As a photographer, you know what it takes to make a good picture but doing it under combat conditions challenges everything you have ever learned.Sergeant Dennis Fisher
In April, the Still Picture Branch was fortunate enough to welcome Sergeant Dennis Fisher, along with his wife Mary and daughter Julie, into our research room in College Park, Maryland. Sgt. Fisher was a Marine Corps combat photographer in Vietnam from 1967-1968, and he was here to scan photographs he took during the war. One of the first things he said to me was, “This is the first time I’ve held these negatives since I was 20 or 21.”
It’s not often that we have combat photographers visit to view their photographs that eventually became federal records. It’s even less often that they are as enthusiastic to share their story as Sgt. Fisher was. We had many questions that he graciously answered while also recounting the stories behind the photographs he was scanning.
Sgt. Dennis Fisher: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” said Robert Capa, a famous civilian WWII combat photographer. As a Marine Corps combat photographer in Vietnam, his words still rang true as I ran to the sound of the guns to capture photos of our men in action. Looking at those photos today, they are like a time machine that takes me back to a time and place that no longer exists but is forever etched in my mind.
NARA: How did you become a combat photographer?
DF: That is a story in itself but I’ll keep it short. The normal way to become a photographer in the Marine Corps started in boot camp. Upon graduation everyone was assigned a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and sent off to train for it. Mine was 0311 which was an infantry rifleman, and I was sent off for advanced infantry training. Had I been given a photo MOS 4631, I would have been sent to photo school. So I went to Vietnam in December of 1966 as an infantryman and through a mistake in my orders was assigned to the 1st Marine Division Security Platoon instead of directly to a line company. Our hootches were just up the hill from the Division Photo Lab and after a few months in country I began hanging out there in my free time to see if could be assigned to that unit. After a several months Lt. McKay, the Officer in Charge (OIC), gave me an informal interview and tested my knowledge, skills, and abilities as a photographer. He was satisfied with my qualifications and supported my official request for transfer. The only catch was that I had to extend my tour in Vietnam for an additional six months. My love of photography won out and I signed the extension.
Did you have any formal training in photography before joining the Marines?
DF: I had one year of college before I joined the Marines and I was pursuing photojournalism at the University of Miami. My mentor there was Mr. Wilson Hicks who was the former executive editor of Life Magazine. After his retirement from that publication he had been brought on board at the U of M to bring his photojournalism and editorial talents to bear in a number of different visual communications disciplines. I met him in his role as advisor to student publications, primarily the Ibis yearbook, Tempo magazine, and Hurricane newspaper. The Miami Conference on Communication Arts was also his baby and it drew professionals from all over the country. Mr. Hicks, after reviewing some of my work, was very complimentary of my action news photography and encouraged me to pursue a career in photojournalism. Encouragement from such a respected professional gave me the confidence to do just that when the time was right. He teamed me up with an experienced photographer, Bill Retskin, who taught me a lot about news photography.
What was the process from taking the photograph to getting it sent to Headquarters?
DF: When we came back from an operation, the photographers usually developed their own film. After you put all this effort into getting the pictures, you didn’t want to take a chance on someone else screwing them up. So we processed our own film. We’d make contact proof sheets and go over them to select the photos we thought worthy of retention. Combat correspondents from the ISO (Informational Services Office) shop, who frequently accompanied us on operations, would stop by to make photo selections to go with their stories. The NCOIC [Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge] of the lab would also look over the contact sheets and select ones he wanted to make sure were sent forward. It was kind of a collaborative effort. So we’d pick out a few of the best ones to label, caption, and number. Once all the local requirements for prints were met, the negatives were sent forward to Marine Headquarters. Our job was to document all aspects of Marine activities in Vietnam and nothing was off limits. In addition to combat operations, we were often called upon to document things for intelligence, civic action programs, promotions, awards presentations, and various other subjects as needed.
We often get asked about how captions were written and the meaning behind the field numbers. Sgt. Fisher was happy to explain.
DF: The Marine Corps wanted the captions to answer the usual “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” with an emphasis on names, ranks, units, and hometowns so that news releases could be sent to local papers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible. When I went out on combat operations, if I was given enough advanced notice, I’d go out a day or two before the operation started and join up with the unit I wanted to travel with. This gave me some time to meet the guys and start writing down names and their information that I would need later for captions because you can’t do it in the middle of a firefight. Sometimes the operation would not go as planned and you’d end up moving over with another unit that was engaged in fighting. As a result, many photos were submitted with incomplete captions. So we did the best we could to write down the information needed for the captions but men were frequently on the move during contact with the enemy and they didn’t have time to stop and talk.
