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The War Through Ground Glass: Photojournalists in Vietnam

Staff. Sgt. Joe Musial
Staff. Sgt. Joe Musial, pinned down by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fire, looks back at a soldier killed in the opening salvo of the ambush. In the background is a seriously wounded soldier. The fight took place on the Bong Son plain of Vietnam’s central lowlands on February 14, 1967. Musial, known to all as Sgt. Rock, was part of D Co., 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Photo: Robert Hodierne

During the Vietnam War, photographers captured millions of images. One of the most recognizable depicted children scared and running after a napalm attack. The military permitted journalists to travel freely in the country, enabling them to document the realities of war. In our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers, 88.9 WCVE’s Phil Liles has more on a local journalist who was there and the women who broke barriers during the conflict.

Learn More: See more of Robert Hodierne’s photos. Watch a Milwaukee PBS documentary about Dickie Chapelle. Listen to a CSPAN interview with Catherine Leroy and learn about her foundation Dotation ([email protected]). And see a Life by Leroy about her time in captivity with the North Vietnamese.

On Valentine’s Day 1967, 22 year old photographer Robert Hodierne was on the Bon Song Plain, in Vietnam. Like may photojournalists, he had two cameras around his neck, a Nikon F-35 and a Leica M2. When the troops he was with were ambushed with machine guns, Hodierne was positioned behind one of the fatalities. He captured Sergeant Joe Musial as he assessed his next move.

Robert Hodierne: The expression on his face means a lot to me, he’s perplexed, he’s concerned, but he doesn’t look scared.

Hodierne is now the Chair of the Journalism Department at the University of Richmond. For many years, he had a copy of that photo titled “Ambush” on the wall.

Hodierne: When people would ask why? I would say, no matter how bad things get around here at least nobody is shooting at me.

An older sergeant, fatigued from a run across open field, ignored advice to stay down because of snipers and was shot in head. Here he lies on a paddy dike moments after he was hit. The soldiers were from the 1st Cavalry Division. The fighting took place in the central lowlands of South Vietnam in 1967. (Photo: Robert Hodierne)

Hodierne later enlisted in the Army and worked for The Stars and Stripes. In addition to the violence of the front lines, he captured everyday life for soldiers and the impact of the conflict on Vietnamese citizens. A series of photos were taken after troops burned a village to the ground, following the death of several soldiers.

Hodierne: This is Vietnamese woman trying to throw dirt on the burning roof of her house, trying to put the fire out. In the background, I believe that is her son, he was about ten or twelve years old at the time.

A Vietnamese woman throws dirt on a house that had been set afire by troopers from C Co., 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. The soldiers set fire to the village of Lieu An on the Bong Son plain during Operation Pershing. The night before the soldiers had been in a firefight at the village. As the soldiers approached in the morning they tripped mines. Three soldiers were wounded and one was killed. (Photo: Robert Hodierne)

Over the years, during lectures and presentations, people would ask Hodierne, “were you ever scared?”

Hodierne: The answer to that question is no! I really wasn’t while I was taking pictures, there is something about looking at the world through ground glass, just enough distance, just enough unreality.

Hodierne continues to work with veterans. He’s an instructor with the “Mighty Pen” project at the Virginia War Memorial. And this October, he’s staging a play about the My Lai Massacre using dialogue from the soldiers involved.

Troopers with the 1st Cavalry Division return fire with an M-60 machine gun during a firefight in the central lowlands of Vietnam in 1967. (Photo: Robert Hodierne)

Another local professor is highlighting the contributions of female photojournalist during the Vietnam War. Renee Garris is a Humanities Professor at J. Sargeant Reynolds and Germanna Colleges.

Renee Garris: Up until Vietnam all the photographs were censored by the U.S. Army, or depending on what the agency they went through. But Vietnam changes everything and there is no censorship of stories or photographs going out.

Wisconsin native Dickey Chapelle started as a conflict photographer in World War II. She was known for wearing pearl earrings and green fatigues.

Dickey Chapelle on the Don Phuc command post, in front of a stack of sandbags, on the Vietnam-Cambodia frontier. Chapelle resided at this post for 34 days, photographing combat and participants. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Garris: Dickie Chappelle went into Vietnam a number of times, sent by different agencies and sent some of the first color photographs back that proved that we were sending more than just advisors on the ground. She sent back published photographs that showed supplies, food, armament and more men than what most Americans knew.

Dickey Chapelle was the first female U.S. war reporter killed in Vietnam.

Garris: In 1965, she was out on maneuvers with Marines, she generally went out with Marines and the morning had started, people had packed up, moving on. A Marine in front of her stepped on a landmine, she took shrapnel in the neck and there is an iconic photograph of her receiving last rites.

Garris says Chapelle died loving what she did; when her coffin returned to the United States, it was draped in the American flag and accompanied by a Marine Honor Guard.

Garris: And that’s something very few photographers got, but she was really beloved by the Marines that she always went out with.

Another photojournalist was Parisian Catherine Leroy. At 21 years old, she went to Vietnam with one hundred dollars in her pocket and her Leica camera. Within a few months she took an award-winning series on the border of North and South Vietnam called “Corpsman in Anguish.”

Garris: It’s a series of four photographs and you see a medic leaning over a body, maybe his buddy, someone who’s been injured. The next photograph, his ear is maybe listening for heartbeat, you see him laying his head on the chest. The third one he’s looking up, you can tell it’s that moment when he knows this person is gone and then the next photograph the scene is empty except for the body. The medic had to move on to the next person.

One of the images of Catherine Leroy’s 1967 series “Corpsman in Anguish,” capturing Marine Vernon Wike after his comrade was mortally wounded in South Vietnam. (Photo Credit: © Dotation Catherine Leroy via Contact Press Images)

Catherine Leroy’s photograph of a marine screaming in pain during Operation Prairie, near the DMZ. (Photo Credit: © Dotation Catherine Leroy via Contact Press Images)

In 1968, Catherine Leroy would be the first photojournalist, male or female, to parachute into hostile fire with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. She also survived a mortar attack. After recuperating, she would return to the front lines in Vietnam and later cover conflicts in Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Phil Liles, WCVE News.

Catherine Leroy prepares for a combat parachute jump with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. (Photo Credit: © Dotation Catherine Leroy via Contact Press Images)