For National Medal of Honor Day, observed on March 25 every year, the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch of the National Archives wanted to honor Marine Cpl. William Thomas Perkins Jr., the only combat photographer to receive the honor after “gallantly giving his life for his country” as stated in his Medal of Honor citation.
Perkins enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in April of 1966, was discharged and enlisted in the Regular Marine Corps in July of the same year. He served first as a still picture photographer and then as a motion picture combat photographer after attending the U.S. Army Signal Center Motion Picture Photography School. In July of 1967, Perkins was transferred to the Republic of Vietnam.
On October 12, 1967, Cpl. William Thomas Perkins Jr. was killed during Operation Medina in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam when he flung himself onto a grenade saving three Marines with his actions. Perkins was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by the Marine Corps for his actions.
The story of Thomas Perkins was first brought to our attention by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where his Medal of Honor was put on display in November 2017 in their exhibit, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. After learning of his heroics, we set out to locate the footage he shot while serving in Vietnam. Finding footage shot by a specific combat photographer can be tricky and sometimes impossible depending on what branch of the military created the films. Fortunately, the Marine Corps kept track of each photographer and the film they shot making the process easier.
Perkins’ films are part of Record Group 127: Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, Series R: Films of Marine Corps Activities, 1939-1965. Each film has paper records identifying its item number, dates, location, events, and photographer. Using these resources, we were able to locate all of he films shot by Perkins.
The film below is the last footage he shot on 11 and 12 October, 1967 during Operation Medina. It captures the daily life of troops in Vietnam; preparing for their operation with religious services, wading through rivers, dealing with overgrown terrain, and evacuating the injured from a helicopter landing zone which was the site of intense fighting.
Combat cameramen like Perkins oftentimes face front line action and intense fighting in order to collect a record of events. You can learn about other combat cameramen highlighted in The Unwritten Record, here: https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/tag/combat-cameramen/
Read more about William Perkins Jr. and his personal effects held by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of the Marine Corps, here: Combat Photographer: Vietnam through the lens of Marine Corporal William T. Perkins, Jr.
The Smithsonian Insider highlighted Perkins in a 2017 article which can be found here: Vietnam War photographer’s Medal of Honor in American History Museum exhibit