A “Headquarters Number” and a “Field Number” provided a unique identifier for each photo entered in the log. While the Headquarters Number was a sequential number beginning with the establishment of the Photo Lab, the Field Number was derived from the sequence of photos entered in the log for a particular day plus the Julian Date and Year. Here [below], the Headquarters Number is A370355 for one of my photos and the Field Number is 12-230-67. The “12” means it was the twelfth photo logged in on that day. The “230” is the Julian day of the year, meaning August 18th, and the “67” is the year 1967. The Field Number date and the “Date Taken” did not always match as some photographers used the date they selected and captioned the photos in lieu of the date taken.
DF: I should also mention my rank in the captions. L/Cpl Fisher, Cpl Fisher, and Sgt Fisher are all the same person. Promotions came pretty regular so you will see me as a Lance Corporal on captions during my first 6 months in the photo section beginning in June of 1967. About 6 months later while I was in the hospital recovering from wounds I was promoted to Corporal and on June 1,1968 I was promoted to Sergeant.
What equipment did you have with you?
DF: What I took along on any op varied with the weather and location of the operation but in general I had a flak jacket and helmet, a web belt with a .45 automatic pistol and two extra magazines, two or three canteens, gas mask, jungle first aid kit, and a K-Bar knife. I also packed a poncho and poncho liner, a towel, an extra pair of socks, insect repellant, an entrenching tool, a pack, two or three days of C-rations, dog tags, C-ration opener, church key, water purification tablets, salt tablets, and my small combat journal and pen. I generally carried the insect repellant, salt tablets, and water purification tablets on my helmet and secured them with a giant rubber band cut from an inner tube.
Then there was my photo equipment that included a Nikon FTN and three or four lenses. The lenses I took depended on where I was going. If I knew we were going to be primarily in a jungle environment or something like that, a telephoto lens wouldn’t do me any good because you couldn’t see very far anyway. But I would normally take a 35mm wide angle lens, a 50mm normal lens, a 105mm which is a short telephoto lens, and a 135mm which is a medium telephoto lens. I’d carry, depending on how long I was going to be out, a 20 to 30 roll mixed assortment B&W and color slide film. Each roll of film held 36 exposures. I would also carry equipment for cleaning and maintaining my camera; brushes to remove dust, lens cleaner, lens tissue, and a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers. And of course I had a small pocket sized notebook for noting caption information and a slate to identify each roll of film with my name, unit, date, location, and the name of the Operation on it. I would then take a picture of the slate at the beginning of each roll so it could be identified among all the other rolls of film after processing back in the lab.
With regard to weapons, I carried a lot of different weapons as a photographer but when I first transferred down to photo, I was issued a .45 cal. automatic pistol. It was light weight and you could carry it on your hip and it didn’t get in the way of doing your photography. But later on for some reason, they decided we should carry M-16s like all the infantry guys, but the M-16s proved to be a bit of a problem in that, you carried them with a sling on your shoulder and as you’re moving along with the infantry, trying to take pictures, the thing would slide off your shoulder and end up hanging from the crook of your arm by the sling at which point you’d either have to lay it down or re-sling it. For a while I just attached the bayonet to my rifle and when I paused to take pictures I’d just stick it into the ground and the rifle would be there if I needed it. We carried the M-16s for a while but they eventually took those back and reissued us .45 pistols. I was carrying one when I was wounded. When I came back from the hospital a couple months later the Tet Offensive was starting and that’s when I picked up a M3A1 grease gun, which is a .45 caliber submachine gun, and I carried that for the rest of my time in Vietnam. When 1968 came along, the fighting intensified everywhere. First we had the Tet Offensive, then we had the mini Tet Offensive after that, and it just seemed that we were getting into a lot more intense fighting. After one encounter I decided that yeah, I needed a little more firepower than a pistol. So that’s why I kept the grease gun. It hung low on your hip but it didn’t get in your way, and it provided a little extra firepower if needed.
According to Sgt. Fisher, they mostly shot in black and white, though they also shot color slides. The black and white film was easier to process in the field, and many of the photographs ended up in publications that were only printed in black and white.
DF: Most of my photos ended up in the Sea Tiger, a weekly in-country publication put out by the Marines. Once in a while our photos would appear in the Pacific Stars and Stripes but that publication had their own photographers and was not a ready market for our work. Leatherneck Magazine was published back in the States by the Marine Corps and used our photos, including color. The black and white film most commonly used was Kodak Tri-X Pan. For color slides, Ektachrome X and High Speed Ektachrome were used. We didn’t shoot any color negative film at all as we had no setup for processing and printing it.
