Rants & Essays

Vietnam Mini-Series V
"A Picture is Worth…"

By Nick Mills

PicturesIt was February 26, 1969, and the beginning of the Communists' post-Tet offensive. We were in house-to-house fighting in a village just outside the big Bien Hoa air base. The enemy was hiding in the village refugee center. I had been sent there with my photo team by the SEAPC commander, Major Jim Carson, early in the morning as the battle was beginning. For most of the morning with the ARVN Rangers and their advisor as they tried several unsuccessful assaults on the dug-in force. At noon I drove back to Long Binh and requested more photo teams, because after gunships and bombers had softened up the place there was apparently going to be a tough ground battle.

Combat photographers Dwight Carter and Howard Nuernberger came with me. Two other photo teams from SEAPC were also covering the action with motion picture and still cameras. Major Carson even left his office to join the effort and coordinate the teams.

In mid-afternoon the ARVN assault began in earnest. As we moved into the village with the ARVN we saw enemy soldiers emerge from hiding places and surrender; the bodies of others lay here and there. It was hot, very loud, dusty, smoking, and confusing. Carter, Nuernberger, and I split up with different elements of the assault force as the Rangers advanced under heavy fire. The ARVN were beginning to take casualties. An American photographer was killed and Carter helped carry his body out. Suddenly, the noise level jumped dramatically as the enemy counterattacked. We were pinned down by machine-gun and small arms fire, and the boom of enemy rocket-propelled grenades rose above the din. The ARVN pulled back in a hurry, dragging their dead and wounded. I pulled out with them, hoping aloud I wouldn't be hit as we sprinted across a flat, open area that led to safety. I made it to the shelter of a large building that served as the ARVN command post. There I began looking for my team. Behind the building I found a cluster of SEAPC photographers and Major Carson huddled over a prone figure on the ground. The man obviously was an American, but his face was bloody and blackened, his uniform was in shreds, and his right arm was missing just below the shoulder. A stick of white jagged bone jutted from the bloody stump of the arm. I had to ask who it was. "Nuernberger," was the answer.

Howard! A tall, clean, quiet kid from Pennsylvania; a fine, sensitive photographer, and one of my favorite people in the 221st Signal Company. He, Carter, and I had just returned from Chu Lai where we had spent two weeks photographing American Division operations and waiting for the anticipated offensive.

Now he was unrecognizable to me. He had been in a doorway in the village when the counterattack came and he had taken a direct hit by an RPG. The doorway shielded all but his arm from the blast; otherwise he would have been dead. As it was his face was powder-burned and bleeding, his uniform was torn from head to foot, and there was that obscene stump of an arm. He was alive, however, and conscious, and able to talk. Now I had to get him out of there.

A few yards away a U.S. advisor worked a radio, yelling for a dust-off. But none came; they were busy elsewhere. We wrapped Howard's stump to stem the bleeding and waited for a medevac chopper. I screamed at the advisor, he yelled at the radio, but there was no chopper available. One hundred yards away I spotted a group of ARVN ambulances, waiting to evacuate their casualties over land, and I decided that was our best hope. Surely the ARVN would give us a lift to Long Binh hospital. We got a litter and put Howard on it. Four of us then carried him to the ARVN ambulance trucks and tried to put him on one. The driver shook his head no. He smiled, but he would NOT give the wounded American a ride. ARVN only.

I couldn't believe it. This ambulance driver was refusing to take a wounded American to a hospital? In my mind I saw the enormous irony of the situation: It was 1969, there were a half-million Americans in Vietnam fighting so the Vietnamese could eat their rice in peace, and this son-of-a-bitch wouldn't give us a ride to a hospital to save this man's life.

In addition to my camera I was carrying an M16, and the ambulance driver was suddenly seeing the business end of it. I ordered Howard loaded aboard the ambulance, put Carter on with him, and told the driver to take Howard to the 21st Evac Hospital on Long Binh Post or we'd kill him. I meant it. Carter kept his rifle at the ready but I had convinced the driver. In fifteen minutes Howard was in surgery.

I stayed at the battle a while longer, until the air strikes had softened up the village and the ARVN began mopping up. I then pulled out and headed for the hospital. When I arrived Howard was still in surgery, but the doctors had finished their work and the OR team was putting the final dressing on Howard's injury. I waited in the ward where he would be placed, among rows of other badly wounded GIs. The OR doors swung open and the surgeon, still in his scrub suit, strode out, peeling off his bloody rubber gloves. He came straight at me.

"Are you that man's commanding officer?" he demanded. I said that I was and asked about Howard. "How is he? What the hell do you mean, how is he? He's lost an arm, that's how he is!" I was startled at the man's anger. He was a major, an army surgeon in Vietnam and surely he has seen cases as bad and worse. But he was furious - sputtering, screaming, furious - and his anger was directed at me. "Can you justify that, lieutenant?" he yelled. "Can you justify that? Losing an arm to take a goddamned picture? Can you?"

I was too stunned to answer. I said nothing. The surgeon turned and stomped away, anger and disgust still contorting his face. Then Howard was wheeled out, the stump of his arm encased in clean, white bandages. He was still awake, and I sat by his bed for a while, not knowing what to say to him, either. I told him he was a good man and I was very sorry this had happened, to which he nodded. Finally I left; the next day Howard was flown out of Vietnam.

By the time I got back to SEAPC headquarters the surgeon's anger was raging inside me and I made something of a scene, slamming my steel pot against a wall and yelling obscenities about the war and our part in it. A few nights later, I was told, I went to pieces while very drunk, screaming and crying about Howard and the war and our mission; to this day I have no recollection of it.

Long after I returned from Vietnam, during one of countless mental replays of the Bien Hoa battle, it suddenly occurred to me that the surgeon who had been so angry didn't understand that we were only doing our jobs: He had not understood that we were combat photographers, and our jobs were as relevant and justifiable - or as irrelevant and unjustifiable - as anyone's in Vietnam.