War Stories from Vietnam Combat Photographers

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All week we’ve been telling “Untold Stories” as a salute to veterans of the Vietnam war. Virtually all of those stories contained photographs and film from an elite group of photographers known as DASPO.  DASPO is short for “Department of the Army Special Photographic Unit.”  Hundreds of men willingly signed up for this dangerous assignment, to stand in the line of fire and capture the “Faces of War.”  Here are the stories of still photographer Dick Durrance, and combat cameraman Ted Acheson.

Dick Durrance / DASPO Photographer in Vietnam 1967-68

“I wanted to photograph war.What makes me proud is all of us captured various facets of the experience so that people can understand it. But my personal mission was to try and understand what it was that lay behind man’s urge to fight.

I carried a camera of my own. The ones I shot for the army went to the Pentagon. I never saw them. We would see contact sheets, that’s all.

Most memorable for me was the first day of the Tet offensive. I was in Da Nang. And they had attacked the base that night, blown up a fuel depot, so huge big fire. And the next morning the ARVN rangers and the US troops pushed the NVA back out of the village. And women who’d been wounded in the fighting were coming at us.

I came back printed them up 1968 and the number of people who were interested in a soldier’s story in 1968 did not call forth a single finger. Nobody was interested. I put ‘em away. I didn’t look at them for 19 years.

Ted Acheson / DASPO Combat Cameraman 1968-69

"A still cameraman can take a shot and jump down. A motion guy has to stand there for about 10-12 seconds to take the picture. And then not only one picture, he has to take another picture because you’ve got to build a sequence right?  So, you’re doing all of this and you’re exposing your body to incoming.

I came in 2 weeks after the Tet Offensive in 1968. And that camera’s probably with the lens on it about 40 pounds. The belt was another 15. So, you’ve got sweat dripping down. Your hands are in a bag changing this stuff. Putting it back into the camera. You are absolutely drenched. And you’ve got to get back up and shoot some more. Cause in Vietnam if you went looking for a firefight to cover you never found one. But if you weren’t looking for one, the darndest moments it would happen.

Well, one of the times in there, an RPG, which is a rocket propelled grenade, they probably saw this huge lens sticking out and thought it was a weapon. They fired an RPG in, blew myself and an ABC cameraman about 100 feet from where we were standing. I didn’t get a scratch on me, nothing.”

Ken Clarke / Pritzker Military Museum and Library President and CEO

“It is now that the men of DASPO and the men who served during the Vietnam war need to start thinking about their legacy, and start collecting their archives that are in their attics or basements and making sure those are put in good hands for the next generation. And it’s really now for them to tell their story. About a year and half ago we started working with some Vietnam war veterans who were combat photographers to put on an exhibit featuring their photography. There were more than 200 guys in this unit. I think the Vietnam war is not very well understood.”

Dick Durrance:  “What I think I would like people to get is to understand the human cost of war. The cost to the soldiers, the cost to the civilians, the cost to the country.

We’re nearly 50 years later and now there’s an interest in really trying to understand that war as a way of trying to understand all wars. And so I’m delighted & these wonderful pictures all these guys took is a great way to introduce people to the face of war.

We’re proud of what we did here, many soldiers are proud of what they do. And it comes often at a terrible cost.”

You can see Dick Durrance’s still photographs and Ted Acheson’s film footage in the “Faces of War” exhibit at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It runs now through May. And, you can learn more about DASPO and see all of our Untold Stories, as well as Tribune's hour documentary, by clicking these links.