Picturing Vietnam

Unlikely combat photographer documents war's toll

Editor’s note: Journal-World senior editor Bill Snead ran the United Press International photo bureau from 1967 to 1969 in Saigon, Vietnam. He met Dave Powell there in 1968.

Dave Powell was a security guard protecting Bob Hope’s nine-hole golf course in Toluca Lake, Calif., when he read the 1967 Time Magazine article that convinced him he could be a war correspondent.

“I didn’t have the money or a good camera or a typewriter, but I really wanted to go see a war,” Powell recalled.

A month later, armed with no special skills or experience, Powell, 25, landed in Vietnam carrying a hand-me-down Voitlander camera and $50 cash. He also carried letters from two small California newspapers promising to print his stories and photos.

It was August 5, 1967.

The Tet Offensive, the turning point in the war, was six months away.

Powell blew half his bankroll on a room in the legendary Intercontinental Hotel on downtown Saigon’s TuDo Street. The hotel’s verandah was dotted with small tables, the air stirred by white-paddled ceiling fans. It recalled the days of Vietnam’s French occupation, when authors such as Graham Greene held court there over an afternoon gin and tonic.

“I remember standing on my hotel room balcony, seeing a string of flares pop on the horizon, drifting slowly down, down, and then the distant sound of rolling thunder (explosions),” Powell said wistfully. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me’.”

‘Everything is to chance’

Now 60, Powell works shuttling rental cars for Avis in Seattle.

He grew up in Los Angeles and went to Vietnam after a four-year, noncombat hitch in the U.S. Army, a stint as a merchant seaman and a solo walk around Europe.

The letters from the newspapers got him accredited as a journalist, with press cards from the South Vietnamese government and U.S. MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam).

The MACV card was good for a free seat on most military aircraft operating in Vietnam. It was Powell’s ticket to see what war was all about.

With his press cards and almost no money, he picked a flight bound for Con Tien and hooked up with the 8th and 9th Marine divisions. He picked up fatigues, a helmet, flak jacket and an M16. The food was free, and he had a place to sleep.

For three months he split his time among the Marines and a couple of Air Calvary units.

“Except for having no patches on my sleeves I looked just like they did, and it was easy to blend in,” he said. “I went along on operations, took some awful pictures and everybody was happy to have me walk along with them.”

Powell learned there was more to survival than defending yourself.

“It’s unbelievable how, in war, everything is to chance,” he said. “I took pictures of a helicopter blowing up in mid-air, my helicopter, the one I was supposed to be riding in,” he said sadly. “When things get chaotic … the noise … things happening so fast … making decisions on the spot … it just makes you part of the roll of the dice … fate.”

He recalls walking out of a rice paddy with a unit of the 5th Air Calvary. The path forked. He took one turn, not the other. A minute later he heard an explosion and turned to see two wounded GIs on the booby-trapped trail that he had not chosen.

The line he heard most from the troops is one every correspondent in Vietnam heard.

“You mean, you don’t have to be here?”

Powell recalled being behind a GI named Jody who was using a machete to cut a path through the jungle. The light was too poor to take pictures. When they came to a shaft of light Powell asked Jody to pose and “act like you’re hacking your way through the jungle.”

The soldier replied, “… I am hacking my way through the jungle,” and hacked back into the bad light.

Finding his way to UPI

Three months after he arrived in Vietnam, Powell was still broke. He had lots of snapshots still in his film cans and had developed an infection on his neck “the size of a hand grenade.”

In Can Tho, Powell got his neck drained, hitched his way back to the Saigon docks and after knocking on many doors got a job as a seaman.

He worked on the Sixeola, a United Fruit Company refrigerator ship hauling vegetables and fruit from Taiwan to the troops in Vietnam. And he put his seaman’s wages to use.

“While I was in Taipei I bought two cameras, a Miranda and a Minolta, and I’d practice with them onboard ship,” he said.

He had his film developed along the way so he could check his progress. And during a stopover in Hong Kong, he got two more letters of accreditation from Chinese newspapers.

In February 1968, he quit his seaman’s job when the ship docked in Saigon. The war in Vietnam was hotter. American casualities were at their highest.

