The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

September/October 2002
ARTS OF WAR
   
 

A ‘TINY GIRL’ WHO MADE A GIANT NAME FOR HERSELF IN VIETNAM

BY MARC LEEPSON 

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 the world.

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, go to www.pieceuniquegallery.com

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 Vietnam veterans.

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 articulate.

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 techniques.

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 war.

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 www.kimotion.org

Miss Saigon, 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 Vietnam veterans.

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.

QUERIES

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 94720-2550; rsweber@uclink.berkeley.edu

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 www.americanairpowermuseum.com

   

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