On the long flight I think back to the radio call. On a field radio we are expected to use military protocol. We say, “Roger” meaning I understand, and “say again” for asking what. We cite letters using the Military Alphabet Code of, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. etc. Numbers like five are said, “fiiver” and nine is said “niiiner.” A sure way to get in trouble at Cam Rahn Bay is to vary from this expected military speak.
So when the field phone alarm sounds on the photo lab wall I answer, “Photo Lab, Gann speaking sir.” The voice on the other end says, “Papa Gann?” I’m confused. Papa is the alphabet code word for the letter P. “Say again,” I say as the voice seemed to be asking for P Gann. In fact there is another sailor stationed at the Naval Facility named Gann. I wonder if the voice is looking for him. Identity confusion with this guy has already caused me some small problems. I don’t know his first name, but in no way do I want to be confused with that Mr. Gann. He has a girlfriend in My Ca Village and keeps going AWOL to be with her. He’s been busted from E-5 to E-1 during our squadron’s deployment.
“This is William Gann Sir, not P. Gann,” I explain. “No,” the voice says almost playfully for field phone speak, “You are Papa Gann because now you are a Papa.” It finally dawns on me. Diane gave birth to the baby back in The World. I’m a father. Our son, William August Gann is born on February 23, 1970.
A few minutes later I’m notified that the Navy is honoring me with the prestigious “Navy in Vietnam” photography assignment. “Congratulations,” says Mr. J. says coming into the photo lab to shake my hand. I assume this show of enthusiasm is for the baby. “That Navy in Vietnam photo assignment is quite an honor. “It’s your chance to get a Combat Action ribbon, and if your lucky, maybe a Purple Heart.” Mr. J. sees the war differently than most of us.
About the time Navy in Vietnam orders arrive, a photo of a newborn baby comes in a letter from Diane. The high priority orders say I can go anywhere I want to photograph naval activity. I want to go home to be with my wife and son, but the orders mean I can go anywhere I want to go in Vietnam.
The orders turn out to have enormous power, but I have no idea how to use such authority. Some Navy photographers use the assignment to seek out a sandy beach, cold beer and comely lass to pass time with. Fellow photographer Ken Van Hoesen, however, had recently completed the assignment honorably, and set the standard for our photo group. Ken went down to the action in the Mekong Delta and came back with some wonderful photographs. I’m expected to do the same.
I pack a bag, stuff my baby son’s photo in my wallet, and prepare my new Pentax Spotmatic equipment. Thinking I’m on photography’s cutting edge by casting off bulky 70mm cameras, I embrace the feather-weight world of 35 mm. I build special hands-free straps to hold my camera, and assemble a duty belt for film, meters and various lenses. Vaguely, I feel I actually prepare for battle. In reality, I organize to come back from the assignment among the quick and not the dead.