Vietnam: In photos and words
LVN Editor Emeritus
Retired Navy journalist Jim Falk belongs to a pioneering group of Vietnam-era reporters and photographers who loaded black and white film into cameras under enemy fire and then returned to a portable darkroom to develop film in stainless steel tanks. Instead of using computers, journalists banged out their stories on typewriters, taking extreme care in producing clean copy under the most adverse conditions.
For most of his military service, the 82-year-old Falk spent the majority of his 20-year career in Southeast Asia — specifically in Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. As a sailor, the tall, lean Illinois native, who moved to Fallon more than 10 years ago, didn’t spend most of his time aboard ship, but, instead, saw extensive action in Vietnam as a Navy combat photojournalist in the 1960s.
First glimpse of Vietnam
After his enlistment in 1954 and initial training in the Navy, Falk served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and the seaplane tender USS Orca as well as at Naval Air Station Miramar and the Naval Photographic Center in Washington, D.C., for one year. Early in his military career, though, Falk received his first look — however slight — of Vietnam when his Japan-to-Bangkok flight dropped off a passenger in Saigon. Falk remembers seeing French military standing watch during their stop in South Vietnam’s largest airport. Forward to the early to mid-1960s when the United States and its allies began to ramp up the number of military personnel in South Vietnam to ward off the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, both factions hell-bent on reunifying the separated nation.
“In 1964, I was a 7th Fleet staff journalist,” Falk recalled of his tour in Vietnam. “I was a liaison with the fleet representatives in country. I went back and forth several times, writing stories of the build up at Da Nang and the logistics for I Corps.”
After a short stint in Vietnam, Falk and five other journalists subsequently received direction to organize a photo exhibit for the chief of naval information showing the role of the U.S. military on a day-to-day basis. Their photos illustrated I Corps’ functions, Navy advisers working with the Vietnamese junks and doctors and nurses performing medical miracles off shore on hospital ships. Falk remembers seeing a doctor and his medical assistants desperately trying to save a Marine’s life. Falk said the Marine lost both legs — one amputated below the knee and the other amputated above the knee — in addition to suffering a brain injury. After visiting the surgical quarters doctors told Falk the leatherneck’s survival rate was 50-50.
This wouldn’t be the first time, however, Falk took his photographic skills along with the medical personnel to a dangerous combat zone.
“I spent five days with a medical company near Phu Bai (a former U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps base south of Hu in central Vietnam) and Quay, more inland,” Falk said. “The Marines were taking care of casualties. I was with doctors, dentist and a couple of corpsmen. I was ready to leave and spent enough time there. Then I went to Da Nang to collect photos and show what the Navy was doing.”
Yet, an impending invasion was unfolding at Da Nang, and Falk wanted to be involved. His helicopter pilot didn’t see a problem with him riding along documenting the missions on film. During the fighting, Falk said a Navy corpsman took care of two casualties.
“After we landed we had a lot of activity back and forth,” Falk said, counting his blessing at the time. “One of two helicopters flying into the country was shot down in 1965 and lost the crew.”
On his next assignment, Falk didn’t fly but had his feet planted on the ground. The 4th Marine Regiment conducted an amphibious landing to establish a location for the Seabees to move an airfield inside I Corps’ protective perimeter.
Stars & Stripes and the news
One year shy of his 30th birthday, Falk received another big break in his military photojournalism career. He reported to a new assignment to the Tokyo headquarters of Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper in 1966 as a photojournalist, an assignment that eventually returned him to Vietnam’s combat. Falk said sailors could serve on the Pacific Stars and Stripes staff in Tokyo with other personnel assigned to bureaus in the Philippines, Okinawa, Guam, South Korea and Vietnam. Falk lobbied his civilian chief to fly him to Tokyo from Vietnam to meet the photo chief and expand on his background; as a result, Falk became the new chief photographer working for a civilian boss. Falk said Japan had become his home recounting that he spent two years at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, three years with the 7th Fleet at Yokosuka and eventually three years with Pacific Stars and Stripes.
