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The Death of a Fighter
Catherine Leroy, 1944 – 2006
The first thing you noticed about her was how small she was and how frail she looked. The second thing you noticed was that she was never still. The force of nervous energy that propelled her through the battlefields of Vietnam did not release her upon her return.
She paced around the small apartment, complimenting me on the view of the East River as if I had produced it myself, interrupting our conversation at regular intervals to take a cigarette break on the balcony after I had established that it would not be permitted inside. That was the other thing you quickly noticed about Catherine – the extent of the addiction to nicotine that would eventually end her life. Interviewing her was often tiring, but always rewarding. The stories she told were moving, funny, outrageous and often suspiciously embellished, Did she, for instance, really live in a brothel in Saigon without realizing the nature of the establishment? It's unlikely, even for the naïve French girl that she claimed to be at the time. She was born in Paris, after all. But in her heavily accented English she managed to put into words feelings that many of the other war photographers only hinted at or skirted around.
Her pictures reflect this affection, for they are rarely heroic. These are not portraits of a warrior class but of ordinary, frightened and often bewildered young men trying desperately to stay alive, and relying upon each other to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. In fact the nearest that she gets to portraying warriors is in the remarkable photographs that she took of the North Vietnamese Army when they captured her and a French writer during the battle of Hue. They were released after a few hours because they managed to persuade an officer that they were working for a Parisian magazine that had commissioned them to do a story about the victorious NVA capturing the city. This is the one time when the photographs have an impersonal feel to them, which I am sure is more to do with the fact that she spent so little time with the North Vietnamese troops rather than any inherent quality they had. In fact she said of the experience of meeting the young officer, "It was a shock for me to see him because since I had been in Vietnam the only North Vietnamese I had seen were wounded, dying, or dead." It was to be her greatest scoop, making the cover of LIFE along with a major feature.
And she didn't go quietly. She wasn't one of those photographers whose presence went unnoticed and unremarked. In fact, my theory is that the reason the NVA released her and the writer so quickly had nothing to do with them buying the French magazine story, but because letting her go was a lot easier than keeping her. Because of her diminutive stature she was unable to carry enough provisions for herself into battle, so she came up with a particularly Leroy-esque solution. She found a place in Saigon that sold Beaujolais wine in cans, a six-pack of which she would take with her in her poncho. She would share this with the unit she accompanied in exchange for food. She was, by many accounts, one of the more popular photographers with the troops.
She was acutely aware of the emotional effects that combat has upon those who experience it. She described it in this way:
"I was so scared sometimes, so scared; I really never thought I was going to get out of this alive. But when it was all over, and when I was alive and unhurt, like the time when I had a bullet in my canteen, the release of fear gives you a rush, a high of just being alive; you are alive like you've never felt alive before. It's not something that's pleasurable in a sensual sense. It's pleasurable in the sense of sheer animal survival. It's your primary brain, your reptilian brain; you are alive as an animal is alive. It's very low and very primal."
I don't think anyone has ever put it better.
For many photographers who covered it, the Vietnam War was the defining period of their lives, a reference point to which they constantly returned. She was to do many fine photographs from many other conflicts, producing the moving book God Cried out of her time in Lebanon, and a documentary film about the anti-war activist Ron Kovic called Operation Last Patrol. But the effect that Vietnam had upon her, and so many others, was profound. Everyone pays some price for being under that amount of stress so constantly and for so long. She described hers: "When I left Vietnam I was 23, and I was extremely shell-shocked. It took years to get my head back together, because I was filled with the sound of death, and the smell of death." It alienated her from mainstream life in the same way that most combat veterans are isolated in some form or another. She told me the story of her arrival back in the town of her birth.
The last years of her life were difficult ones. She would call me up and say in that musical accent of hers, "Bonjour, Pee-tare. I'm broke; I'm so fucking broke." She had a fashion business called Piece Unique that never quite worked out for her, and she produced a fine Web site that sold prints from some of the best photographers who covered Vietnam (http://www.pieceuniquegallery.com/). She was surprised by how limited a market there was for framed images of the horrors of war. She also published a book of the work that was on the Web site, called Under Fire. I told her I forgave her for stealing half my title, which she said was coincidental! I wondered, when I heard of her death, whether, as she lay dying, she had reconsidered something she also said in the interview: "I've never been scared to die. I love life too much, and I want to live it as fully as possible, but I'm not scared to die at all. I'm scared of being old and sick, yes, but not to die." If you go to her Web site today and click on the 'What's New' button the page that you bring up declares: News. Coming Soon! Unfortunately the news is that there will be no news, not of this small, complex person who was larger than life, and whose legacy is the memory of the faces of the boys we send to war, a memory that we too soon and too often forget.
© Peter Howe
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