More often than not, the “Shooters” didn’t carry weapons since their shooting equipment was heavy and cumbersome. If they did arm themselves, a holstered .45 caliber automatic was their weapon of choice. Yet, everyone understood if a Shooter ever needed to use his weapon it was most likely too late to save the day.
Working as lone wolves or in teams of two, the Shooters were the privileged characters in Vietnam. Mostly enlisted men, they were not hampered by typical Army red tape, SNAFU dilemmas, bureaucratic Catch-22 traps, and were able to deploy instantly whenever and wherever fighting broke out. A Shooter did not need orders, could hop on any chopper, and had authorization to bump anyone below the rank of colonel from an Air Force transport. If necessary, they resorted to civilian transportation and wore civilian clothing more often than not. Considered a Special Forces unit, of sorts, they served as the cameramen of DASPO (Department of the Army Special Photographic Office).
The father of DASPO was an upstaged and fairly irritated Army chief of staff, General George Decker. After attending a 1962 briefing in which Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, an egotistical showboat, had given a flawless presentation with impeccable photos, General Decker asked his staff, “Why can’t we do that?” With authorization from President John Kennedy, the Army hierarchy at the Pentagon gave Major Arthur A. Jones the task of creating a new command to provide state-of-the-art films and photographs to Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and the Pentagon’s upper brass. Three detachments were developed: DASPO CONUS (Continental United States), DASPO Panama, and DASPO Pacific. DASPO’s Pacific OIC (Officer in Charge) Bill San Hamel made their mission plain and clear: “You will not be covering parades or change-of-command ceremonies, and no marching bands…you’re going to shoot documentaries, training films, and you’re going to cover combat. You are not going to be a public information unit.”
DASPO Pacific was based at Fort Shafter on Oahu and divided into three teams: Team Alpha in South Korea, Team Bravo in Thailand, and Team Charlie in South Vietnam. Carl Hanson, a Team Charlie still photographer, recalled, “I graduated at the top of my Army cinematography class at Fort Monmouth and was thrilled to receive an important assignment to a unit in Hawaii. I thought about sun, surf and girls, but upon arrival I was told I’d be spending the better part of my next two-and-a-half years in Vietnam.”
Career men (lifers) and new recruits filled the ranks of Team Charlie in Vietnam. The only thing they had in common was the fact they had nothing in common. The unit was a hodgepodge of different talents and skills: They included the best students from the Army Signal School, Van Hamel who worked for three years in a movie studio, the famed photographer Dick Durrance who had already been published in National Geographic before being drafted, and Bryan Grigsby, who was drafted right out of the University of Florida while studying television production. The men of DASPO captured some of the most captivating and revealing images of the Vietnam War.
For a base, Team Charlie rented a three-story gated house in Saigon’s Gia Dinh neighborhood, a short two-minute drive from the huge airbase at Tan Son Nhut. The Shooters dubbed their off-base office/barracks “The Villa.” Two or three-man teams rotated into the field with a new team ready to depart upon the return of the previous one.
Naturally, there were other combat photography units such as the 221st Signal Company in Vietnam, but unlike the military photographers who served a typical twelve-month tour and were assigned to only one unit, DASPO personnel rotated in and out of country every three months. Plus, they traveled to all four corps in Vietnam to cover stories, just like their civilian counterparts. When a battle was brewing, Team Charlie was there.
When a Team Charlie member arrived on scene he became a part of the unit they were covering. They withstood what the unit endured and stayed with it until the mission was complete, or they ran out of film. Tough, flexible, brave, and dedicated, the men of Team Charlie followed units into the jungle, urban combat, mountains, swamps, deltas, or rice paddies to capture the war from a soldier’s-eye view.
The Shooters’ material was classified. However, as the war dragged on, about a quarter of their material was offered to newspapers, magazines, even television networks. One of the toughest assignments landed on the shoulders of the soldier with dreams of sun, surf and girls; Carl Hanson, and a retired Hollywood cameraman, Stewart Barbee. These two men and other personnel participated in a months-long shooting of a 1969 training film for Army Mortuary Affairs. The filming took place during a time in the conflict when approximately 320 bodies per week passed through Graves Registration in Saigon. Every member involved in the shooting was never the same again. Hanson said, “I’ve never seen the photographs I took, nor Barbee’s film. Nor do I ever want to.”
And consider this: A still cameraman can pop up during a fight, take a quick shot, and drop back down. The poor mo pic guy (motion picture cameraman) has to stand steady for about 10 or 12 seconds to take a mo pic, plus has to take more shots to build up a sequence of events or action. Standing still in battle in not an ideal situation. To add to their predicament, DASPO personnel usually didn’t wear helmets since they held cameras up to their faces.
And weapons? Barbee stated in an interview, “Guys would ask me where my weapons was. I’d respond, ‘Do I look like I’ve got room to carry a weapon? And don’t worry, if it gets to a point where I need to put down this camera and pick up a weapon, there will be plenty available,’ which was the truth.” DASPO personnel never developed their own film; film was packed up and shipped to the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama or to the Army Pictorial Center in New York. The men in the field did not have any input into which shots were printed or not printed.
