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Air Force veteran Richard Pitera, left, and Al Lester look over some photos that Pitera had taken while serving in the Vietnam War.  Lester hosted a luncheon recently to return the photos to Pitera, who is retired and living in Murphy, N.C.
Air Force veteran Richard Pitera, left, and Al Lester look over some photos that Pitera had taken while serving in the Vietnam War. Lester hosted a luncheon recently to return the photos to Pitera, who is retired and living in Murphy, N.C. (Wayne Ford/Athens Banner-Herald)

ATHENS, Ga. — In 1968, a young U.S. Air Force captain assigned as a photographer was trekking through the cities and countryside of South Vietnam focusing his lens on city scenes, infantrymen and the casualties of war.

Fifty-three years later, Richard Pitera sat at a table in an Athens restaurant across from two other Vietnam War veterans, Jerry Crawley and Stan Sheram. On this day, he was reunited with at least a thousand of those photos he took during those dangerous days.

“Did you ever wonder what happened to them,” Crawley asked about the boxes of photo slides lost after Pitera’s military career was over.

“No,” Pitera quickly responded. “I was not one to resurrect Vietnam.”

The boxes of slides were left in the attic of a Duluth home where Pitera once lived. Somehow, the slides ended up at a thrift store in Athens, where they were purchased about 20 years ago. About six months ago, the slides ended up in the hands of retired University of Georgia employee Al Lester, who was inspired to seek out the unknown photographer.

Lester engaged the help of two friends, Crawley, a retired state probation officer, and Sheram. The two men are photo hobbyists, as is Lester.

“They couldn’t find a thing,” Lester said as he recalled their efforts to identify the photographer during a luncheon he hosted recently as a way of returning the photos to Pitera. The only viable clue the men had was the last name of Pitera visible in a photo showing the airman’s name tag.

An Aug. 23 news story about the mystery photos on the Athens Banner-Herald website sparked the interest of Sandy Baumwald, a seasoned Athens genealogist who within hours found Pitera and his wife, Joanne, living in retirement in the mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina.

One of the Vietnam War-era photos that Athens, Ga., man Al Lester is attempting to return to the family of the photographer. Most of the photos in a collection that Lester now owns were taken during the Vietnam War. Although he examined the photos closely, he has been unable to put a full name on this mysterious airman who was an adept photographer.
One of the Vietnam War-era photos that Athens, Ga., man Al Lester is attempting to return to the family of the photographer. Most of the photos in a collection that Lester now owns were taken during the Vietnam War. Although he examined the photos closely, he has been unable to put a full name on this mysterious airman who was an adept photographer. (Facebook)

Lester arranged to have the slides returned to Pitera, but he also had them digitized to be viewable on a computer. That eliminated having to find a vintage slide viewer.

The gathering occurred at the Hilltop Grille in Athens, where Lester also hosted Baumwald, Crawley, Sheram and a news crew from WSB-TV in Atlanta.

What intrigued Lester about the photos is that instead of scenes of war, these particular photos captured by the airman showed “everyday life” in Southeast Asia. There were also some taken in Japan and Hawaii, which Pitera described as “my R&R.”

Pitera was grateful to have the photos returned, but the retired chemist said his two sons and daughter were even more enthused.

The Pitera family plans to gather during the Thanksgiving holiday for a showing of the photos.

“That will be the highlight of the day,” he said. “I can’t believe how excited the kids are.”

Lester and Pitera also shared their thoughts with the Atlanta news media.

The two men were interviewed by WSB reporter Berndt Petersen about their story of how boxes of old photos had resurrected memories of days long ago in a faraway country.

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