A Huey helicopter caught in a typhoon flying provides unwanted adventure. President Nixon had sent a group of us to the Quy Nhon swift boat base to cover the corner stone of his Vietnamization Program. Nixon wanted to prove to the folks back home that he was turning the war over to the Vietnamese. I'm along to photograph the signing of a treaty that will turn over the area's river boat operation over to the Vietnamese.
An aloof Commodore seated to my right pretends he isn't scared as we bounce in the storm. A nasty public relation's officer who is also a chaplain is now praying out loud in the next seat. I'll call him Zealous, and he's the fool who gave the Army pilot a direct order to fly into the face of a typhoon. Our lives, it seems, are a risk he's willing to take to score brownie points with the president. A Stars and Stripes Journalist named Roy Neel braces in a side seat. Neel, is a Southern gentleman from Tennessee who will one day be Chief of Staff for his friend Al Gore. Suddenly trees are blown flat and coastal villages flood in the surge. Then the chopper falls like a rock. Just as suddenly, as if on a bungee cord, the Huey recovers a few hundred feet off the water. I shoot this shot, thinking it will be the last photograph I ever take. The Warrant Officer pilot looks back to the sycophantic clown Zealous and shakes his head. "Wow!" Neel says, "That's called 'loosing air.'" We fall again even closer to the water and the pilot struggles for a place to put down before we all die. He finds a deserted jungle fuel station and sets down on a small pad. The place is mushy and soaked. As enlisted men, Zealous orders Neel and I to help tie the chopper down. We are wearing Navy whites, again on direct orders from Zealous. We had shown up for the assignment in greens, but now we are in the worst possible uniform to caught wearing while stranded in the jungle. Zealous, I'll never forget. We become splattered in mud as we help hold the bird down.
During a slight lull, the Commodore calmly steps out and changes from his greens to a starched set of one-star admiral whites. He returns to the craft and sits impatiently. He's as crisp and starched as if at an officer's ball. Again, in this slight lull, the good chaplain orders us into the storm. Finally at Qui Nhon the storm is again at full force. Landing seems impossible as waves break over the landing pad. I think of jumping into the water. Then, a man on the ground throws a grappling hook that catches one of the helicopter's skids. We actually fly like a kite and this helps the pilot set us down safely in horizontal rain. Safely on land, the storm is still so loud someone yells in our ears to follow. A trail leads to the top of a hill where a small building can be seen. I smell food, hear laughter, and coming from the tin-roofed building. Warm yellow light welcomes from the windows. A door is being held open, as the wind shakes the ground. I'm wet and cold and aware of how near we are to death. A blast of food-scented air welcomes me back to life. Having just been so close to death, I'm hyper aware of everything. At the door, Zealous stops turns to Neel and I and says, "Officers only."
Like wet dogs we stand under the building’s eve that offers little protection. My camera bag takes on water and fries my flash gun. Zealous comes out when the rain stops about an hour later. I tell him that leaving us out in the downpour like toads has blown the assignment. I pour water out of my ruined flash and embarrass him if front of the other officers. I must have told him a whole lot more, all the days tensions steaming out of my mouth. Zealous writes me up for a Captain's Mass. Then he orders me to shoot the ceremony without a flash. I shoot the treaty signing that has been relocated to a dark hanger. I’m holding my camera loaded with 25 ASA Kodachrome against a pole and shooting half-second exposures. Knowing I didn't have enough light, I took two pictures as ordered and quit shooting. Neel saved the day by getting some black and white before his flash died. I put my wet film in the shirt pocket of my whites and try to forget the really bad day when back at the barracks. I think I'm in big trouble on top of it all. Justice is served back at Cam Rahn as Mr. Jamroga my division officer believed our story and saw that Zealous took the fall for the disastrous day.
Ten years later my young son wants to play with my Navy clothes. I dump my old sea bag that I had found in the garage rafters on the living room floor and a rusty roll of film rolls out of some yellowed dress whites. I send the film to Kodak. It comes back with all sorts of notes complaining about bad treatment of wonderful film. These are the shots. Before the Supreme Court stopped vote counting, and gave the 2000 election to George Bush, I see Neel's face in the Los Angeles Times for the first time since that day. Neel is touted as Gore's likely Secretary of State. I send Roy these shots and an inside version of this story. We agree that much good life has been lived since a typhoon blew us on to the rest of our lives.
1969VietnamCam Rahn BayNaval photo lab. Al GoreRoy NeelStars and StripesCommodoreQui NhonJohn J. JamrogaChaplan HabibySwift boatsriver boats Vietnamization