Worth more than a thousand words
Published: April 30, 2012
When my father died, he didn’t leave me a fortune. He left me something better: his memories, even the ones he never talked much about.
A few years before he died in 2009, he gave me a metal box filled with photos and home movies from my childhood. He handed it over when we were visiting him in Oklahoma, just as we were leaving. He said something offhand like, “The mice are getting to this stuff out in the barn. You should take it home with you.”
Inside were boxes of photos and reels of 8mm film, taken when we were stationed in Texas, Colorado and Alaska. Among the Polaroids and color slides from family vacations, I discovered something else.
A yellowed envelope labeled in Vietnamese and French enclosed two stacks of small black and white photos. The mice had found several, but most were intact. I recognized my dad’s handwriting on some. Most were wordless, but they still told portions of the story of my Dad as an Airman in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.
He wrote brief descriptions on the backs of a few: “Unloading AC-123 at Quin Hon,” or “Taking off at Bong Song.” Some are aerial photos showing huts, mountains airfields. I’m sure my father was the photographer. One says “A train derailed – The V.C. tore the track out,” and another, “Sailboats off the end of the runway Quin Hon.”
City pictures were apparently taken on a trip to Saigon: A young boy giving my dad and his camera a mischievous wink and salute, a smiling woman carrying two big baskets on a shoulder pole. A man smoking a cigarette under the striped awning of the Saigon USO, the offices of the “Saigon Daily News.”
Others depict austere living conditions on base, looking all the more grim in monochromatic prints. Tents, hammocks, sandbags, guard towers. Makeshift runways made of Marston mats, modular corrugated steel.
My husband can identify most of the aircraft for me. It’s the people who remain mysterious. Only a few snapshots show dad’s fellow airmen. Perhaps they were his friends.
A young captain rests under the wing of a plane, wearing aviator sunglasses and a belt stocked with bullets. A paunchy sergeant stands on the runway, arms akimbo, the brim of his uniform cap flipped up. Two men repair landing gear. Another poses inside a bunker with helmet and weapon.
My father is in just a few photos. In one he stands beside his plane at Bien Hoa Air Base, a pistol at his hip. On the nose of the plane is stenciled “Miss Terri Jane,” my name and my mom’s.
Mom has told me that Dad was a crewmember for a psychological warfare aircraft. Fitted with large speakers and no weapons, the small plane flew missions low over known enemy territory, blasting anticommunist messages and showering the ground with leaflets.
In another photo, a South Vietnamese soldier poses by the plane’s loudspeakers. His name is not on the photo. I wonder if he flew with my dad and what happened to him. I wonder if my dad ever wondered the same thing.
I’ll never know because I didn’t ask him. These are the conversations I wish we’d had, but it was a subject he rarely broached.
I have other photos, letters and news clippings my mom and grandmother saved and gave me, some that my dad mailed home during the war. My mom collected her memories in a blue scrapbook, tied with a gold cord.
One news clipping was particularly enlightening. PFC Mike Mealey, reporting for the Pacific Stars and Stripes in December 1964, wrote about the missions and the dangers faced by the crews of propaganda planes like my dad’s. Mealey said there were three such aircraft in operation in Vietnam at the time.
That same month, Dad sent home a Christmas card bearing the logo of the 21st Infantry Division Advisory Team. He was then at Can Tho, near the Mekong Delta and mentioned the pilot quoted in the Stripes story.
“Dearest Darlings … Capt. Scott and I were working with this outfit and they gave me this card … You don’t know how much I hate not having Xmas with my little family. But war is bad for a lot of people. I will try to write a letter tomorrow. Lot of love …”
Also in the scrapbook were newspaper stories of a tragic series of accidental explosions at Bien Hoa Air Base on May 16, 1965. Twenty-seven died and almost a hundred more were injured. Dad was there. My mom said she heard about it on the news, and it was two weeks before a cassette tape arrived.
“First of all, I’m fine,” were his first words, she said.
“I was going out of my mind,” she remembered. “We got news back then, but it wasn’t as explicit as it is now.”
I found a video of the aftermath of the Bien Hoa tragedy on YouTube. I watched the men moving planes and fighting the fires, scanning every face for a glimpse of my dad. I knew those men had likely known him. I also knew that he had surely known many who died.
Dad would be 71 years old this month. The longer he is gone, the more conversations I wish we’d had. At least I have the pictures he took with his little black and silver camera.
When I was a teenager the camera was lost somehow. Even years afterward, he would lament, “I sure wish I knew what happened to that camera.” I finally understand why. It was a witness. His pictures are the evidence. Now they’re mine.
Each photo is a piece of my dad’s war story: The places he served, the men who served with him, scenes he thought were important enough to preserve when he was far from home.
Nothing in his bank account could make me richer.