The world of the fourth estate, the media, is not noted for being the home of gentlemen, in this Larry Burrows was an exception. He was the quintessential gentleman. He was probably the most compassionate photographer that we will ever witness. He still is one of the greats of our business. His images have become timeless, his essays exemplary to any budding photojournalist. Moreover his meticulous style both in black & white or in colour are methods which will be taught for a long time even in this temporal age of digital imaging. His work is frozen for time on negatives, transparencies and prints.
By the time he arrived in Viet Nam in 1962 he was already almost an old man at 36 when the rest of the media corps (Bao Chi) were in their twenties. Born in 1926 he had been too young for WWII and missed the call up for Korea. He started his photographic career at age 16 in the LIFE darkroom in London. He had learnt the grammar of our craft before graduating to those old 4x5 inch film cameras to reproduce art works from London’s galleries. Unlike today when a mobile phone can get you an entry on the front page and a credit card purchases an all thinking, talking, mega pixel automatic apparatus. The tones and gamut of colors now entering the Jurassic, obviated in the quest for speed. It would now seem that today’s editors, excuse me, picture managers, demand the image yesterday – whereas the editors of not long ago had paid their dues in darkroom and behind the lens.
But, then, would today’s awesome electronic, digital equipment have survived the rigors, the weather of Indochina? In Afghanistan they do and we are now finding another generation of talent, temerity and compassion – bringing us frames destined to endorse history and make an iconic statement. Back in the distant 50’s would Larry have ever dreamt of todays technology? Propeller driven aviation took him then to the Suez crisis. The first jets and Nikon F’s had arrived by the time LIFE dispatched him to the Congo in ’62. Here would be the first encounter with David Halberstam and Horst Faas. Both would later become the Pulitzer names of Indochina reportage..
Larry was not just a war photographer. As Ralph Graves, editor of LIFE said, ‘he was the best, the single most brave and dedicated war photographer’
His widow Vickie would say he was simply a photographer. The Viet Nam War just happened to his calling and fate.
The image of a war photographer he was not. Hopelessly blind without his specs, which kept him out of the draft but put him despairingly in the coalmines, which worsened his stutter. It kept him from the Korean War although he was sent to the Suez conflict in ’51 and again in ’56 and the Lebanese war of ’58; overseas jaunts between social affairs in the U.K., film sets in Thailand, Japan and Europe. Like many a LIFE staffer he got to shoot the gamut of famous heads. Working for the enormity of TIME/LIFE Inc meant that the doors opened to the rich, the famous, the powerful, whomever. You get to go on junkets with presidents and pop stars, ---------- and veterans. Larry shot pictures of Churchill, Bridgette Bardot and a young Hirohito. The death of Gandhi, Ashanti tribes people and Papuan birds of paradise but he always went back to Viet Nam. It haunted him as it did most of us who were there; who as Michael Herr says in ‘Dispatches’ – we were drawn to it like junkie moths to a flame. Even now that addiction is hard to quell. It was out font and well.
I first met Larry in Da Nang, back in February of ’65 just before the marines landed on March 8th on Red Beach north of the city. UPI had posted me, my first out of town job, my first job as a photographer, a month old in the profession, to cover the AP and their new staffer Eddie Adams. I was beyond green with stiff boots and fatigues and little concept of what I was supposed to do or shoot. Larry offered me rides in his jeep out to the marine chopper unit, on to the flight line and let me grace his table and presence, a fellow limey lad, as un-switched as he was back in the 40’s, a father figure of gentle benevolence, tutting at the state of my gear. Corrections, reprimands but always said in the way of a harkened teacher.
On Red Beach I watched him move about, almost lackadaisically pausing, sighting, shooting. I copied his shot of the UDT guys making sand castles as the landing craft disgorged behind. Marines stormed the beach to be greeted by Ao Dai clad beauties bedecked them with scented leis to the strains of an ARVN brass band. Da Nang was hot news that summer, the marines got a troop surge and pushed inland and up and down the coast, lots of contact plus the attraction of China Beach. In this period Larry focused on one marine chopper unit and rode with one crew of an ageing HH34 YANKEE PAPA 13 the call sign of the bird.
