Fifty years ago, Jimmie Hurley spent Father’s Day in Vietnam, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. He arrived there in late 1964, part of the air campaign that preceded the arrival of ground troops the following April. He didn’t fight on the ground, but he was most likely shot at in the air. I say “most likely” because I don’t know all the details of his wartime service, even though Jimmie is my father. He died in 2009, and when he was alive he was tight-lipped about Vietnam. Much of what I do know I learned from the pictures he left behind.
In Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, Dad was a crew chief on a U10 Courier aircraft, modified for psychological warfare by the addition of speakers. The mission of these tiny, unarmed planes, dubbed “Speaker Birds,” was to fly low over known enemy territory, delivering written and spoken messages to convince Viet Cong fighters and sympathizers to surrender and avoid imminent American airstrikes.
My mom kept a scrapbook during that time. Inside, I found a few photos and a clipping from a December 1964 edition of the Pacific Stars and Stripes. Datelined “Over the Mekong Delta,” the story was Army reporter Mike Mealey’s firsthand account of a flight on a plane like my dad’s:
“The single-engine Air Force plane circled slowly over the cluster of huts, blaring out a message in Vietnamese and bombarding the area with thousands of leaflets that fluttered down onto the rice paddies and dirt roads.
“The tracer-round, looking like a bright orange spark, whizzed by about 10 feet to the right of the plane, making a cracking noise that could be heard even above the loudspeakers.
“A volley of bullets, perhaps 10, came even closer, the pilots … veered the plane sharply to throw the enemy rifleman below off target.
“Later the two Air Force men would speculate on the fire and explosion which would tear the plane apart if one of these tracer-rounds should strike the gas tanks.”
In later years, Dad didn’t want to reminisce about his time in Vietnam, but when he was there, a 23-year-old three-striper, he preserved his experiences by taking multiple rolls of pictures. Afterward, the photos, like the year of his life they documented, were packed away out of sight. Not forgotten by my father, but not shared with his family.
Once when the subject of Vietnam came up, he said, “That was a bad place.”
I’ve heard Vietnam is a beautiful country, and I don’t think my dad was referring to geography anyway. I do know he valued the friendships he forged there and never forgot the friends who didn’t return. I don’t know what happened to Dad in Vietnam. I do know he came back to an America that, if it remembered the war at all, had little but contempt for the warriors who fought and died in it.
Whatever the reason, Dad shied away from most conversations about his time in Vietnam, preferring to tell stories about other flying experiences. He had plenty. In a 20-year career, he traveled the world, logging thousands of flying hours as a crew chief.
When he retired in 1979, he didn’t have a retirement ceremony or a slideshow highlight reel of his exploits. No one publicly praised his long years of service or formally presented him with awards or certificates, recognizing the years he had given. That was the way he wanted it, I suppose.
Some years later, my father gave me a large box of family pictures and home movies that had been stowed away in his barn. Among the photographic record of my childhood were his snapshots from Vietnam, tucked in a disintegrating envelope.
When I found those pictures, I discovered a narrative of my father’s life in that war: Austere living conditions, aircraft repair crews at work, aerial photos of jungles and villages, fellow airmen shooting the breeze and smoking cigars, a weekend of leave in the city. Scribbled notes on the backs of some of the photos include locations — Bien Hoa, Quy Nhon, Saigon.
During the Vietnam War, news photos and footage famously gave Americans at home their first images of combat and its inherent death and suffering. My father’s photos gave me a glimpse into the other side of the story, the ordinary moments of day-to-day life in a war zone as my dad experienced it.
Every veteran gives up something in service to his or her country. Some give their lives or their limbs. Others bear less visible losses. Everyone who serves gives up something that can never be recovered, including time with their families at home, the ordinary days that add up to months and years. In exchange for those and for his service, Dad had the tangible memories he captured with his black and silver Olympus camera. He came back physically well and whole, but he kept his thoughts about that year of his life stashed away like his snapshots.
My father spent a large part of his Air Force career in support of the war in Vietnam. Combat operations ended in 1975. He retired four years later, having spent two tours in Southeast Asia and several other assignments throughout the Pacific theater.
I wonder how he felt when the war ended in retreat, when fellow citizens viewed his years of service as a contribution to national failure. He probably watched the fall of Saigon on the 6 o’clock news, remembering the people he photographed when he was there. If he heard about the American and Vietnamese citizens who were evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, he might have wondered about the fate of the South Vietnamese military members who had flown alongside him, whose pictures he had taken and preserved.
He might have wondered what he had accomplished in his Air Force career, but he never said so. If he had those questions, he kept them to himself, like his stories. At least he passed along his photos — whether accidentally or intentionally, I don’t know. I regret that I didn’t realize their significance until he was gone.
When he was alive, I didn’t know what questions to ask. Now I have nothing but questions. I’m only beginning to learn what my father’s snapshots can teach me about his experiences in 1965 and what they mean to me 50 years later.