Pilot’s rare 3-D images of Vietnam War also tell story of love, loss
By Kate Santich | The Orlando Sentinel | Published: May 28, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. — Judy Glenn was a young bride with a 4-month-old baby when her husband first left to be a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.
It was 1965. There was no Skype, no email, no cellphones.
But half a world from his family’s Gainesville, Fla., farm, Joel Glenn wanted the love of his life to understand his strange new surroundings and his vantage point from the clouds.
“He thought flying was beautiful,” says Judy, now 69. “The clouds and the country were just gorgeous. He took 35-millimeter slides, (but) they didn’t show the depth he wanted me to see. He wanted me to know what it was like to fly.”
So Joel, then a 26-year-old chemical-engineering graduate from the University of Florida, sent away for a three-dimensional camera and started taking pictures — from the sky, from the ground and of everything from Vietnamese villagers’ routine cutting of rice fields to young fellow soldiers who wouldn’t make it home.
Those images, the only known three-dimensional pictures from the Vietnam War — coupled with cassette tapes the couple used to send conversations back and forth — reveal a rare and intimate portrait of the era. On Memorial Day, they came together for an hourlong documentary, “Sky Soldier: A Vietnam Story in 3D,” on 3net, the 3-D network from Discovery, Sony and IMAX.
More than a war story, though, it is a love story.
“Judy ends one of her tapes with how much she and their son will miss Joel. And she says, ‘We can’t wait for you to get back 10 and a half months from now,’” says Tom Jennings, the program’s executive producer. “You hear that, and you think, ‘Oh, my God, they’re only a month and a half into this separation, and they have so far to go.’”
Narrated by Bill Paxton, the program’s soundtrack is also filled with sweet, sometimes naive conversations like that: a young couple grappling to share the first steps of their young son on the one hand, and the task of retrieving soldiers’ bodies on the other.
“He tried to stay pretty upbeat,” Judy says. “But every now and then, I’d get a tape where he was kind of quiet and wistful.”
Among his other duties, Joel was charged with collecting the personal effects of soldiers killed in action and sending their possessions home, along with a letter of condolence to their families. Though he always found a way to praise the men, the job took a toll on his spirit. Joel’s own father had died suddenly when Joel was only 11, the victim of a freak accident on the farm when a shotgun misfired.
He didn’t need any more reminders of the fragility of life — or his own vulnerability.
After his first tour in Vietnam, he came home emaciated, his once-healthy frame shriveled by 60 pounds. By the time doctors figured out he had testicular cancer — likely the result of his exposure to Agent Orange — he had moved with Judy and their son, Tom, to an Army base in Germany. The doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of survival.
“He was pretty much a pessimist, and I was the optimist,” Judy says. “I always thought he would make it. He kept saying, ‘I’m going to go before you do.’ But he was an amazing person.”
He returned stateside for intense radiation treatments that left him sterile and so gaunt and pale that his skin was almost blue. It took nearly two years of recovery, but eventually Joel was able to pass his flight physical. As soon as he did, he received orders to return to Vietnam.
Judy returned to family in Gainesville to raise her son and adopt a second boy, bringing a photo of her husband to the courthouse ceremony that made the arrangement final. And after another long year apart, Joel came home again. But by this time, sentiment toward the war had begun to shift. Joel was warned not to wear his uniform in public.
“Sometimes he was bitter about the fact that he had to kind of hide his service,” says Tom Glenn, now 47 and a retired naval helicopter pilot. “But I also think the war made Daddy savor life a little more.”
When the family was stationed in Wisconsin, Joel discovered a special plastic that allowed him to capture snowflakes and preserve them on slides so they could be viewed under a microscope. He took up cross-country skiing. And when there was a meteor shower, he awakened his sons at 2 a.m., and they all camped out in a hayfield to watch.
And everywhere they lived, everything they did, he captured in 3-D images. The family would host viewings in their living room, passing out the funky glasses to guests so they could enjoy the pictures, too.
“That was just Daddy,” Tom says. “He always said, ‘When you’re exhausted, that means you’re about halfway there.’ “
Joel Glenn would spend the last 16 years of his working life as a civil engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation before retiring. But in 2006, he was again diagnosed with cancer, and this time it had spread throughout his body. He died in April 2007.
On Memorial Day, Judy Glenn said a prayer for him and for all the men and women still at war, including Joel and Judy’s nephew, who is serving in Afghanistan. And that evening, she and her children and grandchildren and their friends will gather in shifts to watch the program. There are only eight sets of 3-D glasses, after all.
The one viewer she’d most like to see it, of course, won’t be there. But she’d like to think he’ll join them in spirit.
“I know Joel would be thrilled out of his mind,” she says. “I figure he’ll be up in heaven, dancing.”