I can only speak for myself here, but I was so stunned by what I saw (and that word doesn't even convey the feeling) that I wanted to try to show the feelings of people. As a result, a lot of my work was up close with a lot of face shots. I tended not to shoot much in the way of the death and devastation, so I shot very few frames of wounded or dead (friendly or enemy). When you see that (death and devastation) every day for days on end, you get to a point where it loses a lot of it's impact. Accordingly, I could see the impact on the faces of people, so I migrated toward "people shots". When I was on down time in a rear area, I shot lots and lots of pictures of the kids and the elderly. I think subconciously that's what was important to me on an individual level.
I think I'm rambiling again, so more later if ya' want. If this thread dies from lack of interest .... so be it!
Bob Hillerby
Combat Photographer
B 1/9th Cav, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
RVN 1966-1967

07-09-2009, 02:49 PM   #32
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Great thread, Hillerby. Thanks for keeping it up.
07-09-2009, 03:01 PM   #33
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Rambling, Bob? These are the things we wanted to hear to begin with! Some further questions if you have time to answer them later:

- How free hands did you have wrt the topics if you weren't on a special assignment?

- Did you usually develop the films there on the filed or were they sent elsewhere for that?

- What do you think, how big a portion of your photographs were published somewhere, in military publications or newspapers?
07-09-2009, 03:39 PM   #34
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What I really wonder about is, how did you change your film?

07-09-2009, 11:15 PM   #35
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QuoteOriginally posted by emr Quote
Rambling, Bob? These are the things we wanted to hear to begin with! Some further questions if you have time to answer them later:

- How free hands did you have wrt the topics if you weren't on a special assignment?

- Did you usually develop the films there on the filed or were they sent elsewhere for that?

- What do you think, how big a portion of your photographs were published somewhere, in military publications or newspapers?
I echo these and add a few of my own if you don't mind...

did you ever spend any time photographing helicopter crews?

how often were you embedded with a unit, or did you always work as somewhat of a separate entity from the troops you photographed?

I have heard another combat photographer who made it very clear that he was no different from the soldiers he was with, other than carrying a rifle into combat he carried a camera. is this similar to how you would describe your service?

did you ever think at the time about the impact yor photographs may have in time, specially after the war?
07-10-2009, 12:33 AM   #36
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I appriciate you sharing this with us Bob. Photography...capturing important events...and being there. You mentioned you shot few frames of wounded or dead.....but the people and places outside of the battlefield would be great to see....and hear about.
07-10-2009, 02:56 AM   #37
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Bob: I too have interest in what you have to say. I've always been interested in the human elements of combat (as well as the technologies) since knowing about our history in the service as a kid.

My family comes from a history of service in the military (both Great Wars), including my cousin's participation in the shelling of the Normandy coast on D-Day in 1944. He was the captain of a cruiser - much luckier position to be in than many of the soldiers landing on the beaches that day.

I look forward to your posts a great deal!!! Seems everyone's helping out but I'll put the offer there too.

Sincerely,
Marc
07-10-2009, 09:10 AM   #38
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A few more pictures for your perusal.

1. A picture of Me and So My (a vietnamese girl) who lived in a village outside our base camp. This was shot by one of the guys on my photo team.... probably taken with a Bronica 2-1/4 Sq format
2. Another shot of me and my camera at our base camp.... on our downtime we shot lots of stuff just to keep our skills honed. Film and processing was FREE .... the Army has no idea how many rolls of film were shot for personal use! A bit of trivia on this one....you can hardly make out what appears to be a "home made" christmas tree in the foreground (very out of focus). It appears that some ingeneous GI took the fuse out of a hand grenade and placed some sort of decorated foliage in it to make a "Christmas Tree".
3. A shot of me waiting for lift off. I was grabbin' a quick smoke" before they fired up our lift helicopters to go on a mission. This is an ektachrome slide that is badly deteriorated due to age. You'll note the color shift on the cigarette in my mouth... it's not white in the picture as it should be. I need to "Photoshop the hell" on this one!
4. My "Mobile Home". This was a "grab shot" I made of my gear (only part of it". Some of the stuff I'd already removed from the Ruck frame. Normally, when I "Saddled Up", that rig would weigh in at about 50 to 60 lbs which would have been a little over half my body weight at the time. This rig carried everything I needed to survive for 3 days in the field. After that we'd need to be resupplied with: water, ammo and food. We usually had enough film last for several weeks out.

