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While embedded the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1965, Tim Page photographed the aftermath of an ambush in an area known as the iron triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold north of Saigon. (Tim Page)

Shooting War | A series by Dr. Anthony Feinstein

Tim Page

Born in war

Originally from England, Tim Page became an iconic photographer of the Vietnam War and his pictures were the visual inspiration for many films of the period. He began his career in photojournalism in Vietnam at the age of 20 as a stringer for United Press International and covered the war for the next five years working largely on assignment for Time-LIFE, Paris Match, UPI and the Associated Press. He also covered the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967.

The name Tim Page is synonymous with the Vietnam War. British born Page was 20 years of age when he arrived in the country on February 6, 1965 with a contract from United Press International. The war was ramping up and a month later the marines would land at Da Nang. He had virtually no photographic experience. By the time he left Vietnam four years later, his life had irrevocably changed and so, too, had American history. Page’s achievement, during this brief, intense period was to document the war in a series of photographs which reveal, in the most dramatic and visceral way, the horrors and exhilaration that come with warfare. Imbued with great courage and a predilection for derring-do, he immersed himself completely not only in combat, but also in that seductive, hedonistic way of life that came to define Saigon before it all fell apart at war’s end.

Shooting War

A series by Dr. Anthony Feinstein

Originally from England, Tim Page became an iconic photographer of the Vietnam War and his pictures were the visual inspiration for many films of the period. He began his career in photojournalism in Vietnam at the age of 20 as a stringer for United Press International and covered the war for the next five years working largely on assignment for Time-LIFE, Paris Match, UPI and the Associated Press. He also covered the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967.

“A ticket to ride” is how he described his journey to me, borrowing from his friend Michael Herr’s classic Vietnam memoir, Dispatches, which in turn borrows from the Beatles. “What a great place to have a war,” he recalls. “Good-looking women, great food, beaches, the best dope.” Not at all like Iraq where “you can’t see the women, no beer, [just] dirt and sand.” But then comes the postscript. “Not so great if you were North Vietnamese, of course.” With Page, it is too easy to miss this afterthought. In Vietnam, he lived life hard and fast and always on the edge, and at times his account of the war is so funny, intoxicating and downright entertaining that it can obscure his own suffering and the deep wellspring of sympathy and compassion that he had for the Vietnamese.

Page’s introduction to the pleasures of life in wartime Saigon was quick and seamless. He recalls that the back door of the UPI photo room opened into the back of the Melody Bar, run by a bevy of accommodating waitresses. His local corner store sold cigarettes, rip-top packs of 20 in any brand you wanted, each cigarette with a little cap of tobacco, the rest filled with very fine marijuana and all for only one dollar. And then there was the war of course, with unfettered access to the action much of which was within an hour’s drive from Saigon. Mentored by two celebrated photojournalists, Henri Huet and Larry Burrows, and rubbing shoulders with the elite in his business, the neophyte was soon making $100 a day and having his photographs published in six-page spreads in Life magazine. “I cannot think of any better downhill ski slope than being in Vietnam as a photographer,” he divulged. “It was the best fun I have ever had in my life.”

 

Death at Dong Lach, NVAKIA after unsuccessful attempt to free POW's, 1965. (Tim Page)

“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” goes Robert Capa’s famous mantra. Page never needed any encouragement here. His youth, cavalier spirit and attraction to the buzz of warfare lent what he calls “a good synergy” to his time with the GIs. He walked patrols, flew in helicopters, came through ambushes, and hunkered down overnight in foxholes, all the while taking photographs. His very proximity to the heat of battle injected his images with great energy and a startling immediacy. War, however, is a capricious master and there was a cost to pay for this proximity. He vividly remembers a time with Special Forces when their base was overrun in the early hours of the morning by human waves of Viet Cong. He never thought he would survive the night. Amidst the “spooky” tracers, flares and explosions, he shot and killed a sapper “clad in black shorts and webbing [who] rose 30 yards away to hurl bamboo-handled ChiCom stick grenades.” In extremis you’re not going to hold up your passport or press card, is how he saw it. “It is a thing best forgotten,” Page would later write, “no pride, no regret, just a numb, drained, reality of survival.”

