Teachers

Teaching With Documents:
The War in Vietnam -
A Story in Photographs

The war in Vietnam has been described as the war America watched from their living rooms. Images of combat and American GIs were projected through our TV screens and across our newspapers daily. During the war in Vietnam, the American military gave the press unprecedented freedom of access to combat zones. This allowed newspaper reporters and photographers and television crews to document a war involving American sons and daughters on the other side of the world. This willingness to allow documentation of the war was also extended to the military's own photographers. Between 1962 and 1975, military photographers for the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force took millions of photographs of the American conflict in Vietnam. Almost a quarter of a million of these images are now located at the National Archives. These photographs serve publishers, historians, and students who want to learn more about Vietnam. They include images of almost every aspect of the war.

The jobs of the military photographers were not only to document the war, but also to capture images for the historical record. One photographer, Chuck Cook, describes it as follows: "What the photographers did was worth doing--maybe not for the reasons the military said. They just felt that what the soldiers were going through was worth saving." In his book Vietnam: Images from Combat Photographers , author C. Douglas Elliott describes the images that came in from the combat operation as ones "that did not show winners and losers. They showed soldiers--often teenagers--coping as best they could with unrelenting heat and humidity, heavy packs, heavy guns, and an invisible enemy whose mines, booby traps, and snipers could cut life short without a moment's warning." In order to capture these images, photographers took many risks and suffered many of the same hardships as the soldiers and personnel they were covering.

The operations and direction of the military photography was organized by the Army Pictorial Center (APC), which dispatched a series of teams for brief visits. These teams were organized into DASPO (Department of the Army Special Photo Office). DASPO rotated photographers into Vietnam for three-month tours of duty from a base in Hawaii. It wasn't long before the Marines sent their own photographers into the field, quickly followed by the Army and its 221st Signal Company. The DASPO and the 221st were considered the Army's elite photographic units. Smaller numbers of photographers worked for the Public Information Office (PIO), the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force photographers assisted in aerial reconnaissance and documentation of bombing missions. The Navy photographers worked from the Combat Camera Group-Pacific (CCGPAC) photographing river patrols, counterguerrilla missions, and SEAL teams. The mission of DASPO was to provide a historical record of the war for the Pentagon archives. These photographers were not there as journalists, but rather to create a visual record of operations, equipment, and personnel. After the photographs were processed by the Pentagon, they were made available to military publications, the press, and the public at a photographic library at the Pentagon.

As these photographers worked to document the war, they covered a variety of people and circumstances including combat missions, GIs, support personnel, medical units, and visits by dignitaries, politicians, and entertainers. While they may have been there to provide visual record of operations, equipment, and personnel; their photographs also tell a story. It is a story about the young men and women who fulfilled served their duty to their country by serving in the war in Vietnam.

Other Resources

Andrews, Owen, C. Douglas Elliott, and Laurence I. Levin. Vietnam: Images from Combat Photographers. Washington, DC: Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1991.

Arnold, James R. The Illustrated History of Rangers: The Vietnam War. New York: Bantam Books, Rufus Publications, Inc., 1988.

Devanter, Lynda Van. Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. New York: Warner Books, 1983.

Guilmartin, John, Jr., and Michael O'Leary. The Illustrated History of Helicopters: The Vietnam War. New York: Bantam Books, Rufus Publications, Inc.,1988.

Simmons, Edwin H. The Illustrated History of Marines: The Vietnam War. New York: Bantam Books, Rufus Publications, Inc., 1987.

The Documents

  1. Marines riding atop an M-48 tank, covering their ears, April 3, 1968.
    National Archives Identifier: 532483

  2. Operation "Yellowstone" Vietnam. Following a hard day, a few members of Company A gather around a guitar and play a few songs, January 18, 1968.
    National Archives Identifier: 530617

  3. Operation "Oregon," a search and destroy mission conducted by infantry platoon of Troop B. An infantryman is lowered into a tunnel by members of the reconnaissance platoon, April 24, 1967.
    National Archives Identifier: 530613

  4. A sky trooper from the 1st Cavalry Division keeps track of the time he has left on his "short time" helmet, 1968.
    National Archives Identifier: 531453

  5. Soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swampy area, 1969.
    National Archives Identifier: 531457

  6. Marines of Company H walk through a punji-staked gully, January 28, 1966.
    National Archives Identifier: 532439

  7. Wet going - A Marine keeps a battery pack dry as he wades through a muddy hole while on a search mission.
    National Archives Identifier: 532464

  8. A Marine stands watch in an observation tower as a chaplain holds mass on Hill 950, July 31, 1967.
    National Archives Identifier: 532465

  9. "Home is where you dig" was the sign over a fighting bunker, 1968.
    National Archives Identifier: 532482

  10. Members of U.S. Navy SEAL Team One move down Bassac River in a SEAL Team assault boat, November 19, 1967.
    National Archives Identifier: 558512

  11. Loretta Clause plays cards, talks, etc. with Marines. She is a volunteer worker for the Red Cross, August 2, 1967.
    National Archives Identifier: 532478

  12. Navy nurses check the medical chart of a Marine corporal aboard the hospital ship USS Repose of South Vietnam, April 22, 1966.
    National Archives Identifier: 532500

  13. A nurse tends to a patient just out of surgery in the intensive care ward of the hospital ship USS Repose, October, 1967.
    National Archives Identifier: 558532

National Archives and Records Administration
Record Group 127 - Records of the United States Marine Corps
Record Group 111 - Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer
Record Group 428 - General Records of the Department of the Navy

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

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