Rants & Essays

Vietnam Mini-Series I
"First Blood"

By Marv Wolf

I was in the third chopper in a daisy chain of five, each about thirty seconds behind the other. I sat on my flak jacket, surrounded by cameras and my M16, in the left-hand door-gunner's seat. I had a vague hope that a slug coming up through the soft aluminum belly of the chopper wouldn't make me a eunuch. The door-gunner was back at An Khe, safe. I was in his seat because a Huey can haul only so many guys-there were seven other grunts aboard-and I wanted pictures of this assault landing by a company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. I'd been in the country a couple of months since arriving in August 1965, but this was my first air assault.

The first chopper dipped into the clearing that was to be our LZ and I heard the pilot say something quick and terse in the headphones I was wearing, but I couldn't make it out. In seconds he lifted out again, empty, and the next chopper disappeared into a hole in the green jungle. As we slowed to make our descent a huge fireball erupted just ahead of us. Our pilot cursed and pulled pitch.

We flew through the top of the fireball. I was conscious mostly of the smell of burned hair and the sudden drying out of damp clothes. Then we were jinking left and right at low altitude as we struggled clear of the area.

What follows took under a minute to happen but seemed like an entire lifetime. We went around in a big circle, with the other loaded choppers, and the pilots yelled back and forth in my earphones. The gist of it was that there were eight grunts down there from the first lift in and an unknown number from the second. The pilots were deciding, then and there, how best to get back into the LZ so our grunts could save the guys already inserted.

My gut told me that the risk of staying on the chopper was less because it was all going to be over in a few seconds. If I stayed on the ground I'd be both closer to danger and exposed to it longer. I really didn't want to get off that helicopter. And I didn't really see what difference it would make to the war, to my country, to my outfit.

But I also knew that I had volunteered to come to Vietnam as a photographer, that I had volunteered to go with this outfit, and that if I did get some pictures they might be seen by people all over the world. Maybe this wasn't important in the grand scheme of things, but it was important to me. It was the job I'd been given to do.

I leapt out with the rest from three or four feet up and hit the ground running, feeling vaguely ridiculous with an M16 in my left hand and an ancient Speed Graphic in my right. The ten yards to the comparative cover of the tree line felt like an entire football field. The camera bag banging on my left hip seemed to weigh a ton. I don't know why I wasn't shot, because I was the last to reach cover by a country mile.

I heard the chopper rev up behind me and hover out amid a flurry of shots, but I couldn't find the strength to turn around for a look. In a few seconds the volume of small arms fire around me rose to a ragged crescendo and I heard the next chopper hover in. I snaked around ninety degrees, then rose up on one elbow. The guys running toward me while the chopper lumbered skyward made a great composition and I held up the Graphic, then snapped the shutter.

One of the newcomers threw himself down near me, and as I recocked the shutter I realized that I hadn't removed the dark slide-I hadn't made an exposure. This wasn't exactly the first time I'd used the camera, and it wasn't the first time I'd made that mistake. But this time it seemed hilarious, and I started to laugh at myself.

I took the dark slide out, shoved it in a pocket, and raised up again, looking for something, anything, to photograph. Another chopper loaded behind us and the guy who'd just arrived started shooting into the woods, at what I'll never know. I thought that was funny, too, and so I laughed again. He glanced at me with pain in his eyes-then he started to laugh too. He pointed at the Graphic. The whole front of the camera was bashed in, probably from a ricochet, and here I was trying to take his picture. "Hey, PIO," he called, "this mean I ain't gonna get my picture in Stars and Stripes?"

That's when I knew everything was going to be okay for me. I got out my other camera, my treasured IIIC, and started doing my job.

-Marv Wolf served in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry from July 1965 to November 1966. He arrived in Vietnam a private first class and left a second lieutenant after a direct appointment to the officer ranks.