Dave Sanders doesn’t regret his willingness to enlist. "We did what our country wanted - the military portion of our country and the politicians. But, you know, the more I know, the sadder I get." Courtesy of Thomas Sanders
Dave Sanders doesn’t regret his willingness to enlist. "We did what our country wanted - the military portion of our country and the politicians. But, you know, the more I know, the sadder I get." (Courtesy of Thomas Sanders)

Photographic Portraits Bring You Face to Face With the Vietnam War

Photographic Portraits Bring You Face to Face With the Vietnam War

They’re older and grayer now, the men and women who stare unsmiling into the camera. Their figures, shot against a black background, are superimposed on jungle foliage. It looks as if they’ve been surprised, at night, in a private moment: remembering the Vietnam War.

That's the feeling San Francisco Bay Area photographer Thomas Sanders is aiming for. As an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he started a series of portraits of World War II veterans that would eventually lead to a book called The Last Good War. As a graduate student at San Jose State, Sanders launched something similar with U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, as well as South Vietnamese veterans, and other Vietnamese refugees who came to California.

"The idea is that the viewer becomes emotionally enthralled by the portrait," Sanders says. "Then, right next to the photo, is a brief history on that veteran or immigrant, and they get to learn an individual story about them."

Thuy B. says she will always miss her home country. During the Vietnam War, her family was forced to flee south to escape the advancing Viet Cong. "People got panic-stricken. More and more people evacuated every day. My mother also made decision to leave for Saigon. It was a long, exhausting journey full of pain, stress, and fear."
Thuy B. says she will always miss her home country. During the Vietnam War, her family was forced to flee south to escape the advancing Viet Cong. "People got panic-stricken. More and more people evacuated every day. My mother also made decision to leave for Saigon. It was a long, exhausting journey full of pain, stress, and fear." (Thomas Sanders)

Sanders has been working with veterans groups and the San Jose Elks Club to identify people like 69 year-old Dave Sanders -- no relation to Thomas -- who brought a piece of shrapnel with him to the photo shoot. "From a 122 millimeter rocket that almost got me. Almost!"

Dave Sanders doesn’t have any illusions about the war, but he’s proud that he enlisted. He volunteered for military service right out of high school. "All of our friends were being drafted. So the inevitable was coming," he says.

Ron Petty was a helicopter pilot. The necklace he's holding is the bullet that hit him while he was flying in Vietnam. After medics pulled that bullet out of him, he put it on a chain. Photographer Thomas Sanders says he’s been taken by the fact many of his subjects carry grim mementos. "I think, the Vietnam veterans - some of them carry their war relics with them as a reminder that they’re living," he says.
Ron Petty was a helicopter pilot. The necklace he's holding is the bullet that hit him while he was flying in Vietnam. After medics pulled that bullet out of him, he put it on a chain. Photographer Thomas Sanders says he’s been taken by the fact many of his subjects carry grim mementos. "I think, the Vietnam veterans - some of them carry their war relics with them as a reminder that they’re living," he says. (Thomas Sanders)

Sanders made it back in one piece from Vietnam after a one -year tour of duty from May of 1967 to May of 1968. He returned home 50 pounds lighter, but carrying the weight of post traumatic stress disorder.

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"We did what our country wanted - the military portion of our country and the politicians - but, you know, the more I know, the sadder I get," Sanders reflects. "I really have a lot of hate and discontent in my mind for people like McNamara, Westmoreland: those that sent other people to die."

Army General William Westmoreland commanded U.S. forces from 1964 to 1968. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was in charge  in the administration in Washington , D.C.

I ask Dave Sanders, "If you had Robert McNamara sitting in front of you right now, what would you say to him?" He thinks for a moment, gathering himself. Then he says emphatically, "I’d kill the son-of-a-bitch, for the 58,000 guys that we have on a wall.

He’s talking about the American service members who died or went missing. Their names are etched on the polished black rock of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Thomas Sanders has photographed about 200 people for the Vietnam project so far, mostly in and around San Jose. The region is home to one of the largest populations of expatriate Vietnamese in the United States.

Loc Vu, an 85-year-old retired colonel who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, holds a bust of a South Vietnamese soldier at the Viet Museum in San Jose. "This is a beautiful work from the museum," he says. "It reminds me of the unknown soldier."
Loc Vu, an 85-year-old retired colonel who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, holds a bust of a South Vietnamese soldier at the Viet Museum in San Jose. "This is a beautiful work from the museum," he says. "It reminds me of the unknown soldier." (Thomas Sanders)

People like Loc Vu, an 85-year-old retired colonel who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, are eager to participate in the project.

Vu has a history of taking leadership roles. Not long after he arrived in San Jose in the mid-1970s, Vu took the helm of the Immigrant Resettlement and Cultural Center. Now he runs the Viet Museum in San Jose's History Park, a modest, re-purposed Victorian house stuffed to the gills with framed photos, maps, artwork, and other mementos from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam Portraits

Vietnam Portraits

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Every item, Vu says, tells a story.  Four machine guns mounted on the wall, for instance, serve as pointed reminders of multi-national meddling in Vietnam. "One make by France. One make by Russia. One make by [the] Americans. One make by Chinese Communists. Given to the young Vietnamese, North and South, to die in the Vietnam War," he says.

He adds that the concepts of "winning" or "losing" a war mean nothing to those who fight and die in them.  "That is the lesson I want to bring to our children," he says.

Vu has been a helpful community liaison for photographer Thomas Sanders, who is too young to have experienced the war, even as a news story.

Humidity disintegrated paper in the jungles of Vietnam. Resourceful American soldiers used alternatives like the sturdy cardboard wrappers their food rations came in to write letters home to loved ones.
Humidity disintegrated paper in the jungles of Vietnam. Resourceful American soldiers used alternatives like the sturdy cardboard wrappers their food rations came in to write letters home to loved ones. (Thomas Sanders)

This project has taught Sanders some of that history.

Vu counts that as a personal win. He wants that kind of history lesson for second generation Vietnamese-Americans as well.

"I’m very worried our next generation in the United States do not remember why the Vietnamese are here: where they came from, when, and the reasons why," he says.

As for Thomas Sanders, he  hopes to publish some of the portraits in a book. He wants them to serve as a document for those too young to remember the war, and a memento for those too old to forget.

"It’s important that these Vietnam veterans and the immigrants get the opportunity to tell their story," he says. "It’s therapeutic. It gives them the opportunity to  be honored."

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To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar

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