An Interview with John Olson

John Olson was 19 when he went to Vietnam. While others his age were trying everything possible to avoid doing that, he had to fight to get to the war. He managed to get assigned to Stars and Stripes in 1967, and less than a year later he had won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the Siege of Hue, one of the bloodiest battles of the war. He went on to become Life Magazine's youngest staff photographer, and after Life folded in 1972, he became a highly successful studio photographer in New York. Today, he runs his own Intenet scanning and printing business with his wife Nancy ( from his home in Chatham, New York, where we interviewed him. His video interview can be seen by clicking on the real player icons.

TDJ: How did you get started in photojournalism?

JO: I grew up in the 60s, and I remember coming home from school, and there would be Life magazine, and that was my introduction to photo journalism. I had an interest in photography, for as long as I can remember, from before being a teenager, but I recall coming home from high school, and seeing the vivid images in Life. I knew there was an importance and significance there that was being communicated, most specifically I remember coming home one day and opening the magazine, and seeing Larry Burrow's "Yankee Papa 13" story from Vietnam, and from that day on, that is where i wanted to be. When I graduated from high school, I very much wanted to go to Vietnam. I opted to take a job with UPI in NY, and ended up in another part of the company, but the plan was to become a freelancer...a stringer for UPI in luck would have it, at that part of the war, I got my draft notice and 31 days later I was inducted into the army. If you recall the times, there was a significant number of people being drafted into the army, and very few wanted to go to Vietnam...I wanted to go to Vietnam,, and as only the military can do, they opted not to send to me there. I was more valuable as a private in Ft. Lewis, Washington, so I relied on some friends in UPI who contacted some people in The Department of Defense...but my unit was scheduled at some point to go to Vietnam, so I couldn't transfer out to go they pulled some strings, so that I was able at 19 to leave for South Vietnam I had to fight to get to Vietnam. Getting there was in some ways the most difficult part of the process.

TDJ: Tell us about Stars and Stripes in Vietnam.

JO: Stars and Stripes was a military was a daily newspaper, printed in Tokyo, and sent in every day by cargo aircraft. The bureau had four reporters, and at the time I wanted to be there, they had no photographers. I had been in Vietnam for a number of months and I desperately wanted to work there, but being transferred from any unit in Vietnam to any other unit, was a very difficult thing...again it was people in combat situations wanting to transfer out of combat, once again for the most part, I wanted to do just the opposite. I remember commandeering a jeep one day, and illegally going into Saigon and went to see Stripes and they were interested
because of the background I claimed to have had...I didn't stress the working in the mailroom as much as I stressed some of the other parts of UPI, and they asked me to put in the proper paper work, and they came back shortly and asked me that if would extend my tour by six months, that I could become their only photographer there. It was great news, a great opportunity, and I was in Vietnam, working for Stars and Stripes. I went to work there in mid 1967. One of the wonderful things about working for Stars and Stripes, especially in my position, seeing I had nothing to wear, it meant that for all effects and purposes, with carrying cameras, you appeared to be civilian media, with far more importance than with people of my rank.

TDJ: How did you get around?

JO: Getting around South Vietnam was very easy. There was a lot of transportation, a lot of cargo aircraft you could use. One of the great things was that Stars and Stripes had 4 reporters and 1 photographer. We all lived in a very plush villa in Saigon, and the reporters who had been with the publication longer than I had, struck a deal with me..."you can go any place you want, any time you want, as long as we don't have to come with you!" If they came with me, they would be shot I went wherever the action was at the time.

TDJ: What was happening in the war at this time?

JO: Late 1967, early 1968 was a very transitional time. '68 was the precursor to the Tet offensive, and depending on where you were, and what you wanted to see, it gave you a lot of opportunity for good imagery. There was the battle for Khe Sanh, the battle of Saigon, the battle of Hue. I was very fortunate, and probably one of few military people to go to set their feet in all those battles. Khe Sanh was an interesting battle in the sense that it was a fire
support base held by the Marines near the DMZ It was an unpopular battle in the sense that the media were regarding it as a loss for the Americans.. The number of media that were able to get into and out of Khe Sanh was limited. This was a wonderful thing for myself. Although I loved traveling as a civilian with no rank, I thought this was a case where I was going to make my rank work for me. I should be allowed access, so I went up the chain of command, explaining my case that I should not be part of the quota of civilian journalists being allowed into Khe Sanh because I was part of the military, There were three or four steps I had to go through to make my case, and at each one it had to be reviewed and dealt with. The process took a few days, being considered, and I will never forget, when it came time to board the helicopter a big Marine Sgt who I went up to. To explain my situation, I said I'm not a civilian journalist, I am in the military and he said, "Boy, you want to go to Khe Sanh, you just stand right over there." Anybody who was crazy enough to go to Khe Sanh, there was no problem. He was just loading the helicopters. At the time I was in Khe Sanh, it was just after Bob Ellison had made his famous images for Newsweek. We learned when I got in there that he had been in there for a number of days. He went out to ship his film, and hopped on the back of a C-123 going back in, and it crashed, and everyone died, and he never saw his incredible images on the cover of Newsweek. During my time in Khe Sanh there was a lot of incoming, a lot of casualties. The Marines were living underground deep in their foxholes. The images were hard to make. I was there for a number of days and I recall when it was time to get out, when our helicopter came in, rockets fell on the airstrip. The helicopter pilot as we left pulled straight up to get as much altitude as we could, and as we gained altitude to not be shot from the sky, everyone inside cheered, and yelled "get up! get up!"

