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It Made Me Who I Am:

John Olson’s Enduring Images Of Tet

BY MARK JURY

John Olson wanted to photograph the war in Vietnam. Growing up in the 1960s, he recalls coming home from high school and devouring the images of the war that appeared in Life magazine every week. “Getting to Vietnam was a passion,” he said. “It was almost predestined for me.”

Unfortunately, not even his employer, the UPI photo agency, would send him. The U.S. Army, however, provided him with the opportunity to experience the conflict in Southeast Asia up close. Drafted and sent to Vietnam at 19, Olson was able to wrangle an assignment with Stars & Stripes, the military daily newspaper, and he began photographing the war in mid-1967.

During the Tet Offensive in February 1968 he spent five days photographing some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle for Hue. His memorable image of wounded Marines being evacuated on a tank was published in Life and around the world, and he won the prestigious Robert Capa Award for “superlative photography requiring courage and enterprise abroad.” 

“Those images changed my life forever,” Olson said. Following his military discharge, the 21-year-old was hired as the youngest ever Life staff photographer, fulfilling a dream he had pursued since he was 12 years old.

At the moment John captured his famous photograph of the Marines on the tank, there was nothing of significance to him about the image. “In the context of such a horrific battle with such horrific images, it didn’t stand out,” he recalled. “I had been in Vietnam for a year and had seen a lot of battles. I was probably one of the few in the American military who set foot in three of the biggest battles of the war—Khe Sanh, the Battle of Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the Battle of Hue.

“But nothing compared to Hue,” he said. “This was house-to-house fighting—with totally different rules. We were accustomed to helicopters, but they couldn’t get in. There was no radio contact and we were continually pinned down. There were tremendous casualties and no way to treat them without the medevacs. There was tremendous bravery. A priest with the element that came to relieve us gave the last rites to the dead and then offered to give last rites to any of us who wanted them—the wounded and even those who hadn’t been scratched up to that point.”


Seventeen years after Olson left Hue, his photo of the wounded GIs resurfaced when People magazine decided to track down the men of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division who were on the tank and update their stories. Richard Schlagel still had the toy plastic squid he wore on his helmet, now put away in his attic. Why a squid? It was a present from his brother who was a sailor, or “squid,” to Marines.

Jim Beals, who’s shown holding the IV bottle in the photo, had been in Vietnam less than a month.  People seeing the photo thought he was a medic, but he said: “Hell, we were just riflemen; we just cared about our people.”

John Olson drew the assignment to photograph Dennis Ommert for People, and when the two men met and Ommert learned this was the same person who had photographed him in Vietnam, he exclaimed, “Where were you?” 

“I was right in front of you,” replied Olson.

Unfortunately, Dennis Ommert’s experience in Hue during Tet was pretty typical. While setting up an anti-tank gun, he was hit by shrapnel from mortar fire. Then, while helping an injured comrade, he was wounded by a second mortar round. “One of my favorite quotes was a journalist asking a Marine how many times he had been wounded in Hue,” Olson said, “and he responded, ‘Today, sir?’ That still puts a chill up my back.”


Given the amount of combat John Olson experienced, the question he’s often asked is, “Did you carry a weapon in Vietnam?”

“I didn’t carry a weapon for the most part,” he said. “If I really needed a weapon, there would be a lot of them lying around—and that’s exactly what happened during the Tet Offensive in Saigon. MPs were killed in an alley and the clerks and cooks trying to get the bodies out didn’t have any combat experience. There was a sniper in a building in front of us and the further the men went down the alley, the more casualties they took.

“I picked up a helmet and an M-16 off the ground and was trying to control our group. There’s a photograph of me in the alley and a friend who saw it said, ‘You’re the only person who goes to war in blue jeans and Gucci loafers wearing a helmet.’ We flagged down a tank and when the commander opened his hatch, I said, ‘Sergeant, we’ve got to blow down that building!’ and he said, “I can’t do it without a direct order.” So there I am in civilian clothes and I’m an E-4 so I have no rank to begin with, but I just shouted, “Okay, blow down that building!” and he said “Yes, sir!” and he aimed his cannon and blew down the building. I’ve found that when anybody is in a situation like that and gives orders, people tend to listen.”

Following his discharge from the military, Olson returned to Vietnam to continue his photographic coverage for Life. “For my two years there, I didn’t know any fear,” he said. “The excitement, the adrenalin, the thrill of it. Then one day I said, ‘I’ve had enough. It’s time to get out.’ One of the mistakes so many of us made was not being able to break away.”

From 1969-70 he was assigned to cover the White House and traveled with President Nixon. When Life folded as a weekly in 1972, he formed his own company to shoot highly successful advertising campaigns for some of the world’s top corporations. In 1994, frustrated with the digital services he was purchasing, Olson and his wife co-founded NancyScans Corporation, www.nancyscans.com, which produces high-end scanning and printing services for multinational corporations from their home base in the one-stoplight hamlet of Chatham, New York—which suits John Olson just fine.

“With broadband, we can run our business anywhere,” he said, “and this is where we’ve gravitated to a life we love.”

About the Vietnam images he was sending to The VVA Veteran, he mused, “I look at them now. I’m 62, and it’s hard to put it all into perspective. I took the photos at 19 and it seemed very natural. I can’t believe how young we were and the courage I witnessed in the young Marines walking down a street in Hue knowing they would probably die.

“I had my 20th and 21st birthdays in Vietnam,” he added. “It made me who I am. The worst business day you can imagine is like a walk in the park. I can’t imagine who I would be if I had not spent time there. It was a period of time I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I would never have the nerve to do again.”

 

 

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