Twenty-one-year-old neophyte French
photographer Catherine Leroy came to Vietnam in 1966, the story
goes, with a one-way ticket to Saigon and her Leica camera. By
the time she left two years later, the diminutive Leroy (she
stands just five feet tall and weighs 85 pounds) had earned a
reputation as one of the best and most daring photojournalists
in the Vietnam War.
"Nobody went into the `Heart of
Darkness’ as swiftly as she did," award-winning Vietnam War
correspondent Gloria Emerson said of Leroy. "She was a great
combat photographer, a legend."
The Leroy legend was forged by
her award-winning work and her gung-ho attitude. The winner of
the prestigious 1967 George Polk Award for News Photography was
the only accredited journalist who took part in the only combat
jump in the Vietnam War, Operation Junction City with the 173rd
Airborne in 1967. Leroy (pronounced "luh-WHA"), who had been
jumping out of airplanes since she was 18, had gotten permission
from the 173rd’s commanding general and from MACV to
take part in the jump. "I’m really happy I didn’t crash into a
tree," Leroy told us. "It was a miracle."
Leroy, who worked for the
Associated Press and then the Black Star agency, was wounded in
action while she was with a company of the 26th Marines near the
DMZ in 1967. "We were walking in a dried-out rice paddy," she
said, "and we were being mortared to death. There was nowhere to
hide. We were taking casualty after casualty. Then I got hit. I
fell to my knees. My Nikon took the bulk of the shrapnel and
actually saved my life. I had blood pouring from my face."
Slumped in the rice paddy, the
self-described "tiny girl" at first was overlooked by the
company corpsman. She finally got his attention, was given
morphine, and evacuated on a tank with the other wounded. "I was
very lucky," Leroy said. "I took 25 pieces of shrapnel, but
nothing was life threatening." She received excellent care on a
Navy hospital ship and was back in the field six weeks later.
On the second day of the Tet
Offensive Leroy and correspondent Francois Mazure of Agence
France Press found themselves in a cathedral crowded with
refugees in Hue. The cathedral also happened to be surrounded by
NVA. Leroy and Mazure decided to leave the building and did so
carrying a big, hastily written sign that said, "French Press
From Paris." A squad of NVA soldiers immediately captured them.
"They took our cameras, tied our
hands, and we were taken into the servants’ quarters of a
house," Leroy said. Luckily, the owner was a European married to
a Vietnamese. When the two prisoners realized where they were,
she said, "immediately the atmosphere relaxed." The family’s
house was occupied by a platoon of NVA, but the family was not
being held prisoner.
"The wife asked for an officer,
who arrived a few minutes later," Leroy said. "She told him we
were French reporters from Paris. Our cameras were returned,
cigarettes were passed around, and we began to interview them.
We interviewed the officers and three or four of the men and I
took a few pictures."
The NVA soldiers were posing,
Leroy said, "but to me this was a big shock. It was the first
time I saw the other side as normal human beings. The young
officer behaved like an American officer. He was educated and
polite." Despite the lessening of tensions, Leroy and Mazure
soon decided to leave the premises. "I said, ‘Let’s not overstay
our welcome,’ and we said goodbye."
They carefully made their way
back to the cathedral, which was still surrounded by NVA. "We
had walked through their line on the way in and on the way out,"
she said. "They were shooting, but not at us." The pair then
fled to an ARVN outpost where they eventually were rescued by an
American relief column.
The photos that Leroy took that
day wound up in a cover-story spread in Life magazine’s
February 16, 1968, issue. The color photo on the cover showed
two NVA soldiers at rest, clutching their AK-47s, staring at
Leroy’s camera. The headline read: "A Remarkable Day in Hue: The
enemy lets me take his picture."
After the Vietnam War, Leroy went
on to cover other hot spots around the world, including
Afghanistan, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Somalia. In
1972 she directed The Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic
and other antiwar Vietnam veterans. Her professional honors
include the Robert Capa Award for coverage of the civil war in
Lebanon in 1976 and an Honor Award for Distinguished Service in
Journalism from the University of Missouri in 1997. Her
photographs have been exhibited at museums and galleries around
Leroy today lives in California
and since 1997 has been involved in several on-line ventures.
The latest is called Under Fire: Images from Vietnam, a
multimedia project that sells museum-quality prints of images of
the Vietnam War by a group of top war photographers, several of
whom were killed in Vietnam. The group includes Larry Burrows
(see below), Tim Page, Dana Stone, and Dick Swanson. The web
site offers background information about the photographers,
interviews, and other information. To take a look for yourself,
LETTERS TO THE WALL
Wes Carey, the producer of the
moving video, Letters to the Wall (Galloping Pictures,
video and DVD), served two tours with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.