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07-10-2009, 10:16 AM   #39
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Missing image #1 unfortunately, but loving the commentary and the images. Please keep them coming!
07-10-2009, 10:29 AM   #40
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Missing Photo is attached here ..... I hope!
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07-10-2009, 10:41 AM   #41
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wonderful photos Bob! I (we) really appreciate you sharing these and of course the information along with them. a wonderful and very interesting story you have.
07-10-2009, 12:31 PM   #42
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Wow

Thanks for this Bob, it really is most fascinating. I wonder if you have plans on scanning all the slides/negatives you have for archival purpose? Time is not kind to old film stock.

If you have a family I am certain that they would love to have all of these as part of the family history. I know I wish someone would have taken care of all my grandfathers WW2 photos.

Please keep it coming.
07-10-2009, 12:36 PM   #43
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Thanks, Bob, for your stories and info. I too am fascinated by all this. Wish my father had had a camera when he was stationed in New Guinea with his big AA gun. (And it was no use asking my brother, a recently retired Naval Captain, to take photos in his career, since he was in air intel; heck, he wasn't allowed to tell me much of what he was doing and knew.)

Some questions:

1) what was most difficult? The technical problems getting shots with the limited equipment and harsh conditions? Or the emotional toll of death, sleep deprivation, and the like? Or perhaps something else?

2) Were there scenes that you were not allowed to shoot? People who didn't want photos taken? Or were you always welcomed and encouraged to shoot?

3) Did you ever see how any of your shots were used? Or did they simply disappear?

4) Aside from the tricks you mentioned (such as the condom, the F/8 rule), any others that you used to take photos or to keep your equipment safe?
07-10-2009, 01:11 PM   #44
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Bob, thanks for sharing man. As someone who was lucky enough to have never been "in country" or even the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, you have my everlasting respect. My Navy squadron ended up embarked in USS John F. Kennedy and part of the deal with the Kennedy family when she was named was she would never do a WestPac, only Med cruises. I had one buddy who did two tours as a door gunner, another as a radio operator and one high school friend who's now just a name on a wall. I've seen that "thousand yard stare" up close and even saw it on my brother when he came back from Desert Storm. Keep the stories and the photos coming.

Thank you!

CW
07-10-2009, 03:02 PM   #45
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I had no idea ther'd be THIS much interest!!!

You guys are making me feel like some kind of hero here! I really figured this thread would die out after a coupla days, but the questions keep coming. Maybe I should have a speaking engagement (ha).
Anyway, I'll try to answer some questions and comments in this one.
I'm gonna' try to answer the questions and comments in the order they were posted, so bear with me here.
Keep in mind that MY experience is just that ... MINE! Others may have been different.