The next battle was the battle for Hue. This was not only a significant turning point in my life. It was also one of the most significant battle of the war. January 31st of 1968, was the beginning of Tet, which was the lunar New Year for the Vietnamese. It was a period of time that was Christmas and New Year rolled into one and had previously been observed as cease fires by the enemy. On January 31st that all changed. The North Vietnamese attached cities throughout the country strategically at the same time. Into Saigon where they penetrated the walls, and the city of Hue, the old imperial section referred to as the Citadel and this was a significant surprise to a lot of people. I was in Saigon at the time and I photographed there, and made some images that were my first published images outside of Stars and Stripes. The battles loomed throughout the country, and one of the most significant ones was the battle for Hue. Getting to Hue and getting into the Citadel was very difficult. We had all become accustomed to helicopters to transport you from one place to another. In Hue there were totally different rules. The weather was bad. Heavy cloud cover...the enemy had blown the bridge that connected Hue to the Citadel, and the only way in was in landing crafts. I went in on one with a bunch of Marines that were being sent in to support the battle. This was house to house fighting...something in Vietnam we weren't accustomed to. We were halfway across the river when a rocket hit the craft. It didn't penetrate, but it woke us all up to what we were about to see.

I was in Hue for 5 days. I had been in Vietnam for one year at this time. I had seen a lot of battles and I thought I was pretty experienced, but I had never seen anything like Hue. There was tremendous bravery, a lot of dead. There was a situation in Hue where we had Marines in a court yard, they had been moving from house to house, and transitioning across this court yard they had been rocketed. A lot of them were wounded. There was no radio contact. We were pinned down and in pretty bad shape. We had an element that eventually came in to relieve us and it had a priest, and he gave last rites to the dead, and he was a very generous priest. He offered to give the last rites to any of us that wanted them - dead, wounded or not scratched at that point. In many ways Vietnam was destiny for me. I went there as a 19 year-old. I had my 20th and 21st birthdays there. It made my who I am, and in my life today in business, when somebody tells me what's possible, I have a good sense of what IS possible. I can't imagine who I would be if I had not spent that time there. It was a period of time I wouldn't trade for anything and would never have the nerve to do again.

TDJ: Tell us about the photograph of the Marines on the tank.

JO: The photograph on the tank was a moment that at the time of capture, didn't stand out to me at all. It was just another image. In context it was such a horrific battle with such horrific images. Hue was different. There were tremendous casualties, and no way to treat them, no way to get them taken out. There were reports and as shown in this image there was a Marine who was badly badly he couldn't be treated, and he was zipped up in a body bag while he was still alive. That's what Hue was like. I was in Hue for five days and we were under heavy fire all the time. One of my favorite quotes was a journalist asking a Marine how many times he had been wounded in Hue, and he said "Today, sir?"

TDJ: How did you work in the field?

JO: Well, at that time in my career I believe I was making $273 a month working for Stars and Stripes on a military salary, and I realized that at some point in the near future I would be leaving to pursue a career, and so I carried four cameras for myself, and one for Stars and Stripes. I went into Hue with 20 rolls of transparency film, and probably 10 rolls of black and white, and I shot every last frame, and when I had shot every last frame, I left. The picture on the tank was the most significant image I ever made. I will never make another image like that, and I will never be witness to anything more meaningful in the rest of my life.

TDJ: How did you get your job at Life?

JO: I left Hue and returned to Saigon. I turned in my 10 rolls of black and white to Stars and Stripes.I took my color and gave it to Life magazine. Stars and Stripes had negotiated a deal with the media that we would give our images to the wire services and other media in exchange for credit, so I was following proceedure that I had helped create to give them raw film, and so they sent it off to New York and a week and a half later, my life changed forever. Life magazine, March 8, 1968 , six pages with my pictures in it. Those images changed my life forever. Life, based on those images, offered me a contract, and when the series won the Robert Capa award in 1968, they offered me a staff job. I was the youngest staff photographer there. They asked me to join the staff at 21, and it was the beginning of my career.

TDJ: Tell us about how it happened.

JO: I was in Saigon at the beginning of the Tet offensive, because I was supposed to go to Hawaii on R&R for five days I photographed the beginning of the battle in Saigon, and gave the film to Time Magazine. Two days later I went to Hawaii. Now when you went to Hawaii on R&R you weren't supposed to leave the island as a soldier. But I was never much for rules and regulations. I flew to New York, and went into the Time Life building where I had never been before, and walked into the Time photo department and said, "By the way, I am the photographer who provided you that film from Saigon." I believe I may have been 20 at the time. I spent the day there, and saw all my film, and they recommended that I go see the Director of Photography at Life. So I went down to see Dick Pollard, and he was very courteous. He asked me, "Well, what do you want to do when you get through with your
time in the military?" and I said I want to work for Life Magazine, and he said "Well, if I were you, I would go back to college." That wasn't what I wanted to hear, so we fast forward at this point, I get on my airplane in New York, back to Hawaii, military aircraft, Honolulu-Saigon.

