Shreveport, LA— First, he was a soldier. He carried an M16, but also a camera and notebook. In the field, on fire bases and in the air, Sp5 Robert Spangler, a combat correspondent of 10th Public Information Detachment, wrote and photographed stories about soldiers around him for military and civilian publications and brought home an archive of 500 images. Now, for the first time in 40 years, 80 of those images are on display in the exhibit, In the Shadow of Danger: Photographs of The Vietnam War, 1970- 1971, at R.W. Norton Art Gallery, August 28-October 14.
The Norton museum and its 40 acres of grounds and botanical gardens are open free of charge to the public.
The display serves not only as an exhibit, but also an escort for 24 Vietnam veterans on a return to their youth. On September 7, the museum is flying in from around the nation 24 “Guests of Honor” (and their spouses) who appeared in these photographs or served in these units in 1970-71. On September 8, they will tour the exhibit and lead programs for students and the general public.
For many, the day will mark a special reunion when some will see old comrades for the first time since the war. Gilbert Dexter of Yorktown, Virginia, will see again his “old hoochmate” Ardis Crank of Shreveport.
“I had forgotten his name,” Dexter said excitedly when told Crank would be present. “We all just called him ‘Louisiana’,” he added. Both men served as dog handlers in the 48th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog).
Bruce Hansum of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will chat with his former platoon commander, John Willmann of Tucson, Arizona. Daryl Hassebroek of Iona, Minnesota, who served in civilian affairs for his battalion will meet with his lieutenant, Bill Kitley of Spring, Lake, New Jersey. Earl Powers of Winnsboro, Louisiana will see again Mike Murphy of Daphne, Alabama. Both served as “Charlie Tigers” in Company C, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry.
For the first time in more than 40 years, Spangler himself will share Vietnam memories with Tom Mano of Shoreline, Washington, another correspondent with 10th Public Information Detachment.
At 9:30 a.m. on September 8 at the museum, the veterans will meet with selected ROTC cadets led by LTC (ret) Daniel Durr, director of army instruction for Caddo Parish schools. After presentation of the colors, the men will share their experiences of war and discuss careers in the armed forces.
The veterans will be treated to a private tour of the exhibit and lunch in the Norton library. Then, at 1:30 p.m. in the museum’s Tapestry Room, they will lead a program for the general public, “365 Days and a Wake-Up: A Year in Vietnam.” Father Guido Verbeck, retired Episcopalian priest and former captain of field artillery in the Vietnam War, will moderate.
Men who served in the infantry, and as medics, pilots, artillerymen, and in civilian affairs will describe how they spent a year of their youth in that distant and dangerous country. A former flight attendant for Pan American World Airways will reminisce about flights between America and Vietnam, taking soldiers to war and bringing them home.
That night the Norton will host the veterans and their spouses at dinner at Superior’s Steakhouse.
The exhibit displays 80 images from Spangler’s personal archives of more than 500 black-and-white and color photographs, all taken across the coastal plains, piedmont and mountains in the area of operations known as I Corps. Spangler came to the museum more than a year ago to participate in Norton’s Oral History Project, and brought along his photographic archives. Along with Spangler’s oral history narrative all of his photographs are preserved in digital form in the archives of the Oral History Project of R.W. Norton Foundation.
Spangler’s photographs depict young Americans, many just past boyhood and conscripted for service, spending a year of their youth at war. Infantry soldiers move like shadows in the jungle. Artillery “red legs” man their howitzers. Medics rush the wounded to aid stations and hospitals. Big Chinook helicopters lift heavy equipment to and from fire bases.
Sp5 Spangler, focused his Minolta 35mm camera on all he saw around him— privates, generals, scout dogs, civilians, and USO entertainers. Days before his tour ended he flew into “the bush” one last time, where he was the first photographer to document the still-smoking ruins of Fire Support Base Mary Ann that was overrun in a night attack. Eighty-one of his photographs of the base, used in evidence of the investigation into the attack and its causes, are preserved in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Digital copies are also housed in the Norton archives.
Spangler wrote and photographed stories for reproduction in military and civilian publications. His office working conditions were “field expedient” at best. Seated at a manual typewriter in blistering heat and monsoon rain, he pecked out stories onto mimeograph masters. He built a makeshift darkroom from a packing crate with a blanket covering the door, where he processed his film and printed his negatives with neither running water nor climate control for the chemicals. Outside the rotor wash of helicopter blades whipped up red-orange dust.
At night, he sat up late and literally counted the cost of the war as infantry battalions in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) called in “body counts” of enemy, South Vietnamese, and Americans. No doubt some of the men frozen on his film became numbers he sent on to division headquarters.
With his images as well as his printed words, Spangler captured in time the large and small moments of America’s youth spending a year at war in a far country. In the Shadow of Danger: Photographs of the Vietnam War, 1970-1971 reveals the face of war in men who proudly served during a painful episode of America’s past.
R.W. Norton Art Gallery and Gardens: Located at 4747 Creswell Avenue, Shreveport, LA 71106-1899. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends, 1 to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge. Group tours of ten or more may be scheduled by appointment. Each month features a free First Saturday Tour at 2 p.m. No reservations are needed. For more information and a calendar of events, see www.rwnaf.org or call (318) 865-4201.