Hueys and Cobras and Red Smoke Popped

Pederson’s Bunker on LZ Green, Tay Ninh, 1970. Photo: Marc Levy.

I bought my first camera from a flying PX, a Huey loaded with sundry goods that one day landed at LZ Compton, a remote firebase near Cambodia. I paid fifty dollars, a not immodest sum for a PFC in 1970. In place of f-stops and related focal devices, the symbols for cloud, sun and flash made the single-lens reflex Yashica Electro 35 easy to use. Depressing the shutter button halfway activated a small red or green light in the viewfinder, which meant take or do not take the photograph. Flicks, we called them.                                                                        

To load the Electro 35, after removing the metal film canister from its round plastic container, inserting it into the camera’s black breach, I threaded the film’s perforations upon the sturdy plastic sprockets, then snapped the cover shut. Next, I manually advanced the film by repeatedly pushing a sturdy spring-loaded handle forward. The first photo, a test shot, ensured the camera was properly loaded. After each succeeding flick, I manually advanced the film. It must be said that the winding mechanism, much like the suspect M16, occasionally jammed, and the extracted film, if exposed to sunlight—was lost.                                                                    

Three or four weeks might pass before I rewound the completed roll, removed the metal canister, and placed it into a durable pre-addressed yellow envelope—a mailer it was called—included in the film’s purchase. The envelope, collected in an outgoing red mail bag, made its way to an outfit in Hawaii, which developed the photos and returned them, in the same yellow envelope, to which I had previously affixed my name, rank, unit and APO address.        

Vietnam: Think patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon. Think C-rations and canteens, ponchos and D rings. Think M16s and AKs in a wild duet. Think wood-handled Chicoms and smooth steel grenades. Think the earthshaking blast of 105s and 155s. The incoming whooosh of Chinese rockets. The thudding cruuump of enemy shells. Think Huey’s and Cobra’s and red smoke popped and birds inbound. Think “Roger that” and “There it is” and “Don’t mean nothing.” Think “You numba one!” and “You numba ten!” Think “Xin loi” and “Titi” and “Di di mau.” Think “Chieu hoi, you bastards! Chieu hoi!” 

And yet, in the midst of war, it was always a thrill to receive one’s developed photographs. To sit beside a sandbag bunker, or crouch in a foxhole, or squat atop a steel helmet, and admire one’s immediate past, faithfully rendered glossy or matte, framed or unframed, in black and white or glorious color.                         

During the American war in Vietnam, several hundred thousand grunts took photographs. Many are commendable snapshots. Here, for example, beneath the canopy’s soft amber light, an officer casually cleans his automatic weapon. During a break on patrol, a weary sergeant studies the pastel contours of his muddy topo map. Here, on a sprawling base a thin, bare-chested medic poses by a large red-cross banner artfully tacked to an aid station bunker. And so forth. But among the cheap plastic and cardboard PX photo albums long stowed in desk drawers, or nestled in shoe boxes, or retired to dark, dusty attics, among the long-ago traumatic or sad or joyful memories, a few precious flicks which rise to the height of transcendent art.

Here, then, is an image that sticks in the mind long after viewing: in front of a culvert bunker, a man’s jawless skull—or is it a woman’s?—sits impaled on a bamboo stake, the unearthly jack-o-lantern fixed in a rictus stare. Atop its haunting head, in thick blue ink, a captain’s bars mock the boonie hats upturned brim. The cavernous empty eye sockets are framed in crude spectacles fashioned from scraps of rusted wire. Directly behind the laughing horror, a white paper cup. Beside it, an AWOL bag, zipped shut. In the distance, an empty observation tower, dark forbidding jungle. Captured by accident or intent, this extraordinary moment of gallows humor, like the war itself, is obscene, relentless, unforgettable.

Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: silverspartan@gmail.com