Sweaty and hot, 23-year-old United States Army photographer, Ted Acheson, wandered the streets of Chang Hai at night. Shuffling his feet from bar to bar, he and the rest of the unit’s stress levels dwindled as they gulped down pint after pint of beer.
The day’s gruesome events, men bleeding to death or with limbs blown off into too many pieces that the remains were unrecognizable, are quickly tossed in the back of their minds. “There is nothing worse, believe me, than the smell of a dead human being. You don’t ever forget that,” Acheson said in an interview after giving a speech at the opening night of The Face of War: Vietnam Combat Photographers, held May 6 at the Northwestern Mutual Art Gallery at Cardinal Stritch College.
Vietnam photographs of U.S. Army soldiers ducking for cover as a bomb is launched at them or on their knees praying to see another day lined the walls at the the gallery where four United States Army Veteran photographers later testified about their stuggles of war at the opening night of the exhibit, which was held to show the life of soldiers in war.
Since returning from the war in Vietnam, Acheson went back to school where he studied communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Now retired and living in Texas, he was the keynote speaker at the gallery event.
It’s taken Acheson nearly 45 years to finally open up and talk about his experience about life and war in Vietnam.
Claire Odishoo who curated the show said 50 people attended the talk and over 100 people came to look at the photos.
“The talk and film presentation given by Ted Acheson really brought to life what combat life was about. It let people understand how difficult things were out there and how much courage it took.” said Odishoo.
The Face of War: Vietnam Combat Photographers featured photographs by the Department of the Army Specialized Photographic Office Military Unit (DASPO) (LINK http://www.vietnamproject.ttu.edu/daspo/#) and Robert J. Ellison at Cardinal Stritch University’s art gallery (LINKhttp://www.stritch.edu/gallery/).
The exhibition will be open until July 31, with a closing ceremony of performances, student artwork in response to the exhibition, and music.
The DASPO unit operated from 1962 to 1974 photographing and producing films of Vietnam army combat.
Ellison was photojournalist for magazines such as TIME and Newsweek. He shot photographs while protesting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the time of the civil rights movement and dirtied his hands and feet in the swamps of the Vietnam War in 1966.
In 1968 he died at the age of 23 on a plane that was shot down in Khe Sanh, Vietnam.
He is a Man Among Men, Dedicated to His Profession.
The mail arrived. Acheson picked up the envelope that read United States Department of Defense, his military unit orders laid inside, assigned to the DASPO 84C Pacific Detachment in Hawaii, later deployed to Vietnam ten days after the Tet Offensive.
The Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the People’s Army of Vietnam on South Vietnam, the U.S. and other allies that was considered the turning point of the Vietnam War.
Acheson explained in his presentation that after critiquing film sent back from the Tet, he turned to his unit buddies staring them straight in the face, eyes bulged and heart racing, he said, “Oh my, what did we get ourselves into? What did we sign up for?”
“It was very—very scary,” Acheson said in an interview.
Acheson described arriving at Tan son Nhut airbase his first day, he walked past decaying bloody bodies that lied scattered on the grey cement like sprinkles would on a cupcake. A 122 mm rocket hit the airbase the night before. These were sights Acheson would see for the two year’s he served in Vietnam bush.
Helicopters constantly circled throughout the skies producing a deep walloping sound typically followed by the rapid fire of M16’s.
William San Hamel was also part of the DASPO unit.
“The helicopter’s that flew above were the soundtrack to the war,” said Hamel after the film presentation.
“There are sounds and smells that you never forget, like the smell of battle and the cordite from the shells…I don’t like the forth of July anymore,” said Acheson.
Screams of Vietnamese people echo through the air as napalm fumes hit their skin and slowly burn through the flesh.
“Each day we would go from heaven to hell, we saw what the Vietnamese were doing to each other,” said Acheson.
After passing through the gallery of photographs for the second time, the wallops of helicopters, banging of guns, and the smell of decay emerges to the visitor’s senses.
Dale Christian, a man from the Vietnam’s era and saved from the draft by the switch to voluntary military service, he remembered how it felt at that time. “I remember having cousin’s who were helicopter pilots that crashed and friends who came back with tragic stories…death, blood, and guts,” Christian said.
“You’ve got to change the film in camera, open up your camera and your sweating. Your adrenalin is running and sweat is dripping in on your film. Your trying to get everything just set for the next shot, but when you can’t film anymore you start thinking am I ever going to make it out of here,” Acheson said.
Acheson stood up to get an action photograph in the bush. Bullets flew through the air passing him left and right.
Frightened he’d get shot by a People’s Army soldier, shaking hands and sweaty palms he attempted to capture the war scene with his five pound Hasselblad film camera. It felt like an eternity but it was only ten seconds. Acheson twitched while standing, jerking the camera, creating a blurry image—Acheson knew he’d have to attempt the shot again.
The words described in the presentation and interview brought the photo exhibition to life.
Trudging through waist high swamps with camera’s and film held high above heads, hiking hills without trying to dehydrate life in the combat field was not easy as many photographs showed.
Acheson took a canteen and shoved it into a pond. Filled up with murky water, he brought the canteen to his lips and took a swig, attempting to keep the dirt from going down his throat, he drank the water through his teeth trying to filter it clean.
The DASPO unit was just as courageous as soldiers with weapons.
Upon graduation Acheson married and moved to Detroit, Michigan to receive his doctorate from Wane State University, where he also learned production.
With his DASPO photography and film skills, Acheson soon advanced to making national commercials and background music for major companies like Ford Motors.
Now retired and residing in Texas, “Success was a direct result from being trained for DASPO and as a cinematographer to doing commercials,” said Acheson.