Whenever Larry was in Saigon he had the room next to the LIFE office on the fourth floor of the Caravelle – 401 & 403. He claimed the second bed in the room for all his camera gear; it was a toyshop of all the latest motorized Nikons fresh from Marty Forschers custom shop in NYC. Larry would meticulously sketch how he imagined he wanted to see the final frame. For his air war essay it would mean repeating missions to satisfy the dreamed concept. I don’t believe the USAF would have countenanced the same pliancy and patience with any other photographer. He was a painter working with light, burning the mechanics of the horror into surrealistic photos, a strange beauty in the hardware of destruction. It would grace a record 16 pages in the magazine. As an apprentice in the trade it was the high point to aim for.
I got lucky, got nicked by shrapnel but survived the first big marine battle near Chu Lai in mid ’65, got six pages in LIFE and a big congratulations from Larry and a tacit nod to give me more freelance days. An entrée into the golden door of TIME/LIFE. Another 5 page spread came soon after and with it a package of new gear from Hong Kong. It was Larry who patiently showed me how to load my first M3 Leica. As Larry had had the osmotic hand me down mentorship of the WWII greats who hung in the LIFE London bureau - Capa, George Rodgers, Ralph Morse, Frank Schersel; now I had the same. Every time he was in town or up in Da Nang Larry would invite me to an evening or lunch out and up in Hong Kong I got invites to his Repulse Bay home, an honorary family member only a few months older than their son Russell and daughter Vicky. It was a marvel he even got home as LIFE kept him bouncing around Asia on stories current and those he conceived and crafted. I still look in awe at his moonrise over Angkor Wat, no one has ever topped it – and then who remembers the India/China war fought in the freezing Himalayas in ’62 and again in ’66? There’s a frame of Indian troopers manhandling artillery up a mountain in swirling mist that still says it all. An essay on Dr. Gordon Seagrave, the American who stayed behind for 40 years in Burma in remote Nam Khan, the Schweitzer of Asia.
Then he would be back in room 401 in and out the bureau quietly organizing another shoot, putting the jigsaw pieces into essays on the current slate. He came back to focus on the victims of war, the impelling long essay on Tron, a legless refugee girl and later on Lau a polio Paralyzed boy. Lessons in how to shoot a perfect social documentary in extremis.
The stress not relieved, as photos of Larry over the years witness by constantly finding another corner of the war at the wrong place, right moment or was it, is it, the right place at the wrong moment? We would never know. After hours, days, weeks of deprivation, heat and wet and dreadful conditions, the monotony is snapped by the first incoming round and it is on. All madness breaks loose and you find you can barely move 5 meters, much less fifty where you can see a great frame devolving. Then you flash to his images of the marines on Mutters Ridge. That iconic image of the wounded black grunt reaching out to his wounded white buddy, mud daubed in a WWI Goyaesque color; it is the tableau of the war. In close and yet he is so unobserved.
He covered Tet and the May ’68 mini-Tet offensives; again the victims take centre stage. A woman weeping over the remains of her V.C. assassinated husband in suburban Hue, the vicious aftermath of the battle for the Y-bridge in S.W. Saigon. When we thought we had a good frame, his in print the following week, out did us all. Yet he never wore a superiority – just a somewhat bemused calmness and professionalism.
He easily kept up with lads half his age. In early ’69 we covered a funeral of a Catholic priest killed by a US army truck, a wake of hundreds of political mourners in S.W. Saigon. They marched early in the morning until the cemetery internment nearing midday. I snapped Larry bobbed down between the legs of the graveside family draped in his habitual string of around the neck Leicas. Yet he never got intentionally into another shooters frame although by 1971 before his demise the strain of it all was telling in Roger Mattingley’s portrait at Khe Sanh. The last existing portrayal is in a group shot inside the helicopter about to lift off on its fatal last flight into the mountains of southern Laos over the Ho Chi Minh trail. It is a haunting shot of four friends taken by another surviving mate Sergio Ortiz.