With the end of American involvement in Vietnam, the military and DASPO fell victim to downsizing, as happens to the military after any war. DASPO Pacific shut their doors in December of 1974 and transferred to DASPO CONUS. In due course all three DASPO units were reassigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and absorbed into the Army Special Operations Pictorial Detachment. Today the mission that began in 1962 is carried on by the Army’s 55th Combat Camera Company at Fort Meade, Md.
In all, about 325 soldier cameramen, officers and film editors served in DASPO during its brief history. Their work, however, lives on as educational and historical information for future generations. Two DASPO members were killed in the line of duty: Charles “Rick” Rein and Kermit Yoho.
The film history of war in books, film, even on TV, were shot by cameramen who put their lives on the line to document the sacrifice, the humor and the horror of war. The next time you watch a suicide plane (kamikaze) approaching an American aircraft carrier in WWII or watch a documentary on Vietnam, remember: brave men and women were behind the lens doing a job few people have the pluck to do. They are the Shooters of history.
Robert C. Lafoon was born in Washington, D.C., grew up and attended school in Virginia, and now lives in McDonough. He joined the Army straight out of high school in 1964.
Lafoon said, “I served with the 2nd Armored Division at Ft. Hood for one year then took what’s called a ‘short reenlistment’ so I could get reclassified. I always loved photography so I received an opportunity to attend photography school at Ft. Monmouth, N.J. While there, I received orders for DASPO. They scrutinized us very closely and took what they considered the top of the class, the top 10%.
“I guess one reason they picked me was my infantry training. A couple of other guys had gone through Special Forces, another through ranger training, that kind of stuff. I was sent to Hawaii in October of ’65. I was assigned my first three-month rotation to Vietnam with the Southeast Asia Pictorial Team in January of ’66. My first combat mission was with the 1st Infantry Division during Operation Crimp, north of Cu Chi. As we flew into the company CP (Command Post), we immediately came under fire. I guess that was my baptism under fire, and I’m sitting there on the chopper thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’
“You know, in photo school I thought I’d be covering parades, change of command ceremonies, things like that, but then the next think I knew I was in Hawaii being told by my commanding officer, ‘You’re going to hate my guts. No need to unpack your things because you’re not going to be here long.’ That was one more ‘what the hell have I gotten into’ moment. Then he said, ‘You’re guaranteed six months of every year you’re here to be in Vietnam.’ Between rotations to Vietnam, we covered events in Thailand and South Korea. It was wild, I mean, one day I’m in Korea, then the next day I’m on a presidential tour to Vietnam with President Lyndon Johnson. We wore civilian clothes on the presidential tour so nobody would know who we were.”
Did you wear civilian clothing in the field?
“Yes, we could. My MOS was 84b20, still photography. As soon as I got off a Slick (Huey chopper) I’d start clicking. I remember humping all day and choppers flying overhead shooting at our own troops. Not a great day. I was lucky, never got hit during my rotations, but on my last photo shoot with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in November of ’67, I participated in a huge helicopter assault. The choppers hovered over the rice paddies and we had to stand on the skids then jump down. When I hit the ground, a Punji stake (sharpened bamboo stick, sometimes dipped in poison or human waste) went right up my boot laces but didn’t penetrate any skin. Another time napalm hit so close it singed my hair and nose hair. Luckily, I never earned a purple heart.”
Did the rotations get any easier?
“I’d say they were about the same, but I felt more at ease, I suppose. I mean, you’re back in the field, but after you check in you just go and do your job. The stress factor may have gotten lower simply because you get sort of used to it.”
Name some units you served with.
“The 1st Infantry Division two or three times. The 1st Cav a few times, the 101st Airborne several times, 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, 173rd Airborne, and the 25th Infantry Division fairly often because they deployed out of Hawaii.”
How old were you on your first rotation?
“Barely 19. I went over on a troop ship, young and naïve. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to Hawaii, life is good, how lucky can a guy be.’ Well, the 1st Infantry Division was also on the troop ship, and they told me they were heading to Vietnam, and I’m thinking, ‘Where the hell is Vietnam?’ So we arrive in Hawaii and about 30 people get off. I see a guy holding up a sign that reads “LAFOON” so I walked up to him and said, ‘I’m Lafoon,’ and he says, ‘My name is Kermit Yoho, and I’m here to pick you up.’ So he…..”
Yoho? He was one of the two DASPO men killed in Vietnam.
“Yeah, this is kind of hard for me. Can I have a few seconds to regroup?”
“…..Yeah, this part is pretty rough. Yoho was my sponsor and my friend. He’d already been on several rotations to Nam but didn’t say much about it. They called Yoho ‘Junior’ because he was the youngest until I reported in. He was 21 and I was 19 by a month. Do you know who Joe Galloway is?”
