Foxhole to Darkroom
By John Wills
It was 1969 and the war in Vietnam raged on despite newly opened Paris peace talks with the United States, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. My brother was there and I had just arrived in South Korea. Having completed basic training in Fort Leonard Wood and Advanced Infantry Training in Ft. Lewis, I arrived in Korea anxious to get started. I was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division. My mission was to man a foxhole ten yards from the fence that stood on the South Korean side of the DMZ (demilitarized zone).
I was a nineteen-year-old kid from Chicago who’d hardly ever left the city, much less traveled to another country. I was in a daze from the long flight and peculiar sights I encountered in this strange land. After a couple of days of getting acquainted with my new unit and equipment, I found myself crouching down in a foxhole with my M-14 rifle pointed north, ready for any enemy soldier that might attempt to breach the fence.
It was unnerving. It was dark. It was quiet, save for the occasional rustling of leaves and underbrush from what I hoped was animals. Occasional music or broadcasts from the north were sometimes audible, which only served to heighten my tension. By the time my duty shift was over, I was exhausted emotionally rather than physically.
To my surprise, six weeks into my tour I was informed that I was now assigned to drive an APC (armored personnel carrier). This was great news, since I was not at all enthused about the possibility of spending thirteen months in a hole in the ground. The APC proved to be challenging. A tracked vehicle, the driver used two control sticks combined with a gas pedal and brake to steer. There was a hatch for a machine gunner and one for the driver. When taking fire, the vehicle operator closed his hatch and drove utilizing a scope, much like a submarine.
To my dismay, the APC required constant maintenance. I spent more time in the motor pool than I did operationally. Constant oil changes, lubrication, track adjustments, etc., all proved to nearly drive me insane. Then a fellow soldier told me about his experience playing football for the Division team He explained a bit about the team and that a tryout was being held shortly for the upcoming season.
The next month I found myself in full football gear trying to earn a spot on the roster. After a week of drills and fitness tests I was informed I had made the team as a running back. I was relieved. I’d be away from that box of nuts and bolts for at least three months. My celebration was short lived, however, as I suffered an injury and was shipped back to my unit.
Next, a squad mate told me he was going to brigade headquarters for an interview regarding the position of combat photographer. While not officially at war with North Korea, both countries had occasional skirmishes in the DMZ. The two nations regularly sent patrols into the zone and at times encountered each other. Sometimes these meetings resulted in firefights. My fellow soldier told me this position would involve photographing the aftermath of these encounters, as well as being responsible for taking monthly photos of artillery emplacements in the mountains.
I had no experience with photography. I didn’t even own a camera. However, my request to attend the interview was granted. I sat down with five other hopefuls outside the room where the questioning was scheduled. I listened intently to the others as they discussed what the interview might cover. Seated in the last chair of the row, I was able to hear what was said before and after each interview. Armed with this limited bit of knowledge, I went into the room as the final hopeful and put my best uniformed foot forward.
A week later I was advised I had been selected along with one other person. We were assigned to brigade headquarters S-2, and were under the direct command of a lieutenant. I had a huge learning curve to conquer, and luckily my new partner was enthusiastic enough about this new assignment to teach me the basics.
I quickly learned what OJT meant. I spent day and night listening to and watching my partner teach me the ropes. He explained the inner workings of the camera, its functionality and limitations. And he demonstrated how to use the array of telephoto lenses at our disposal, to include a massive 1,000 meter lens which proved to be invaluable as we collected monthly photos of the artillery pieces pointing at South Korea.
Not only did we take photos, but we developed and printed them as well. As difficult as it was to master the camera and lenses, it was near impossible for me to function in the dark room. Appropriately named, the darkroom became my adversary. We were still in the film age, not having yet taken even a step into the digital world. Each roll of film had to be manually removed from the camera, rolled onto a spool, and placed in a light proof container. I spent hours alone in the dark, frustrated, as I tried to master the technique needed to successfully develop the precious photos we’d spent hours capturing.
Only by touch was I able to complete tasks and locate items inside the room that I needed to complete my task. An inexplicable feeling of joy overcame me when I finally felt comfortable in there. Then it was on to printing. Mixing chemicals and preparing trays wasn’t so bad. Getting the image in the baths for the right contrast and brightness proved to be the most trying. Eventually, with the tutelage and patience of my partner, I mastered the entire process. I served as a combat photographer for the remainder of my tour in Korea. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the knowledge I gained in this role would serve me well later in life when I was assigned to the Chicago Police Crime Lab. But that’s another story.