Now the period of elapsed time at this point, after taking my original pictures of the Tet offensive, going to New York, meeting the people at Time, then meeting the people at Life, being told to go back to college, and being back in Vietnam is now 8 days. Next day I go to Hue, and I'm in Hue for 5 days. I make the images that launch my career. I leave Hue, deliver the film to Life, and a week later it runs for 6 pages in the magazine. Within the month, Dick Pollard, offers me a contract, and I go on to become the youngest staff photographer on the magazine ever. It's amazing what you can do when you are in the right place, at the right time, and make the right images.

Life offered me a contract and I still had two months to serve in the Army except now the photographs that ran with the Stars and Stripes credit, everyone was happy about. Everyone was happy with the exposure, 'til cables starting coming from Department of Defense questioning why a D.O.D affiliated publication was running images of dead and dying Marines, so all of a sudden, I went from being a star to a trouble-maker. There was some discussion of me being court-martialed, They solved it by saying "don't court-martial him, just take his cameras away." My Sargent said, "Just take your cameras, go out, and just don't get yourself in trouble." So, I went on an operation with the 1st Air Cavalry and I'm on a hilltop, with photographer Dana Stone. And he is an experienced guy with nerves of steel, He and I had made a little hootch with ponchos, and we were sleeping under it. and I remember waking up at 10:25 at night, my feet were sticking out of the bottom of the tent, and they were being rained on. and I start hearing some artillery, and I was aware it was our own artillery, registering around our position, and Dana said, "I think that is incoming," and I said "Relax, that's nothing." and the artillery got louder - thump, thump and Dana said, "No, I think that is incoming," and I said, " No, relax." And it got louder, and Dana, a very gutsy guy, said "I'm getting out of here!"

The Company Comander had his command post set up in a 500lb. bomb crater. In it was the Company Commander, the radio operator and one other soldier. Dana ran for that bomb crater, because it was the only protection available. We dove into it, because it was the only protection around us. Blue smoke, a bolt of lightning that appeared to go thru the bomb crater. We were the only two who didn't get a scratch The radio operator was killed, the Company Commander had his throat cut, and the third GI was injured, and we didn't get a scratch. Now, I had been sleeping on my pack, and all my cameras were in my pack, and a round had a direct hit on my pack, and all my cameras were in the pack. They were destroyed. We slept with a corpse that night. Now I had some accounting to do to at Stars and Stripes. I went back to Saigon and said to my Sergeant there has been a little problem. I have the cameras here for you, but there is not much left of them. So he had to explain to the Stars and Stripes people in Tokyo that we had lost all our cameras.

TDJ: What did you learn from this experience in Vietnam?

JO: Going to Vietnam was a passion. It was almost predestined. Following Vietnam, following my career as a staff photographer at Life Magazine, my passion for photo journalism changed. The time I spent there launched me overnight, to create some images that some people say are significant. For the individual who has that same passion, who wants the opportunity to be noticed overnight, there is nothing like conflict. It just comes down to making the images. It's dangerous, and you don't always win, but it is an opportunity. When I went to Vietnam, there were about 20 of us who were serious about going out and making images. That was their prime motivation. When I returned, there were only 7 of us still alive. One of the mistakes so many of us made, was not being able to break away. The excitement, the adrenalin, the thrill of it all. There was nothing like it. It was exciting, but I think I was a little different than most. For my two years there, I didn't know any fear, 'til close to the end, and one day I said, "I have had enough, it's time to get out." This was after I had left the military, and I was working for Life, and I left the operation. I was on in the delta, flew back to Saigon, and went to the bureau manager and said, "That's enough, I have to go," and they got me out, and I feel extremely fortunate that I didn't have the pull that so many other people have had.

TDJ: Did you carry a weapon in Vietnam?

JO: I didn't carry a weapon in Vietnam for the most part. The thought being, if I really needed a weapon, there would be a lot of them, lying around. There was a situation where I did pickup a weapon once. It was during the Tet offensive. A number of MPs were killed in an alley and I was photographing them trying to get the bodies out. They really didn't have any combat experience. The more they went down the alley way the more casualties they took. It was the one situation where I picked up an M1. There was a sniper in a building in front of us, and I was there in civilan clothes, and I had picked up a helmet off the ground. I picked up an M16, and was trying to get this group of clerks and cooks under control because they really didn't know what they were doing. There was all this sniper fire in front of us. and I said "We've just got to blow down that building." At that point we stopped a tank, and the commander opened up his hatch, and I said "Sergeant, we've got to blow down that building," and he said "I can't do it , without a direct order," and I'm in my civilian clothes, and I have no rank to start with, so I said, "OK, blow down that building!" and he said " Yes sir!" and he aimed the canon and blew down the building.

TDJ: Thank you, John.