The invasion of Cambodia in 1970 was another matter, another big story, thousands of G.I’s and ARVN swarmed across the erstwhile neutral border to try to take COSVN H.Q. adjacent to Tay Ninh and Loc Ninh and to neutralize the VC/NVA safe havens in the Parrots Beak to the south. Casualties on both sides were high, the enemy fighting to protect enormous caches in long time sanctuaries. Open paddy and dense jungle and the stroboscopic patterns of enormous French rubber plantations. Not far away the media was suffering its highest casualties of the war. Along the dike top roads spoking out from Phnom Penh especially along route 3 south and route 1 to the Viet border and Saigon 160kms distant. Over twenty of our comrades would be captured or killed at roadblocks or checkpoints manned by Khmer Rouge, the VC or North Vietnamese. Larry drew the armored units going for the caches, the mini battles along the top of the Parrots Beak and the open rice paddies. Every time he went out he seemed to get into a microcosm of the war, a small part of a bigger action, which became an iconic min-movie. In 1970 it was the small town of Psar Tasous with a platoon of the 25th infantry division.
From there via Hong Kong he covered the disastrous cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, 100’s of thousands dead, East Pakistan on the eve of becoming Bangladesh awash. More Viet Nam and the story of amputee 12 year old Tron an ongoing project. An essay on the underbelly and ex-Raj traits of Calcutta. I saw these from the sidelines- myself a casualty of a landmine on the Cambodian border in April of ’69. In the neuro surgical ward at the 105th evac at Long Binh, Larry had come to see me as I surfaced from brain surgery, held my hand, cried and forgave me for a bad sleight I had oathed at him over dinner four months before. It was from that same hospital bed that I had had a last blurred vision of my mate Sean Flynn who had returned from Laos after hearing of my DOA demise. Flynn would become one of those who disappeared, captured on route 1 near the Viet/Cambo border in April of 1970.
Fate and war are a weird synergy, you make a point of not talking even mentioning the inevitable, you just keep walking the edge. I remember the line that Michael Herr, author of “Dispatches” wrote for Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’ “I feel like a snail on the edge of a razor blade”. You need to touch that keenness, to draw a drop of blood in the tradition of a Gurkha and the unsheathing of his kukri.
Up in the mist-shrouded hills along the DMZ around Khe Sanh and the Laos border there was always a sense of threat and foreboding, it was Charlie’s back yard. The NVA controlled the hills with the HCM trail running adjacent in Laos 25 kms distant. Lam Son 719 an ARVN with US support operation was hoping to cut the trail at Tchpone inside Laos. No foreign media were to be allowed to go in. They gathered at the renovated forward base at Khe Sanh waiting to get aboard one of the US or ARVN flown choppers. Unlike the Cambodian incursion US troops were not allowed to go cross border except for the aircrews. It was a Vietnamese affair and it ran right into a well-organized NVA now possessing an array of AAA weaponry. As NVA shock battalions pinched off the ARVN columns strung along route 9 and besieged the hastily established fire bases, supporting chopper units and gunships were being plucked from the sky by the well sited AAA guns.
Back at Khe Sanh a Vietnamese general finally relented and allowed four foreign photographers and a Viet army snapper to ride in a five ship lift onto the trail. The Sergio Ortiz frame shows Larry, Henri Huet of AP, Shimamoto San of Newsweek and Kent Potter of UPI in the Huey just before lift off. The flight drifted off course and into the path of radar controlled 23mm canon fire. The Huey plunged to the ground in a fireball; there could be no survivors. Later the site would be bombed to destroy sensitive gear. Four of the conflicts best photographers were shockingly no more. The news spread sadly like a bush fire. It was Feb 10th 1971.
Finally years later, AP writer Richard Pyle and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Horst Faas accompanied a joint resolution recovery team to the crash site. Their resulting book ‘Lost Over Laos’ unveils the arduous tasks faced by these teams. From the bottom of the hill, downstream, a part of Larry’s Leica, a bit of film, a medallion Henri had carried was recovered. No human remains were retrieved. These items were entombed at the memorial to all media killed in the field at the Freedom Foundation Newseum in D.C. At the crash site Horst and Richard interred a copy of REQUIEM, a tribute to the 135 photographers of all nations killed in the 30 year conflict in Indochina.