“Looking at the pictures put me right back into the jungle as if I were a 21-year-old soldier again”
When Christopher Gaynor returned home from the Vietnam War, on Feb. 6, 1968, he didn’t leave with memories alone. He had spent his 13 months in the field artillery creating pictures, too. Untrained but inspired by combat photographers, he brought one of the era’s ubiquitous Brownie cameras—before investing $94 in an Asahi Pentax SLR—to record his experience. To develop each roll of film, he took it to the Post Exchange on the base camp, they mailed it to Kodak for processing, Kodak mailed it back to Vietnam and, finally, Gaynor mailed the pictures home.
But the world he encountered when he got back to the United States wasn’t exactly ready to look at them, and neither was he. The anti-war movement was strong and attitudes toward veterans were, he found, hostile. Before the year was up, he decided to leave the country. He spent the following years in England and Spain, and didn’t return until the year the war ended, which happened 40 years ago this month on April 30, 1975.“I put [the photos] in a box, a box from Lavoris mouthwash. I didn’t look at them, I put them in the box, sealed it up, and they stayed in that box until 2007,” Gaynor, now 70, recalled. “I didn’t want to deal with it.”
Even after his return to the United States, decades passed before he decided that he should do something with that box. In 2007, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he thinks is related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the war, and facing an illness motivated him to think about his legacy. At the time, the VFW post on Vashon Island, Wash.—where Gaynor still lives with his husband—was sponsoring a Boy Scout troop; one of the troop members wanted to scan Gaynor’s photos as part of his Eagle Scout project. Though Gaynor admits that his expectations for the results were low, he went along with the idea.
To say that he’s glad he did would be an understatement.
“I looked at them and they all came alive again,” he said. “It was completely overwhelming. All my buddies from 40 years previously [were] looking at me from these pictures, even the guys who weren’t with us anymore. Looking at the pictures put me right back into the jungle as if I were a 21-year-old soldier again.”
Gaynor notes that most of his photos, some of which can be seen above, aren’t of the dramatic scenes familiar from war photography. Rather, he captured the off times, with soldiers relaxing, playing ball, hanging out. It was portraiture, not fighting scenes, that brought back the memories.
And it wasn’t just a matter of remembering moments long buried. After opening the box, Gaynor began to investigate his own memories, digging out the letters he had sent home. He started to talk about his experiences and began to get more involved in the VFW and the American Legion. (He is the only openly gay officer of the American Legion of whom he knows, he said.) He reached out to younger veterans who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan. He established relationship with the families of his friends who had died in Vietnam. He became a consultant on the Vietnam-reenactor documentary In Country, which is out on video on demand on April 28. Though he does not want to make any money from the images, he tried to get his exposure for his photos in order to help other veterans connect with their memories, self-publishing a book of his photos and letters from the war.
The memories and images that had been buried for decades became the opposite of hidden, motivating Gaynor to reorganize his life around a new mission.
“It’s a difficult emotional stress [to revisit that time] but I had to do it,” he says. “Finding the pictures completely changed my life. There are no words to describe how it affected me. They’ve continued to reward me and live on.”
Infusion, 1967: “Soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division (red, white and blue unit patches) based at Bearcat (Camp Martin Cox) are trucked to a waiting Caribou aircraft for the flight to their new units.” All quotes in this caption and the ones that follow come from photographer Christopher Gaynor.
Mama San, 1967: “A term used by GIs in Vietnam for any older Vietnamese woman. In this case she was supervising ‘sandbag dollies,’ younger Vietnamese women who were working at the base camp in Dau Tieng.”
Floating Poker Game, 1967: “My buddy and fellow Team Chief, Sgt. Dick Jackson (holding beer can) separates the troops from their pay.”
Kiwis and Aussies, 1967
Convoy, 1967: “My buddy Sgt. Dick Jackson (with glasses and camera) checks out the crush of villagers as our convoy slows to a crawl. Anyone in this crowd (including children) might toss a grenade into a truck.”
Bunker, 1967: “Troops of the 77th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division hunker down in a partially completed bunker to escape the mayhem of 3,600 of our own 105mm Howitzer rounds light off at knee level in all directions. The enemy was watching all this, but could not attack us.”
The Odd Couple, 1967: “My buddies Lynch and Cork share a morning ritual at Camp Bearcat (Camp Martin Cox).”