As a military journalist, Falk had attention to detail and an eye for layout. Falk put together many double trucks (two-page center spreads) telling a story with multiple photographs. Another duty called for Falk, who attended the Navy Program in Photojournalism at Syracuse University from September 1963-June 1964, to critique photos.
In one of his first assignments for the newspaper, his boss temporary assigned Falk to the 4th Marines to cover a three-point or location landing near Saigon. The craft on which Falk rode landed south from the other boats where the Marines didn’t receive fire. Danger, though, still lurked in the adjacent jungle, not only for Falk but also for the Marines.
“We were assigned to headquarters,” Falk said. “That night one of the guards caught a bullet in his chest. We knew they (Viet Cong and NVA) were out there with sniper scopes.”
Falk said that was the only time they came under fire.
Patrolling the delta
His stint with Pacific Stars & Stripes was ending, and Falk received a new set of orders during the spring of 1969. Falk packed his gear and reported to Navy headquarters in Saigon. No sooner did he arrive in country and receive information on his new quarters, Falk was traveling again into a hotbed of fighting, donned now in a jungle uniform.
Falk jumped on land transportation to the Mekong River — and then on patrol boats referred to as the Brown Water Navy — to cover military operations in the delta. Falk said the fast patrol boats — or swift boats — worked the delta, while Sea Wolf helicopters hovered above. Falk said the Navy converted the swift boats into river rafts for any type of invasion. The importance of the rivers beckoned Falk through his reporting:
“Not since David Farragut moved into the Mississippi to take New Orleans has the U.S. Navy fought a river war, but then not since the Civil War has our country been involved in a conflict where rivers mean so much.
“Picture 10,000 miles of water furrows, canals and rivers snaking through rice land, dense mangrove swamps and nipa palm.
“This is the delta region of South Vietnam — from the Cambodian border above Tay Ninh southeast to the South China Sea and then southwest along both boundaries to the Gulf of Thailand.
“This is where fully half of the republic’s 17 million citizens live. This is an area capable of producing enough rice to feed all of Southeast Asia. This is a system of waterways piled by more than a million private water craft, each of them harmless in appearance, yet each a potential part of the enemy supply chain.
“Charley laid claim to this are in 1946, and has been trying ever since to gain the full title to it. He needs it for a pantry, for a recruiting depot, for a warehouse, for a shipping route, for a stepping stone to bigger targets.
“From out of the past has come the Brown Water Navy to challenge Charley’s claim.
“Names like Nam Can, Chau Doc, Tra Cu and Nha Be will never carry the historical weight of New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg or Memphis.
“But to the 16,000 U.S. Navy men who operate from these bases and dozens of others like them, the names burn indelible images of brief but deadly battles fourth in Charley’s lair, on Charley’s terms — images of AK47s, high pitch staccato on ‘Blood Alley,’ of B40 rockets whooshing over ‘Brown’s Run,’ of crude but terribly effective mines at Corral Bend.’”
Falk also said he was especially pleased to score a scoop by interviewing Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt in the late 1960s. Zumwalt, who would become chief of naval operations the following year, was commander naval forces, Vietnam and oversaw the numerous Swift boats patrolling the rivers, coast and harbors.
“His aide told me I had only 15 minutes, but the interview turned out to be 45 minutes,” Falk said. “Zumwalt gave me a great interview.”
Options for a new tour
Falk’s rotation in documenting additional combat action in Vietnam was coming to a close. Talking with his detailer, the person responsible for assigning sailors to their new duty station, Falk learned of his options: Teach classes at the Department Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Benjamin Harrison (Indiana), joint fleet staff at Norfolk; report to a Navy base in Iceland or return to Vietnam.
Without hesitation Falk requested Vietnam. Falk reported to the commander, U.S. Forces Vietnam in Saigon where he became the lead chief for the public affairs office. Falk supervised and nurtured four Navy journalists and eventually became a senior chief petty officer. The rank, though, kept him out of the field and back at his desk. Falk left the office occasionally and traveled to the war zone.
Falk wrote an article on a Vietnamese sailor who received the Bronze Star for protecting his shipmates coming under fire. Another article and photo spread focused on a Veterans of Foreign Wars project that sent veterans who had already left military service back to Vietnam to build 10 housing units for wounded Vietnamese veterans.