As Sgt. Fisher scanned the above image of an 81mm mortar crew in action on Operation Allen Brook, he mentioned having brought a recorder with him on this outing.
Did you take your recorder out with you every time?
DF: No, I took it out once and it was such a pain in the ass to lug around I never took in out again. Plus, it was powered by 6 or 8 C-cell batteries which I could not get replaced in the field. The cassette recorders from that time period were not like the small digital ones available today. There were Marines whose job was to make audio recording and they had professional equipment to do that. I didn’t. I just want to make a recording of what it sounded like to be on a combat operation. You can see the recorder in the photo below with the microphone clipped to pocket of my flak jacket.
That one time on Operation Allen Brook left him with a half an hour of raw sound where you can hear the firefights, helicopter gunships, and fighter planes around him.
Were there ever moments where you were documenting something terrible, moments that made you weigh the need to document the event over the need to help out?
DF: I can relate a couple of occasions and my thought process. One was Operation No Name II. We had 26 Marines killed in a day there. As I’m looking at these guys, these dead Marines lying there, I have second thoughts about taking any photos at all. Our job is to photograph everything and a lot of these bodies have been stripped of their equipment by the enemy or mutilated by exploding ordinance and I have to decide how or even if I should photograph the scene. The photos below show two different approaches to photographing our men who were killed in action. In the first photo you see the cold brutality of a Marine from Bravo Company 1/27 who was killed in action. This type of photo would never have been released for publication back then. The second photo depicts a Marine KIA from Alpha Company 1/27 being removed from the battlefield by his comrades. This photo portrays a scene that could represent any Marine lost in battle and is a much softer way of depicting death on the battlefield.
DF: While pondering all this I couldn’t help but think that for the families of these Marines, Easter’s never going to be the same for them. I also know that in a couple of days, probably about Easter Sunday, they’re going to get notified that their loved one is dead. Neither of these photos were selected for retention back then. This event happened at the tail end of the Tet Offensive that was being portrayed in the civilian media as a big defeat for the American forces even though it wasn’t. So any photos that would tend to support that assumption were passed over.
Another instance I remember was on Baxter Garden, an operation that was conducted in the same area a week later. I got off the helicopter and began working my way through all the different lines trying to get to the unit I was supposed to be with. I came across a battalion aid station near one of the squads that had just been ambushed. They had four dead men laid out on stretchers and they were bringing more in while I was taking pictures of it. I moved past the aid station and encountered Marines bringing in more dead and wounded. Their squad leader spotted me with a camera and says, “What the fuck are you taking pictures of this for?” “This is my job,” I replied. “These are my men!” he said. And I wanted to say, “Yeah, and you got them killed. Don’t take it out on me, buddy.” But of course I didn’t. Emotions were running high and you could tell, there was a lot of hurt and anger in his voice having lost most of his squad. The fact that the worst day of his life was being recorded may have been too much for him. I never sent any of those pictures forward.
DF: There were many occasions when I put my camera down to help out. One occurred on Operation Rock on the morning March 7, 1968. I had just finished a cold C-ration breakfast and went looking for Corporal Kirk, the squad leader of the unit I was traveling with, to find out what was planned for the day. Everyone had saddled up and was ready to move out when he came back from speaking with the platoon commander. Kirk had just finished telling the squad what was planned for the platoon that day and we began moving toward our first objective when the enemy opened up on us from a bamboo hedge line about 30-50 yards away on the other side of a dry rice paddy. We were caught in the open and men were diving for any cover they could find. Those who couldn’t find cover hit the deck and played dead in hopes that the enemy would concentrate on someone else. I took a running jump into a nearby bomb crater with Cpl. Curiel, one of the 60mm mortar crew members.
DF: The Marines behind us were shooting over our heads at the enemy and the enemy continued to return fire back at them. Several incoming mortar rounds landed among the men caught out in the open wounding ten of them. The sound of the M-60s, M-16s, and M-79s rose to a loud crescendo as we gained fire superiority and the upper hand as enemy pulled out leaving their rear security to cover the retreat. As I peered out of the bomb crater I saw John Bachelor, our grenadier, pulling a wounded man off the field and into the bomb crater. It was Cpl. Kirk.
