Dick Swanson spent five years (1966
through 1970) in South Vietnam and
Southeast Asia as a contract photographer for LIFE
and Black Star. He married Germaine Loc in 1969 and in
1971 they moved to Washington where he worked in the LIFE
bureau. He is now a freelance photographer. Gordon Chaplin
is a free lance writer who was a Newsweek correspondent
in South Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. You can visit Dick's portfolio website
Once a month, she'd read me a letter from her family in Saigon. Very matter of fact, although we both knew the country couldn't last, that sooner or later the 12 members of her family who were left, along with thousands more, would become refugees again.
When Quang Tri fell I watched her read the news and remembered what I had written three years earlier: "I sit here in sadness and frustration . Germaine is torn between her beginnings in North Vietnam and her endings in South Vietnam and is even more frustrated and sad than I; frustrated because she cannot articulate her feelings to me and sad because of the family ties.
Family ties. As province after province fell, at least one thing became clearer to us: her family could not stay in Vietnam. Their matter of fact letters came more often, calm as Germaine herself, almost heartbreaking in their simplicity. They discussed their fate, their choices, their plans as if they were discussing the monsoon. They had fled for their lives 1954 after the fall of Dien Bien Phu from North Vietnam to Saigon and there was no question they were prepared to leave again. They would buy logs, if they had to, and float down the Mekong and ride them out to sea.
It was certain they'd have to leave. They
would not stay, and just as certainly
I'd have to help them. They'd need money. I thought, bribes,
connections, papers, transportation, advice.
Even as South Vietnam and their way
of life went under they'd need an American around to help; America
was the problem and I was my family's solution.
I went to Vietnam in January 1966, a hawk, my head clamped in place, looking down that famous tunnel with the light at the end. We would win over the Communist menace. And as a combat photographer I would learn the lesson of war: how to measure up. Like Hemingway and thousands of others, I'd learn how to be a man. Between battles I'd sample the spoils of the battleground, the women, the wine, lunches, the companions, the long nights in French colonial hotels when time came as close as possible to absolutely stopping.
But what I learned instead was how to love the country. I moved in with a Vietnamese family. Sometimes late at night I'd watch them sleeping all in a large room. They slept in disarray but always touching each other in their sleep as if to reaffirm their relationship. Watching, I thought I began to understand Vietnam.
I traveled by helicopter, motorcycle, taxi and Caribou troop transport north to the Danang beaches, the mist-shrouded mountains around Khe Sanh and the A Shau Valley, Hue on the Perfume River, dusty old French rubber plantations in the Central Highlands, the huge, pancake-flat Delta country where you could watch the rice grow. I lived in the jungle, in villages, in hamlets. I stayed in fire bases on top of knife-edge ridges, in Chinese hotels off back alleys in Can Tho and Nha Trang, found and lost friends and enemies.
My photographs are the record: refugees and ambassadors, riots and weddings, war and the children of war, the human side and the not so human side.
Some nights, still, the pictures flash in my mind. They appear rhythmically, brighten and fade, as I remembered them doing many times on the wall of a Tu Do street apartment; high ceilinged, tile floored, while a group of my friends smoked and talked.
I remembered that period of my life, a period I had sought, a sort of final learning interval when I met the people and experienced the events that influenced me permanently. I had hoped it would be happy and successful, but there were too many tragedies for it to have been happy.
The tragedy of Vietnam was stupefying.
Beside it individual tragedies seem
selfish. But they are dead or missing: Larry Burrows, Kent Potter,
Sawata, Henri Huet, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone.
With them I learned the ugliest of
litanies--napalm, defoliation, refugees, search and destroy, Rolling
Thunder, pacification, step-ons and body count. Their photographs
showed combat was not the glorious thing we'd all been led
to believe. It was one human being killing another indiscriminately.
The legacy of their photographs is the only
thing that makes their deaths meaningful.
By the end of March this year there was not much left of South Vietnam. The Central Highlands were gone, Quang Tri was gone. Hue was threatened. We'd eat breakfast in Bethesda with the newspaper beside our tea cups. We'd chat across the table, we'd smile. I'd think: how much time? Ragged dreams like snapshots filled the nights. We'd make love as if someone else was about to walk in.
The armies moved south. Hue fell. Danang fell. Every day, it seemed, the shadows on the map were longer. I spent my days tapping contacts. I flew home to Illinois to raise money. A futile trip. Plans materialized, then fell through. I spent my nights drinking tea and calling around the globe.
The headlines Tuesday, April 22, reported Thieu's resignation. Wednesday they reported the evacuation of 4,000 Americans and Vietnamese to the Philippines although I knew that massive departures had been going on for weeks. Undressing that night, things suddenly came together. Why was I trying to make plans? The evacuation had to be done in Asian style, I realized. No plans. You don't make plans in Vietnam. You move from second to second as long as things work out for you, as we'd done at Khe Sanh, Con Tien, A Shau.
Germaine went to bed and I made reservations from Dulles to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam, Hong Kong, Saigon; the old route. The old flight numbers rang in my head like bells. I drank more tea and in the morning, on the way to the airport, Germaine and I discussed strategies as matter of factly as if we had been planning the trip for months. It seemed she'd always known what I decided the night before.
I'd feared that on the plane I wouldn't be able to handle the time: 26 hours of being alone with myself and my thoughts, my strategies and my fears. Incredibly, the flight was a natural high, over almost as soon as it had begun. In a strange rush of kaleidoscopic images, memories, shards of thought, I found myself in Los Angeles, then over the Pacific.
|PORTFOLIOS||CAMERA CORNER||WAR STORIES||Dirck's GALLERY||COMMENTS|
|ISSUE ARCHIVES||COLUMNS||FORUMS||MAILING LIST||E-MAIL US|