The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2005

Carl "Les" Fordahl: He Drew The War


Artwork: Carl Les Fordahl

As art often does, VVA member Les Fordahl’s sketches invite the viewer into his images. Drawn largely in pencil, the scenes evoke a time and a place whose details will come easily to those who are intimate with them. But even the casual viewer will have little problem inserting himself into the artist’s world. The Vietnam War is woven into the fabric of America, and Fordahl’s art takes us back to it.

A two-man crew working in a gun emplacement. Houses built on stilts on a riverbank and shaded by palm trees. A hootch with a bare light bulb overhead and cans of Coke nearby. A close-up of a Huey crew. A denuded landscape with concertina wire stretching around its perimeter. Grunts with weapons walking toward helicopters. A Chinook flying over an empty, battle-scarred ground. A row of small Vietnamese river boats lined up along a dock. A Donut Dolly. Sandbag bunkers on a firebase. A Special Forces camp near the Cambodia border. 

“I drew the war,” Fordahl said. “I sat on firebases and sketched. I sketched on the streets. I sketched on the rivers. Wherever I was.”

The artist’s path to Vietnam wasn’t drawn in a straight line. After high school and a year of commercial art training, he went into the Army and initially was assigned to train for the Army Security Agency. (“Spooks,” he said.) But an inexplicable and temporary bout of deafness washed him out of spook school.

Declining a medical discharge, Fordahl transferred to the ASA art department at a base in Virginia. His interest in art went back a long way “I was eight years old when I started sketching,” he said. “Then I went to painting by the numbers and then painting without the numbers.”

Fordahl’s first commissioned artwork, a waterfall landscape, came when he was 14 years old. A woman in his neighborhood paid him handsomely to do the painting.

He worked for six months at the ASA base as a draftsman/illustrator. Then it was on to Europe and, finally, Vietnam in 1969. His first six months were at Cam Ranh Bay, where Fordahl worked on communication system charts. When that assignment came to an end, he was asked where he wanted to go.

“I knew guys in the Combat Arts section,” he said. “I’d already started sketching on my own. I got transferred to the section. We had a four-man team that traveled all over Vietnam.”

Pleased to be doing the work, a question remained: Why was he doing the work?

“I assumed it was historical,” Fordahl said. “We were unit combat artists. Working in the war environment provides unique challenges for an artist. There were times when other matters took precedence over art. 

“I did a painting of junks on the Saigon River,” he said. “There was an intelligence building in the background. I had to remove all the identifying marks from the painting. It ended up a nice scene of Vietnamese junks. It had a Renaissance look. But it didn’t have an intelligence building in it.”

At the firebases, the artists drew straws to see who would go on ground operations or ride in the helicopters or stay at the firebase to work. From Firebase Bastogne, Fordahl brought back a memory that stays with him, though it was not something he drew. 

Having drawn the straw that meant he would stay at the firebase to sketch, Fordahl watched as a patrol returned from a two-day operation. He was well aware of the striking difference between himself and the men returning from the jungle. His uniform was clean and starched; theirs were ragged and filthy. The patrol had the look of men who had been somewhere he had not.

“You could tell we weren’t grunts and they were,” he said. “And one of them came up to me and to this day I don’t know who he was, but he comes up to me and he had to be dead tired from walking in the jungle for two days. And he says, ‘If you need a place to stay, there’s a bunk down there.’ He pointed to a hole in the ground where everyone slept. He tells me to grab the bottom bunk on the right. It was his bunk.”

Fordahl said he couldn’t imagine something like this happening back at Long Binh, where the artists were based.

“If I went back to Long Binh and I was filthy dirty and I was hitchhiking, nobody would pick me up. Neither would the buses,” he said. “I don’t think they knew there was a war going on at Long Binh. It was such a contrast in attitude. Those guys on the front line and up in the hills didn’t have much, but they’d give you what they could.”

Back home in Minnesota after the war, Fordahl went to work for the U.S. Postal Service, where he is a 29-year employee today. He remained active in art, though, continuing to paint and sketch. As a member of the board of directors of the Bloomington Arts Center, conversations naturally enough led to his work in Vietnam. One day, a fellow board member asked if he was familiar with the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.

“I hadn’t heard of it,” he said. “I called them and told them what I did over there, and they said they wanted some of my stuff.”

In Minnesota, he found his artwork to be surprisingly effective in meeting other Vietnam veterans. At a fundraiser for a friend dying of cancer, he was working with his Vietnam sketches when the president of his union asked, “Where did you get those?”

Fordahl told him about his work in Vietnam.

“He said, ‘I know those guys,’” Fordahl said. “He asked where I was. I told him Firebase Bastogne. He had been there.”

Then came the janitor.

“He recognized one of the sketches from Camp Eagle,” Fordahl said. “He was there. He saw this pastel I did of an artillery crew. It had three guys in it. He recognized one of them. He said, ‘Hey, that’s Corporal Parker.’ It kind of blew my mind that they were recognizing these people and places.”

In his work at the Bloomington Art Center Les Fordahl finds himself often working with young people in the schools on projects that promote art. He’s continuing his own art education as well.

“I studied Monet last summer,” he said. “Light, color, impressionism. That’s what I’m doing in my old age.”


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