Powell walked into the United Press International photo office, a block from the Saigon docks, looking for work. Photo staffer Charlie Eggleston vouched for having met Powell in the field but said he hadn’t seen any of his pictures. Eggleston was killed on assignment barely three months later.

I was running the UPI photo bureau and was a little put off by his choice of cameras. Cheaper cameras are not dependable when treated poorly. He wore them like a tourist, straps across his chest like bandoliers. I didn’t realize then that he had no place to call home and so, out of necessity, played everything close to the vest. He was quiet, almost sullen.

My attitude toward him changed when he volunteered to go to Khe Sanh and Hill 881, two of the nastiest places in Vietnam. I signed him on as a free-lancer, meaning UPI would get first pick of his pictures.

We agreed to pay him $25, plus free film, for each of his combat photos that we transmitted out of Saigon. He spent the night at Eggleston’s apartment and was gone the next day.

‘Who is that guy?’

The 6,000 marines at Khe Sanh were constantly bombarded by artillery and mortar fire from North Vietnamese positions hidden in caves and the hills surrounding the base.

Powell recalled living underground with the troops, beneath sheets of corrugated metal reinforced with bags of dirt. They shared their dug-out dwellings with king-sized rats that were attracted to the base by the garbage.

There weren’t many photographers at Khe Sanh. Being surrounded by hostile troops made the place unattractive. But there were a few.

“I remember running into Robert Ellison, a young, (23-year-old) quiet guy working for Newsweek,” Powell said. “He was so excited about getting a set of pictures of an ammo dump exploding.”

One of those photographs made the cover of Newsweek.

Ellison was killed a few days later on what was meant to be a quick round-trip to Saigon. The C-123 he and 48 marines was flying in was blown from the sky.

On March 22, more than 1,000 rounds of mortar and artillery fire hit Khe Sanh at the rate of 100 explosions an hour. Powell was there shooting pictures with his Minolta and Miranda.

Almost every still photographer in Vietnam used Nikons or Leicas, two top professional brands but relatively cheap to buy in the Orient.

Powell, whom I had taken to calling “Miranda Man,” proved that being with the action is far more important than owning the world’s best camera.

From day one, when his undeveloped film began arriving in our Saigon bureau we were impressed. We felt even better knowing our biggest competitor, the Associated Press, was not doing well with their Khe Sanh free-lancers.

Powell was making UPI look awfully good.

We were leading the play, landing on page one of papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald and Chicago Tribune.

I was asked more than once in messages from UPI New York or by Saigon staffers, “Who is that guy, and where did you find him?”

Dealing with the past

On April 8, the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh was over. A few days later Powell walked into the UPI bureau. I told him he was my hero.

Over a beer he said he was going back to California. He’d seen what he’d come to see. I haven’t seen him since.

Last year, out of the blue, Powell sent me an e-mail asking what was going on in Lawrence. Later, on the phone, he talked about life since Vietnam.

He returned to California and worked as a stock clerk, computer operator, parked cars and delivered flowers. He went into radio for 10 years and then tried landscaping. He moved to Seattle in 1999.

He’s been married and divorced twice.

“They say you either deal with your feelings now or you deal with them later,” Powell said recently. “I put mine on hold for about 10 years … been tough.”

Over the years he’s renewed old Vietnam military friendships and made new ones on the Internet. It’s given him a reason to look through his old negatives, which had been in boxes for years. He’s posted lots of them on the Web and has given freely to old GI buddies who’ve displayed them on various military unit Web sites.

Powell’s bravery and grace under fire is mentioned on these sites and in round-robin e-mails.

“I look at these old negatives and prints and wonder who the hell this guy was with those testosterone problems .. .couldn’t of been me,” he said.

When “Unsung Heroes: Khe Sanh,” a History Channel documentary, was being put together, one of Powell’s Vietnam buddies told the show’s producer about Powell’s photographs.

“Miranda Man” sent them 270 photos. They included about 70 of them in the show, which aired last Thursday on the History Channel. It will be repeated.

In the credits it reads, “The producers gratefully acknowledge Dave Powell for his efforts, photo contributions, sincerity and personal dedication to the men of Khe Sanh and their legacy.”