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Laying the ghosts of doubt in Laos

by Stephen Mansfield

LOST OVER LAOS, by Richard Pyle and Horst Faas. Da Capa Press, 2002, 239 pp., $30 (cloth)

In American hands, the deadly serious business of warfare, the very way war is conducted, can seem at times more like an extension of its own pop culture, a cartoon warp of the real grotesqueries.

Some imagery mocks the suffering of victims by its very levity. For example, the pictures of naked women painted onto the fuselages of World War Two B-29s, and the figures languishing like calendar models beside the flame-shaped marks that indicated the number of bombing missions of an aircraft. When asked how they spent the return flights after raining death and unimaginable grief on tens of thousands of unprotected Japanese civilians, crews of such craft routinely described listening to jazz on the radio, or handing around pornographic photos. A patch worn by members of the 17th Air Cavalry, a helicopter unit serving in the later Vietnam war, depicted a hawkish looking bird above the slogan “Patience, my ass. I want to kill something.”

By contrast, the impartial and utterly literate war reportage of American journalist and one time Saigon bureau chief Richard Pyle, is nothing if not mature. Pyle’s first helicopter run into the fire zone, a sortie that would dispense 90 tons of high explosives in order to reduce a hidden enemy base to a lifeless moonscape, offered “a first taste of war, up close and violent beyond imagination.”

Pyle, in collaboration with Horst Faas, a Pulitzer- Prize- winning combat photographer who covered the war for an astonishing 11 years, is the author of ” Lost Over Laos,” a long overdue tribute to four photographers who died during what is also known as the Second Indochina War. The title follows in the wake of two other books that seek to memorialize lost comrades:” Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden,” and “Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina.”

In February 1971, a UH-I Huey, the standard olive-green helicopter that has become more synonymous than any other piece of military hardware with that war, took off from a border camp at Lao Bao as part of an ultimately unsuccessful U.S.-backed invasion of Laos. As it flew across the Annamite Mountains into south Laos, an orange tracer soared from the green canopy below, turning the chopper into a fireball that shredded into pieces before scorching itself into a jungle hillside.

There were no survivors. What might have been just another inconsolably sad “missing in action” story, became a small footnote in history. The helicopter contained among its crew, four internationally respected photographers — Larry Burrows of Life magazine; Kent Potter, a staffer at United Press International; Henri Huet from Associated Press; and Shimamoto Keisaburo, a Japanese lensman and freelancer for Newsweek.

The cover photo used to illustrate Pyle and Haas’s book, a casually composed black and white image, shows the four men hunched in the back of the Huey, Leicas and Nikons marking them out as combat photographers.

Among Saigon’s “gonzo fraternity” that included figures like photojournalist Sean Flynn and his sidekick Tim Page, Burrows at the age of 44 was a sensitive craftsman who never allowed himself to get stoned on anything but the perfect image. He got many. Like Burrows, the French photographer Huet was gregarious but intensely serious about his work. Huet, who, according to old Saigon hands, “spent more time pinned down in rice paddies than most photographers spend in Vietnam,” understood that telling images were often acquired at the cost of appalling risk.

Shimamoto was also something of an individualist, an independent operative who had eschewed the inbred press club circles that “made journalism in Japan an exercise in controlled group-think, in which a real scoop was frowned upon because it might embarrass a competitor.” The young photographer Potter, mature beyond his years due to a hasty apprenticeship in Vietnam, was also a committed professional determined to see the conflict out.

In assembling this book, Horst and Pyle have been just as committed in portraying their subjects. Their self-imposed brief as journalists included determining the facts, and establishing beyond a shadow of doubt that the crash site (identified by Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, a special unit created to trace and document Americans still unaccounted for) was indeed the fatal spot. As comrades of the deceased, they were also, in Pyle’s words, “making a pilgrimage of the heart, one that had been a long time coming.”

No human remains were found, all were presumed lost in the explosion over Laos. However, a perfectly matched photo of the crash zone, the map co-ordinates, a number of eerily washed out spools of film, and camera remnants, provided incontestable proof of the site’s accuracy.

The day after the investigation was officially closed, another visitor appeared on the hillside: Keisaburo Shimamoto’s elder brother, Kenro. Kenro, who claimed to have heard the voice of his brother, was pouring sake for a simple Buddhist ceremony and gathering “a handful of soil,” as he expressed it, into a small urn to take back Japan for internment in the family tomb on Tanega-shima island in Kyushu.

“Lost Over Laos” is a fitting tribute to both the life and work of the four photographers and the spirits that the locals believe were left behind in that obscure corner of Indochina.