On occasion there were other roles to fill as well. While photographing the 173rd Airborne Brigade he recollects coming to a sign at the side of the road which, according to the hastily summoned interpreter read, “ALL AMERICAN READ THIS DIE.” The Viet Cong had skillfully rigged an American howitzer shell behind the placard. Before the message could sink in, the ambush was sprung. Nineteen dead and 35 wounded in seconds. As he was assisting three GIs carry a grievously injured colleague out of the firing zone, the man’s leg came off in Page’s hand.

 

Ambush of the 173rd Airborne, Iron Triangle, August 1965. (Tim Page)

And so it went, a constant, heady mix of danger and pleasure, the helicopters functioning like taxis, ferrying Page and his colleagues to war by day and back home to favourite Saigon bars by nightfall where abundant sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll awaited. As the partying flourished, so the death toll kept rising. In the hot, humid weather, corpses decayed fast. “Chopper and plane crews flying bodies put Tiger Balm on scarves around their faces” he recalled, “I used a bar of Dial wrapped in a GI towel.”

Page used avoidance to cope with the trauma he witnessed. “You don’t deal with your emotions,” he told me. “You leave it behind, dump it where you dump your kit … and get on with the fucking job.” His use of marijuana was another form of avoidance. “It gave you that ability to back out a bit,” he recalled, “took that edge off, made it a bit softer.”

Some things could not, however, be dodged. Page was wounded five times in Vietnam. He was first struck by shrapnel in Chu Lai in 1965, followed by more shrapnel from a grenade while covering a Buddhist revolution in 1966. Later that year a friendly fire incident aboard a US Navy Coast Guard Cutter forced him and the surviving crew to abandon ship in shark-infested waters where, in the fog of war, they were fired upon by both the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese navy. Page spent three weeks in hospital recovering before taking six weeks R and R in Singapore where, as he recollects, “I watched the shrapnel drop out of me.” Transferred by Time-Life to their Paris bureau, he felt restless. He covered the Six-Day War in June, 1967, spent six weeks in Saint-Tropez doing acid, photographed the anti-war movement for Life while in New York City, got busted with Jim Morrison in New Haven, drove across America in the winter of ’67 photographing cemeteries and arrived in Los Angeles to news of the Tet Offensive. The pull of Vietnam was irresistible and he booked a one-way ticket back. He was injured for the fourth time in a train wreck near Phu Bai. It would take his fifth injury in April, 1969, with shrapnel to the brain, three cardiac arrests and life-saving neurosurgery to finally put an end to his time in Vietnam.

Left: Ambushed convoy sent to relieve Duc Co Special Forces camp, 1965. Right: Photographer Sean Flynn dodges gunfire during the Mini-Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968. (Tim Page)

Life after Vietnam was difficult for Page. There was more neurosurgery and a long, challenging rehabilitation. “Hemiplegia was a weird number,” he was to write later. “I could think of what I wanted to do, but was unable to make it physically happen.” From a psychological perspective, the avoidant strategies that had functioned so well in Indochina, stoked by marijuana and the oblivion of sex, were no longer effective. Like many veterans of the war in Vietnam, the psychological fallout of what he had seen and endured was delayed. Now, with time on his hands and adrift professionally in America, his emotions started to unravel. Poor health, poverty and a succession of troubled relationships added to his challenges. Page reached his nadir in Rome in 1971. Feeling hopeless and alone, he attempted suicide.

Post-traumatic stress disorder as we know it today had yet to be recognized as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization. It is therefore understandable that Page did not find the psychiatric treatment that he received in the 1970s helpful; he regarded his psychiatrists as disparaging. Instead, he sought temporary relief in MDMA, better known as ecstasy, an amphetamine derivative, which is now, forty years later, being used in experimental treatment trials for sufferers of PTSD. Those who benefit from the drug report that they are able to recall their traumatic memories without experiencing fear. In the process, avoidance fades.