The Corpsman was right behind but he indicated that the steep walls of the crater and torn up earth was no place to try and work on him. The shooting had pretty much stopped by now so all four of us; the Corpsman, the grenadier, the mortar man, and the photographer grabbed Kirk by the limbs and took him to level ground. We couldn’t see any wounds and wondered what was wrong with him. We stripped off his 782 gear (helmet, flak jacket, weapon, etc.) and soon found the source of his wounds when his cartridge belt was removed. This tight fitting web belt had been acting like a pressure dressing on the bullet wounds he had received through it. The mortar man, Cpl. Curiel, and John left to pursue the enemy and I stayed to help the Corpsman while they awaited a Medevac chopper.
DF: The Platoon Commander also directed an M-60 machine gun team and some grunts to protect us and set up security for the landing zone when the Medevac arrived. I took a few photos as the Corpsman prepared to work on him. At this point it seemed we were losing him. His veins had collapsed and the Corpsman was having a hard time starting an IV and asked me to start mouth to mouth resuscitation. So I put down my camera and started CPR. Once he got the IV started he resumed mouth and mouth and I held the IV bag. He seemed to be going into shock and his breathing became irregular (Cheyne-Stokes according to the Corpsman) and things did not look good. The Corpsman were not supplied with adrenaline, so there wasn’t much else that could be done other than getting him medevaced back to the hospital. Soon more help arrived and I left to rejoin the unit as they pursued the enemy. The rest of the wounded were being attended to by another Corpsman as they awaited a medevac. As best as I recall, seven of the ten that were wounded were medevaced and the other three were patched up and continued on the op. I only spent a day with Corporal Kirk but I was very comfortable with his leadership abilities and quite frankly the 7th Marines were about as tough an outfit as I had photographed. This day did not turn out very well for Lima 3/7 and they decided around 1800 hrs. to load us on helicopters and take us to Hill 65 at Anh Hoa. With two dead and fourteen wounded out of just that one company, we were pulled out of the field and held in reserve for the night. I found out later that night that Cpl. Kirk did not make it.
The photograph above shows Cpl. Geoffrey Rowson in action on Operation No Name II with Delta Company 1st Battalion 27th Marine Regiment on April 13, 1968. Several months later on June 19, 1968, he was killed in action on Operation Allen Brook during a fierce firefight on Go Noi Island. Sgt. Fisher tracked down his brother, Army Major David Rowson, to give him a presentation print from the camera dupe.
Camera dupes were what photographers called photographs that were from the moments around an image that was selected by the Marine Corps. The photographers decided what happened to any images that were not selected by the Marine Corps.
DF: As a rule, we keep any camera dupes or culls that remained after the final selection was made. They were put in protective glassine negative sleeves and stored away along with the contact proof sheet. The process moved at a rapid pace with twenty or so photographers providing a steady flow of film. Images that were new and exciting on one day were pretty much forgotten after a week.
DF: If I took pictures of another photographer, when the op was over, I’d give them the negatives so they could make prints later on. That’s how I got the pictures of myself.
As Sgt. Fisher scanned negatives, he reflected on the differences between the frames that were selected to become federal records and the frames he had held on to.
DF: I have a camera dupe of this [above], but you see how he has his arm up in the air? The shot I have, his arm is down.
And the arm here makes the shot.
DF: Yep, the arm here makes the shot more dynamic and that’s why that photo was selected. Also, the grenadier is loading his weapon, you can see the shell there. The Marine in the foreground is signaling that they spotted the VC and he’s telling everybody behind him to move up.
DF: Here [above] is an example of two nearly identical photos that I took and you can plainly see why one was selected to be sent forward and the other was culled. A small difference in timing the moment you trip the shutter, or the angle of view, or the composition, or lighting can make all the difference in which one is selected. Framing the gunners face in the loop of the ammo belt made this selection an easy choice. Don’t forget that you are trying to do all this in the midst of a firefight.
DF: This [above] is back when you had just a single shot. So part of the job of the photographer was to be able to catch that peak action, to know when to press the shutter. That’s one of my better examples of a Marine from Hotel Company 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment attacking a bunker with an M26 fragmentation grenade on Operation Baxter in April of 1968.
Our conversation continued as Sgt. Fisher scanned images with stories that went beyond the caption information. I ask if he had to pick just one of the images, which one would it be and why? Sgt. Fisher replied that it was an easy choice.
