The War in Vietnam: A Story in Photographs
The war in Vietnam has been described as the first "living room war"—meaning combat was seen on TV screens and newspapers on a daily basis. Newspaper and television crews documented this war much more intensely than they did earlier conflicts. This willingness to allow documentation of the war extended to the military's own photographers—who captured thousands of images that covered every aspect of the conflict between 1962 and 1975.
The war in Vietnam has been described as the war America watched from their living rooms. Images of combat and American GIs were projected through our TV screens and across our newspapers daily.
During the war in Vietnam, the American military gave the press unprecedented freedom of access to combat zones. This allowed newspaper reporters and photographers and television crews to document a war involving American sons and daughters on the other side of the world. This willingness to allow documentation of the war was also extended to the military's own photographers. Between 1962 and 1975, military photographers for the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force took thousands of photographs of the American conflict in Vietnam, which are now located at the National Archives. These photographs serve publishers, historians, and students who want to learn more about Vietnam. They include images of almost every aspect of the war.
The jobs of the military photographers were not only to document the war, but also to capture images for the historical record. One photographer, Chuck Cook, describes it as follows: "What the photographers did was worth doing--maybe not for the reasons the military said. They just felt that what the soldiers were going through was worth saving." In his book Vietnam: Images from Combat Photographers, author C. Douglas Elliott describes the images that came in from the combat operation as ones "that did not show winners and losers. They showed soldiers--often teenagers--coping as best they could with unrelenting heat and humidity, heavy packs, heavy guns, and an invisible enemy whose mines, booby traps, and snipers could cut life short without a moment's warning." In order to capture these images, photographers took many risks and suffered many of the same hardships as the soldiers and personnel they were covering.
The operations and direction of the military photography was organized by the Army Pictorial Center (APC), which dispatched a series of teams for brief visits. These teams were organized into DASPO (Department of the Army Special Photo Office). DASPO rotated photographers into Vietnam for three-month tours of duty from a base in Hawaii. It wasn't long before the Marines sent their own photographers into the field, quickly followed by the Army and its 221st Signal Company. The DASPO and the 221st were considered the Army's elite photographic units. Smaller numbers of photographers worked for the Public Information Office (PIO), the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force photographers assisted in aerial reconnaissance and documentation of bombing missions. The Navy photographers worked from the Combat Camera Group-Pacific (CCGPAC) photographing river patrols, counterguerrilla missions, and SEAL teams. The mission of DASPO was to provide a historical record of the war for the Pentagon archives.
These photographers were not there as journalists, but rather to create a visual record of operations, equipment, and personnel. After the photographs were processed by the Pentagon, they were made available to military publications, the press, and the public at a photographic library at the Pentagon.
As these photographers worked to document the war, they covered a variety of people and circumstances including combat missions, GIs, support personnel, medical units, and visits by dignitaries, politicians, and entertainers. While they may have been there to provide visual record of operations, equipment, and personnel, their photographs also tell a story. It is a story about the young men and women who fulfilled served their duty to their country by serving in the war in Vietnam.
This article was written by Linda Darus Clark, a teacher at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio.
Links go to DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.
Teaching Activities on DocsTeach
The War in Vietnam - A Story in Photographs asks students to analyze the photographs from the Vietnam War shown above. After analysis, students will categorize the photos by topic and write captions in preparation for a photography exhibit about the war that "tells the story of the young men and women who fulfilled their duty to their country by serving in the war in Vietnam."
The Vietnam War Page on DocsTeach includes primary sources and document-based teaching activities related to the Vietnam War.