The U.S Army Museum of Hawaii at Fort DeRussy is featuring a new exhibit this summer, “Reporting from Vietnam: War Correspondents in the Field.”
It is the first time the museum has dedicated an entire exhibit to war reporters and the physical and emotional difficulties journalists sometimes endure to get their stories.
The exhibit shows war photography that’s very different from photos from Afghanistan today, a conflict now in its 16th year, surpassing Vietnam to become the longest war in American history.
The quality and composition of the images from the Vietnam War are not better than war photos from Afghanistan, but many of the Vietnam subjects appear to be more wide-ranging.
The Vietnam exhibit features a selection of my war pictures along with photos by my husband, Bob Jones, and the late Al Chang, a Maui-born Native Hawaiian whose Associated Press war photos were nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize.
I was a combat correspondent in Vietnam for the then-Honolulu Advertiser from May 1966 to December 1967, and I also returned to Saigon later for shorter reporting stints.
Bob began covering the war in 1964 and was wounded in 1966 near Cu Chi while on patrol with a unit from Hawaii’s 25th Infantry, Tropic Lightening Division.
Al Chang died in Honolulu in 2007 after a distinguished career both as an Army photographer covering World War II and the Korean War, and as a civilian photographer for the Associated Press in Vietnam.
Army curators put together the exhibit as part of Hawaii’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
“We have grown up hearing about Afghanistan. The kinds of war pictures I am seeing here are very different,” said Matthew Owens, 22 a software engineer from Philadelphia who was viewing the exhibit Friday.
War photography from Vietnam is more comprehensive than Afghanistan war photography because reporters in Vietnam could come and go wherever they wanted. Their only restriction in coverage was if a unit commander didn’t want a particular reporter to accompany his unit on patrol.
That was what made life difficult for me when I first started reporting the war, because some officers were unaccustomed to having women in combat with them.
In Afghanistan, news reporters are more restricted by the Pentagon and the Afghan government when it comes to where they can go and what they can see.
“The military can control access to the fighting much more completely today than they could in Vietnam,” said U.S. Army Historian William Hammond.
And Afghanistan can be unpredictably dangerous. A simple drive down a road can mean death or gruesome injuries from an improvised explosive device. Or a reporter can be in the wrong place when a suicide bomber decides to activate a vest packed with explosives.
It is difficult to know who is friendly and who is not. Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead in Kabul in 2014 by a police commander supposedly offering protection while she was riding in a car with another woman reporter to cover the presidential election.
“The women’s car was with a convoy protecting the election workers, and they were surrounded by soldiers and police but when the threat can come as it did from a man wearing such a uniform there is no security,” wrote Terry McVeigh of the Guardian.
Because of the danger, there are fewer opportunities in Afghanistan for reporters to interact with civilians. Cultural restrictions can curtail picture taking. Afghan women are often shrouded and kept out of sight.
In our day, Vietnamese civilians were eager to talk to reporters to share their stories and information about their families. The civilians were everywhere we were reporting. I lived with a Vietnamese family in their three-story concrete house in the heart of Saigon. We later found out the family’s maid was a spy for the Viet Cong, but she just kept notes on our activities. She never tried to kill us.
Reporters could go to bars and restaurants in all the cities with no fear for their well being. They could safely walk the streets late at night.
By contrast, our daughter Brett Jones, a State Department Foreign Service officer, served a year at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and only went to a downtown restaurant once — and that was in an armored car and with armed security guards.
What was different about Vietnam War coverage, too, was the hunger for images from the war. Americans watched Vietnam footage every night in their living rooms.
When Vietnam turned into a war of draftees, many people either had family members or friends or people they had heard about directly involved in the war. They wanted to know what was happening to them.
Margaret Owens, Matthew Owens’ mother, was with him at the Vietnam exhibit Friday. She said in 1968, she and her fourth grade classmates became pen pals with their teacher’s best friend, a Vietnam War draftee. He was killed in combat while the students were busy writing him letters.
“We were only 10 years old,” she said. “We had not experienced death before. It was very difficult for us when we got the news,” she said.
The Vietnam War had suddenly become part of her life.
Army museum curator Allison Ramsey created the Vietnam exhibit with museum director Nevin Field and museum specialist Ian Frazier.
Ramsey, 35, wasn’t even alive when the Vietnam War raged from 1965 to 1973 after the conflict had quietly simmered for years aided by U.S. military advisors dispatched during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidential administrations.
Ramsey says the goal of the exhibit is to show a comprehensive, wide-ranging picture of the many different kinds of people, including Vietnamese Muslims, and even non-human creatures involved in the war, such as German shepherds serving as Army scout dogs.
“It is important for visitors to the exhibit to understand that war is not just about combat but also about its impact on the Vietnamese villagers, cultures and places swept up in its path,” said Ramsey. “War creates camaraderie, spurs civilians to want to render aid and generates unexpected interaction with local cultures very different from what a 19-year-old soldier might have known at home. Those things are all intrinsic to the war experience, not just the shooting.”
The idea for the exhibit came from retired Army Gen. David Bramlett. Bramlett served two tours in Vietnam as a combat infantryman. He is president of the Hawaii Army Museum Society, the museum’s non-profit support group.
“There’s no agenda in the photos in the Vietnam exhibit except a true journalist’s eye for capturing the many, different faces of a complex and perplexing war,” Bramlett wrote in an email.
He arranged for a dusty shoebox of 700 black and white negatives of my pictures the Honolulu Advertiser finally gave me to be scanned and pored over to be selected for the story the museum curators wanted to tell.
Until then, the 50-year-old negatives had been sitting almost forgotten in a back corner of my closet.
I had left them untouched for decades because I though it would be too expensive to develop the negatives.
Museum society executive director Vicki Olson purchased a film/slide scanner, which scanned the negatives directly into computers at the museum, using new technology to make the images come alive.
Ramsey hopes the exhibit generates conversations and questions.
She says that conversation might come from a veteran seeing a picture of a combat patrol and saying, “Oh, I remember exactly where I was that year,” or it could be a child seeing a picture of a scout dog and saying, “I didn’t know dogs were in the war, too.”
The U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii in Waikiki is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is free. The “Reporting from Vietnam” exhibit will continue through July 31.
A parking lot across the street from the museum offers parking with museum validation for $3.50 for the first hour and $2 for each hour after.