“There were 10 VFW members, vets who served in the Navy, Marine Corps and Army,” Falk said. “They volunteered to work on the job sponsored by the VFW.”
Falk took an hour jeep ride out of town to chronicle the building of the housing units and talked to every individual involved with the project. He then wrote an overview and individual stories to be sent to hometown newspapers. Thinking he wrote too much, Falk reduced the number of words and also sent an edited version with 10 photos. The Navy journalist, though, learned Stars & Stripes decided to use the longer version because of its in-depth portrayal of the project and the veteran volunteers.
“When I finished the story, it was 10 pages, typed double space. I actually had to cut it down,” Falk recalled. “My thought was a double truck (two-page newspaper spread) for Stars & Stripes.”
The Vietnam War entered a new decade, and Falk had one more tour to complete before retiring with 20 years of service in 1974, coincidentally the same year Zumwalt retired. He talked to his detailer again, who listed the same duty stations offered to Falk three years earlier.
“DINFOS, Norfolk, Iceland and … San Diego,” informed the detailer. Falk heard of a new location — San Diego — that was on the West Coast and required an assistant public affairs officer for commander, Naval Air Forces Pacific, the same command that oversees Naval Air Station Fallon. Two weeks later Falk arrived at his final duty station, assuming his new role sooner than expected.
“The person I was replacing had a heart attack and recovered, but he never came back to the position,” said Falk, now a senior chief petty officer. “He was already near retirement.”
Falk became the “go-to” journalist during his stay in San Diego. The admiral’s wife felt her husband’s command should have an entry at a San Diego exhibition.
“I told him put me on a carrier, and I’ll get exhibit photos for you,” Falk recollected. “I shot a bunch of photos. Naval aviation all come together on the deck of the carrier … all ratings, pilots, crews, support crews. I also took pictures of the flight deck of loading bombs, flight recovery and tail hook.”
Sensing the importance of the exhibit, Falk procured eight metal panels for the exhibit and arranged them in a semicircle with his photos. One panel in the middle contained copy.
“People looked at it like it was a large magazine like Look or Life,” Falk said of his exhibit that depicted how aviators and their crews worked on a flight deck. “It must’ve been successful because it won a blue ribbon. The admiral was happy, my boss was happy.”
A feeling of satisfaction overcame Falk. He credits the success to his prior experience at NAF Atsugi, which gave him additional experience in laying out photos and also the time spent at the Syracuse University photographers’ program that was taught by professional journalists from the city’s two newspapers.
During his final year of his San Diego tour, Falk worked part-time on weekend nights at the San Diego Union, one of two daily newspapers in the area. Once Falk retired from the Navy in January 1974, he worked at the Union as a copy editor before accepting a buyout at age 57 when the Union and Tribune decided to merge. He and his wife of 43 years, a dentist whom he met in Japan, carved out good life in Southern California, but sadly, Falk’s wife died.
More than a decade ago, Falk pursued new interests that took him first to Florida and later to Fallon because of the area’s close proximity to a Navy base and a change of scenery from the coast to the high desert. He later remarried, tying the knot with Linda Hartweg five years ago.
“I asked her to go to a movie and the rest is history,” Falk said, smiling.
The tours to Vietnam 50 years ago are now a distant memory for Falk, who gained a reputation for being a prolific combat military journalist. He also earned two awards of the Navy Commendation Medal and one Navy Achievement Medal with V device. During his numerous assignments and trips to South Vietnam’s delta and inland, he never lost sight of telling the story of men and women and what they faced serving thousands of miles from home. On the Vingh Te Canal that runs along the southwest border of Vietnam and Cambodia, Falk describes the eeriness of the region, especially with the Viet Cong enemy known as Charlie.
“But the night is something else. This is when Charlie does his thing,” Falk described, later writing, “Heenan (Cmdr. Richard D. Heenan) says, however, they are hurting the enemy. This they have learned from captured documents and intelligence reports.
“They also know it from the welcome fact that contact with large-sized units has long stopped and Charlie has switched to smaller units to move the supplies he so badly needs from the hills in Cambodia to the hills in Vietnam.”