Towards the end of the 1970s, things started to look up for him. The success of the book Dispatches, in which Page features prominently, introduced his larger-than-life character to a wide readership. His work as a photographer began receiving greater recognition and the BBC made a documentary about him. He returned to Vietnam, where he was given the key to what had once been Larry Burrows’s room at the Caravelle Hotel. Revisiting the scene of past traumas can be difficult particularly for someone who has shied away from dealing with the emotional baggage that came with war and injury. But for Page, “it was very comfortable to be shrouded, enwrapped in the past, like putting on a [well-worn] pair of boots.” Ghosts were lurking too amidst the contentment of nostalgia. He remembers drinking too much, photographing too little and experiencing flashbacks when taken by his minders to see the Viet Cong tunnels at Da Nang.

Mini-Tet 9th Division trooper near 'Y' Bridge, Saigon 1968. (Tim Page)

Determined to honor those in the media who were killed or went missing in the war, Page founded the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation. Together with Horst Faas, the chief Associated Press photographer for Southeast Asia during the war, he produced the book Requiem, a moving collection of photographs and biographical sketches of all the photographers on both sides of the conflict who died or went missing. The book won the 1997 Robert Capa Gold Medal. The two men were also honored by the Vietnamese government with a Hero of the Cultural Revolution Award. He uses the word “obsessed” to describe his unceasing efforts to trace what became of 14 missing journalists, including his close friend Sean Flynn (the only child of Errol Flynn and French actress Lili Damita) who, together with Dana Stone, disappeared on assignment in Cambodia in 1970. “Nobody else will finish this business,” he asserts. Invoking the spirit of the Marines, he observed that, “normally we get our own back” before going on to tell me that, as a lapsed Buddhist by proxy (which is how he amusingly refers to his religious convictions), he believes there needs to be a settling of spirits.

It is more than 50 years since Page arrived in Indochina and in many ways he never left it. “There is something about the place,” he divulged, inimitably mixing metaphors and slang. “Once it has grabbed you by the short and curlies, it’s like a malarial bug there in you. The moment I land in Indochina, it’s like a baby blanket that is given to me – like a Linus blanket.” Age – he is in his early 70s – and illness have slowed him and drawn some of his fire. With time has come more reflection, less impulsivity and what to me seems a quiet pride in what he achieved as a photographer, documenting in the eye of the storm how an agrarian people defeated a superpower bristling with technological muscle. Backpackers rambling through Vietnam carry photocopies of his scintillating memoir Page After Page – photocopies of photocopies, he ruefully notes – that is now out of print. His life has become the stuff of legend and I would like to think that this, too, must give this innately modest man no small measure of satisfaction.

As our interview wound down I asked him a question that many others have asked before. Was it all worth it? After all, his mentors, the legendary Larry Burrows and Henri Huet, died violently in ’Nam, his closest friend went missing, presumed dead, and he came away “dain bramaged,” as he once laughingly referred to himself after his head injury. “Totally” was his instant reply. But in his coinage, that irreverent, clever and self-deprecatory jumble of letters that can make you smile or wince or both, we see clues as to why there are regrets too. He would have preferred a little less pain, a little less time wasted and “fewer fights with a system that always looked at me being wacky,” the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now that he regards as an unfair portrayal. In keeping with those who live intensely in the moment, the future arrived quickly for Page, catching him unprepared. This, too, he regrets. But it would be a mistake to end on this note, for it misses something that goes to the very core of who he is. Tim Page’s unique temperament, in tune with his time and place, allowed him to capture lightning in a bottle and invite others in to share it. Combat photography is not for the faint-hearted. In a pantheon of strong, memorable characters, his life and work shine brightly.