LZ, 1967: “Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey “Slick”) helicopter makes a quick troop drop at a Fire Support Base near the Cambodian border without touching down.”
Operation, 1967: “2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division assembles at the Dau Tieng airfield in preparation for a major combat operation near the Cambodian border.”
The Wasteland, 1967: “9th Infantry Division soldier burns the remaining twigs after our Bearcat Base Camp was sprayed heavily with Agent Orange to kill the jungle vegetation and then bulldozed into a desert wasteland.”
Triple Deuce, 1967: “Troops of the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment (mechanized) get squared away to move on a Search and Destroy mission into “The Rubber” (the Michelin Plantation).”
Richard Thomas Jackson, 1967: “My ‘brother’, my buddy, my friend. Dick was killed in action January 6, 1968, he was just 20 years old.”
Núi Bà Đen, 1967: “The Black Virgin Mountain looms in the background as our convoy of the 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Division crosses the Saigon River heading North West to Loc Ninh to support our infantry units from an artillery Fire Support Base.”
Caribou, 1967: “Troops of the 9th Infantry Division prepare to board a C-7 Caribou at Camp Bearcat for the flight to Dau Tieng base camp in III Corps.”
Thank you, Christopher Gaynor, for sharing this article. Thank you for your service! Welcome Home Brother!
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Have been searching for an active Vietnam Veterans website/forum/blog. Maybe I found it. I was in country from 67 to 68. Convoy truck driver. 572nd Trans Co. Gypsy Bandits. Just had my slides converted to 4×4 pics. My 16 year old granddaughter is fascinated with pics. She is putting them in to collages. Have been thinking of that time and my experiences over there often these days. Have been trying hard to locate/connect with others that I served with.
My name is Christopher hill I landed Danang July 1 1968 I Corp area First Marine Division. There is not a day that I don’t think about my friends that I left over there KIA
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It is the nurses who served in Nam. You almost never hear of them. I am forever in their debt. S/Sgt Humes.
Thanks for the pics.
Richard Thomas Jackson – RIP
I was there Oct 66 to Oct 67. A great big warm Welcome Home to all my brothers who were in-country. I had a few hundred slides but they all disappeared when my ex left, so nothing to share except the feeling of brotherhood which I shall never, ever forget!
Oh, yeah, almost forgot. One of my favorite slides is of a bunch of cut-off 55 gallon drums which were pulled out from under a smelly place, stacked neatly, doused with diesel and a touch of gasoline then set on fire. If you ever had company duty, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
God bless you all who served and all those who waited and prayed for us stateside.
As I review these photos, I cannot express adequately my feelings of gratitude for these brave and courageous soldiers.
My health was so poor that I was unable to join the Australian effort to assist the Us in Vietnam.
had a name change after i got out of the army when i was in Viet Nam i was Robert L Hanson
it brings back memories.landed in viet nam jan 1 1968 and was sent to Dau Tieng around jan 11 to 2nd bn 22 inf mech and left on dec 23 1968 those pictures sure triggered some memories
Just seeing those clouds again brought me back to III Corps 1969.
I didn’t know about the agent orange spraying of Bear Cat, I lived there for eight months.
I like it a lot. They are very good.
Thank you for sharing the photos and the documentation which says so much emotionally in its factual presentation. They add to my appreciation of what so many men of my generation went through, there in Nam and here at home.
I remember most of went on like the photos show. I served from Feb. 1967-Feb. 1968 with the First Infantry Division 2/2mechanized stationed out of Lai Khe.
I REALLY ENJOYED THE PIC,S A LOT OF MEMORIES SF VET 66 TO 68. III CORP TRANG SUP LONG HAI.
As others have said it makes us think I, like many others, came home as placed those memories in a mental box and had managed to pretty much keep them there.
But now stuff keeps popping up.
I have two pics of being in the boonies. Carrying a camera when you never came in was a difficult think to do.
Blessings to all.
My buddie took many photos of Bien Hoa AB in 1972. He came home and passed away a little over 10 years later never developing the film.
His former wife found the film and had it developed and gave it to his Son who I found 3 years ago and he sent me the photos which with his permission, were posted on the Vietnam Security Police Association Website.
I don’t have a box of photos, but I too got back, got out, got a job, got married – and didn’t give the war a backwards glance for 40+ years.
Thank you brother Chris great photos WELCOME HOME BROTHER