Joe and I are friends. We email often.
“OK, I saw Joe a few months back when he talked in Newnan. Of course, he’s famous for ‘We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young,’ about the Battle of the I Drang Valley. He was there but didn’t know then that two of our team were also there at the same time, Tom Schiro and Jack Yamaguche. They even got a mo pic of Hal Moore, the famous commander at I Drang. There is a Vietnam Virtual Archive at Texas Tech with many of our photos and mo pics. There’s also a great website: Fold3.com, with all the stuff from the National Archives. Enter DASPO in the search box and you’ll see about 10,000 of our photos.”
Tell me about some of your experiences.
“Well, Operation Crimp was my baptism under fire. During that one I learned how nice the Air Force boys were; they made us instant swimming pools out there. I learned when you’re going through the jungle you’d better hope the guy behind you is a buddy or a good person, because when the ants fall off the trees and go down your jungle fatigue and start biting you all at once, you need a good friend behind you to help kill the dang things. I think the ants had a commanding officer who ordered, ‘OK, let’s all bite at once.’ I was also introduced to the caves and tunnels and spider holes that hid the enemy. I took a shot of a guy coming out of a tunnel … he was killed two weeks after I took his picture. I also took a photo during Operation Buckskin of a soldier on the back of an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) holding a small puppy that he found. The photo is on display at the Military Museum in Chicago. Then on Operation Van Buren I won an award for a photo of a religious ceremony with a pastor in a bright white robe and big gold crucifix on the back. During the second ceremony they received incoming mortar rounds. I’ve talked to his wife on FB, she said after the mortar attack he never wore his religious garb again in Nam, convinced the enemy had zeroed in on his white robe.”
Tell me about Yoho.
“A great guy. Kermit Yoho and I were together at Tuy Hoa with the South Korean Blue Dragon Brigade. Man, those guys don’t fool around. We took a lot of photos and tried to leave, but the Blue Dragon commander, a one star general, kept saying, ‘No, no, you no leave, take more picture,’ but we finally got back to the Villa. We had replacements come in and one of them was Peter Ruplenas, a great photographer who served with the 8th Air Force at the tail end of WWII, served in Korea, and was now in Vietnam. We called him ‘Ruby’. Well, Ruby wanted to go out in the field. Yoho and I were scheduled to go out with the 25th, so I let Ruby go instead. That’s when Yoho was killed. Let me pause a second.”
“….OK, our two-man teams usually separated during missions in case something happened to one of them. During Operation Taro with the 25th, either a VC or a ‘short round’ killed Yoho, we don’t know which, but Ruby had separated and was OK. You see, when in the field, Yoho and I never split, we always stayed together, so I always think, what if? That mission was to be Yoho’s last photo shoot. He was scheduled to back to Hawaii, get out of the Army, and go back to West Virginia to work for a newspaper. I think of him often.”
“OK, so, on another mission I was up in the mountains of the Central Highlands humping all day with the 101st. When you’re a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned white boy and get sunburned and at 1700 or 1800 the monsoon hits and you are suddenly soaking wet, well, I remember being wet, inside my poncho trying to sleep and thinking I’d freeze to death. Then I was on a communications story with the 1st Cav. They were training at An Khe climbing ropes into and out of choppers. I figured a great shot would be inside a chopper shooting the guys as the scrambled up. Well, they agreed. I thought they would land a chopper for me….nope, they said, ‘Sure, climb the rope ladder.’ I’m thinking, ‘Good God, can I do that.’ The guy with me was Frank Salas, from Guam, we called him the ‘bullet magnet’ since everywhere he went he drew fire. I don’t know how we did it, but we made it up the rope ladder. On another mission I was up in the mountains with a unit looking for the VC in caves. Well, we saw a VC duck into a cave and eventually got him to surrender with the threat of a few hand grenades being tossed in. So, several VC came out, as did a North Vietnamese journalist.”
Tell us about your last mission.
“My last combat mission was Operation Rang Dong, a chopper assault. I got a shot of a guy up to his neck in paddy water, in the irrigation canals full of leeches and other creatures. That shot got a lot of exposure … six months after I was out of the Army.”
And after Nam?
“I got out in March of ’68, flew back to the Oakland Terminal in California and had my first experience with the ratty treatment of Vietnam vets. I went to work for Firestone Tire and Rubber, then worked for the railroad (Amtrak). After a 17-year break from the military, I joined the reserves in 1985. We got called up for Desert Storm and I spent several weeks in Saudi Arabia at the Kobar Towers. I retired from a civil service type job at Fort McPherson as a GS-13.”
What have you being doing in retirement?
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, and I’m real good at it. I play golf in the morning and play pinochle at the VFW in the afternoons. My golf score and bowling average are about the same. My wife started playing a few years ago and after two years won the Women’s Club Championship at Fort Mac. People call her Tigerina Woods and call me Lost in the Woods.”
Great interview. Many thanks, my brother.
“You, too. And God bless.”