DF: The photo of Cpl. Fred Angehrn firing his M-60 machine gun on Operation Zippo. What the caption doesn’t tell you is that the enemy dropped three 60mm mortar rounds on us as I was taking the picture. Cpl. Fred Angehrn, his assistant gunner L/Cpl. Joe Miller, and I all received multiple shrapnel wounds. After being stabilized by a Corpsman in the field we were medevaced to Charlie Med in DaNang for surgery and a few days later were shipped off to various hospitals in the Pacific. I was sent to the Naval Hospital on Guam for two months. As I was waiting for the medevac helicopter, I handed off my camera, captions, and film to SSgt. Maurice “Mo” Upton, another combat photographer from my unit, to process when he got back. You will note that the caption is dated October 1, 1967 but it was actually taken on September 29. I think Mo mislabeled it. Anyway, it was a good example of how the fortunes of war can suddenly change. In the hospital on Guam, I wrote to my father and mother to tell them what happened and where I was. The irony wasn’t lost on my father who had fought on Guam 23 years earlier while serving in the Army during WWII.
You mentioned being wounded while covering an operation with the 7th Marines, how common was it for combat photographers to be injured while covering the fighting?
DF: It was pretty common. During the heavy fighting in 1967 and 1968 combat photographers from the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions were being killed or wounded at an alarming rate. For the photographers who spent a lot of time in the field, it was almost a certainty that they would be wounded sooner or later. During the Vietnam war twelve Marine combat photographers died. One was killed in a commercial plane crash coming back from R&R and another died of a stroke but the other ten were killed in action. Seven of those ten were killed in 1968 making it the deadliest year for Marine photographers. Two of my friends and fellow combat photographers Cpl. John “Penny” Pennington and Private Ed Sullivan were killed in an ambush along route 9 up near the DMZ in June of 1968. Up to that point we had quite a few wounded from our unit but no one had been killed. Losing them really changed my mindset and was a very sobering experience. Penny was one of my best friends and I had been on Operation Baxter Garden a few months previous with Sullivan.
The most notable death among the Marine combat photographers was that of Cpl. Bill Perkins. He was shooting mopic [motion picture] on Operation Medina up near the DMZ with the 3rd Marine Division in early October of 1967. He threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of the men he was photographing. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. He was the only combat photographer ever to be so honored. His action goes to show not only the bond between Marines but that of the photographer and his subjects.
DF: The quote I mentioned at the beginning by Robert Capa was taken to heart by most of us, and this resulted in a lot of photographers being wounded or killed. We were there taking all the same risks as the grunts (infantrymen) and many of us paid the price for getting those close-up photos of the action.
Captain Robert Morgan, seen here on the radio, was the commander of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. This photograph was taken during Operation Cochise on August 17, 1967. After the operation was over, Capt. Morgan asked L/Cpl. Fisher to stay an extra day to photograph an awards presentation.
DF: And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, I hung around and took the pictures and went back to the lab. It took me about a week to get everything processed and ready to go. I tried to contact Capt. Morgan
, to find out where to send the photos. The RTO, his radio operator, told me, “Well, he’s not here.” And I said, “What do you mean he’s not here?” I thought perhaps they were on another operation. “Well, he was killed a couple days ago.” Their unit was overrun on hill 51 and Capt. Morgan was one of the ones who was killed leading a counterattack.
Sgt. Fisher was able to stay an extra day to photograph the awards ceremony because he was effectively stranded during that time. A H-34 resupply chopper that was supposed to be his transport back to Da Nang crashed while landing.
DF: I thought I’d just get a few shots of them coming in for a landing when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it was hit with ground fire and just fell out of the sky. He was landing on kind of an elevated plateau area, hit the ground hard, bounced up in the air, went up off of the side, and came crashing down on its side. The photo that was selected for retention [above] didn’t tell the whole story. I have other photos from that moment that I saved [below]. They show that these helicopters have wheels and struts for landing gear which seemed to enhance the rebound up into the air after it hit the ground. The crew all survived and can be seen in my photos removing items from the wreckage. These photos add some more context to the event.
Although Sgt. Fisher’s trip to the Still Picture Research Room was brief, the stories and knowledge he shared had a major impact on staff. We work with these images every day, but so rarely do we get to ask questions directly to the person who made the records. He provided context that never would have made it to the National Archives otherwise. What I have shared here is a fraction of what he shared with me. It is difficult to find the words to properly express my gratitude: for his service, for his time spent communicating with me for this post, and for his patience. Thank you, Dennis.
DF: I’m just glad somebody is interested in the images. We gave up a lot to get these pictures and knowing that they are in good hands at the Still Picture Branch provides a measure of satisfaction that will be preserved for all time.
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