The video he produced, which is directed and edited by Chris
Davenport, is a tribute to those who served in the Vietnam War.
The tribute is delivered by a group of Gold Star mothers, sons,
and daughters whose fathers lost their lives in the war, and
Each one of these people - there
is no narrator - tells a story about one Vietnam veteran who
lost his life in the war. Each also tells about his or her
experiences at The Wall. Each story is positive and
healing. The filmmakers present evocative shots of The Wall
and the Moving Wall. All the testimony is passionate and
Tears flow in this documentary,
which deals fundamentally with loss. But the overall message the
film delivers is uplifting and rewarding.
DOCUMENTARIES IN BRIEF
The Cowboy in Mongolia,
an award-winning 1989 video documentary by Andy Duncan and Dave
King, is making the rounds of film festivals and museums. Most
recently, the film was shown at the Smithsonian National Museum
of Natural History in Washington August 30. The 51-minute film
focuses on Vietnam veteran Dennis Sheehy and his family and
their work in 1985 helping Mongolian herders learn conservation
Sheehy learned about overgrazing
and other problems in Inner Mongolia while recovering from his
war wounds. He then learned Chinese and studied rangeland
management before taking his family to China on this selfless
mission. The film is available on DVD and videocassette from
First Run Icarus Films.
The documentary Mai’s America,
which was shown on PBS’s P.O.V. in August, deals with a
Vietnamese teenager’s experiences studying in the United States.
Filmmaker Marlo Poras, while working in Vietnam for UNICEF,
became a cultural studies teacher for a group of northern
Vietnamese high school students. Twenty-three of the students
come to the United States for their senior year abroad. Poras
filmed the adventures of one of the students, Mai Nguyen, who
wound up facing an unanticipated America in rural Mississippi.
ARTS IN BRIEF
Former U.S. Army engineer Kimo
Williams, who served a Vietnam War tour of duty, purchased a $30
guitar his first day in country. Williams today is a
well-regarded composer whose work reflects his service in the
war. He has composed jazz, rock, classical, Dixieland, and pop
musical pieces. His work includes "Symphony for the Sons of
Nam," which Williams first wrote for string quartet and which he
expanded to full orchestra in 1991. The score is divided into
four movements each representing his most vivid images from the
Williams performed his latest
live work, "Reflections from a War," a multimedia presentation,
with his high-energy, 22-piece symphonic-big band-rock ensemble,
KIMOTION, in July at Pepperdine University in California. His
plans for the future include a 2004 concert in Vietnam sponsored
by ArtSynergy of Chicago. The concert will include the Vietnam
Symphony Orchestra. For more information about Kimo Williams and
his music, go to
the bombastic Broadway musical, will be reprised in Baltimore’s
Lyric Opera House December 26 through January 5. There will be
16 performances. The production company will offer discounts to
George Skypeck, the former Army
captain and noted Vietnam veteran artist, has created "Assured
Victory: A 09-11-2001 Memorial," a painting consisting of
a collage of military - themed images that honors the heroes of
the September terrorist attacks. The painting is on display at
the Visitors Center at Arlington National Cemetery.
Currently on display at the
British Museum in London: "Vietnam Behind Enemy Lines: Images
from the War, 1965-75," an exhibit of paintings by North
Vietnamese Army artists. Only one of the paintings contains a
bloody battle scene; the rest are nearly bucolic looks of
soldiers reading by lamplight, getting haircuts, and being
entertained by the NVA version of a USO show. "It’s all gung-ho
solidarity," noted The Evening Standard’s Claire Bishop,
"and there’s little sense of emergency." The exhibit runs
through December 1.
Philip Caputo, (A Rumor of War.)
is best known for his writing (fiction and non-) about the
Vietnam War. But Caputo, a former Pulitzer-Prize-winning
journalist, also has written widely about topics that have
nothing to do with the war in which he served as a Marine
lieutenant. That’s the case with his latest well-reviewed book,
Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery of East Africa
(National Geographic, 288 pp., $27), a personal account of his
search for the legendary maneless male lions of East Africa.
Randy Weber, an Army veteran
studying at the University of California at Berkeley, is doing
research on Vietnam War films. He is looking for Vietnam
veterans willing to share their thoughts on the subject. "I am
trying to find out which films are accurate in their portrayal
of the war and which are not," Weber told us. "And no one but
veterans can make that judgment." He’ll do interviews by via
e-mail, phone, or in person in the San Francisco Bay area.
Contact: Randy Weber, University of California, Berkeley,
Department of History, 3229 Dwinelle Hall, Berkeley, CA
The American Airpower Museum,
which is located at Republic Airport on Long Island, New York,
preserves the memories of veterans of all American wars by
maintaining a fleet of operational and static aircraft from WWII
and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The nonprofit museum is seeking
donations of materials and funds. For info, go to