1. How free of a hand w/topics did we have w/topics when not on special assignment. Absolute and Total! Often, when my team left our main base, our 1st Shirt had no idea where we were or when we'd be back. We took great advantage of that fact and would sometimes go to the beach and crash for a few days if there wasn't much happening of consequence.
2. We took all the film back to our Division Base at An Khe. Our unit had a full lab and studio set up there. We'd develop and print some of our own stuff. Other times, we simply turned it in and let the "Lab Rats" do it. The lab was really rudimentary by almost any standard you can imagine, be we got the work done.
3. How many of your photos were published? LOTS. I've seen some of my work in bookstores many times. In every case that I'm aware of they are all credited "US Army Photograph".
4. How did you change film? Very carefully! This question pretty much stumped me because you can load a new roll of film in direct sunlight (not recommended), but it will work fine.
5. How often were we embedded with a unit or did we work as a separate entity? ALWAYS .... at least when we were in the field. When we got on scene we were right there with the Grunts. Slept with em', ate with em', cried and some men died with em'. The only caveat to it was that we were not under direct control of the local commander (in MOST cases). I did a couple of operations with Special Forces A Teams, and they made it very clear that the Team Leader was in control. Bear in mind that (on MY photo team at least), we voluntarilly helped with guarding prisoners, rounding up prisoners, and standing guard when on a night position. Understand that I did this for my own benefit as well as those around me. To me it was vital that we experienced the SAME thing as the average Grunt.
6. One of the earlier posters said that another photographer told him "I was no different than any other soldier, except I carried a camera instead of a rifle". ABSOLUTELY TRUE!!!!! In my case however, I carried both (that was my decision). There are times under fire when you've shot all the pictures that can be shot from then and there, and you damned sure aren't going to stand up and move to another location looking for another picture to grab. In those cases, I was just another rifle. I might add that the Grunts had a great deal of respect for me for that. To me, it was just "another day on the job". Hell, the guys on my photo team thought I was a bonafide "NUTCASE". I had a real propensity to VOLUNTEER for jobs the other photo teams didn't want. We'd go on night recon patrols and you can't take pictures in the dark (flash ...I don't think so!). Again, I did this to obtain and keet the respect of the Grunts we were photographing, By the time I left country, I was reputed to have made more combat air assaults (over 100) than any of the other photographers and more than most infantrymen.
9. Do you plan on scanning your photos for archival...: Yeah, if I can locate all of them! I have a friend that does that for a living and he told me he'd do me a favor, cause' were talking about hundreds and hundreds of images. Hell, I have B/W negs (mostly 2-1/4 sauare) that have never even been contact printed. I simply developed them and sent them home.
10. What was most difficult, technical problems w/equipt limitations,emotional toll of death, etc. This one's a tough question, and I'm not sure what the answer is. It's now 40 odd years after the fact, but I THINK the technical aspect was probably the hardest. Keeping lenses and equipment clean and dry was an unending chore. Additionally, just trying to focus the camera when you're sweating all over the viewfinder ... those are things that you don't normally contend with. Dealing with the emotional issues is a WHOLE OTHER STORY! It's impossible for me to even make a statement about that you'd even understand. Basically, the grind, the hunger, thirst and seeing people injured and killed eventually becomes "a part of the job". That by the way, is the CAUSE for Post Traumatic Combat Stress! Vietnam veterans in general have a saying, "If I have to explain it, you wouldn't understand it anyway"! I certainly don't mean to be discourteous with the response above, I just don't know how to verbalize it.
11. Were there scenes or people who didn't want us to shoot photographs? With the GI's I don't remember any of them not wanting us to take their picture. Most of the time they were kinda "pumped up" when we'd take shot of them. Other times they'd ignore the fact that we were even there (that was my preference). The Vietnamese people on the other hand were often very shy and didn't want you to take their picture....I did it anyway. There were a few occassions that we would be restricted from photographing certain things, but it was usually for operational security or the scene or activity was of a classified nature, in which case we most certainly DID NOT shoot!
An finally, someone asked if there were any "tricks" we used to take photos or keep equipment safe. I'll give this one some more thought to see if I can remember some stuff. One thing that comes immediately to mind is that we used LOTS of plastic bags. We wrapped film, cigarettes, matches in those to keep them dry. The other thing was that if you wanted to keep ANYTHING dry, you didn't put it in a shirt pocket because profuse sweating will get to it. Most of the photographers had acquired either a Medics bag, Map case, or extra ammo pouches to carry stuff in. We'd wrap our film and put it in there so we could get to it fairly easily, but still keep it dry. As far as the mechanics of photography we used hyperfocal distance a LOT (google that phrase) and we'd also use the f-16 rule (another google search). As you moved along, you'd simply change shutter speeds or f stops to accomodate the everchanging light patterns. The Spotmatics were a great help there as you had fairly accurate metering built into the camera. With my Leica however, it was totally different story, I just had to stay on top of the situation and do the best I could.
Enough for now, I'll be back later. Again, thanks so much for your interest. I spent the better part of 30 years ignoring, avoiding and occasionally denying the fact that I'd been to Vietnam because of the way we were treating upon return to the States. I've come full circle now, and decided that I'm PROUD of what I did and will share my experience with anyone who is interested.
Thanks again! I'll post again soon!
Bob Hillerby
Combat Photographer
B 1/9th Cav, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
RVN 1966-1967
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