Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Henri Huet – A Guest Post

On Memorial Day I happened to call my eldest brother, Mike.  ("Eldest" sounds better than "oldest", doesn't it?) In the course of the conversation he mentioned that he was dedicating his Memorial Day to the memory of a photographer he met in Vietnam, Henri Huet. The more he talked, the more interested I became, and I eventually told Mike I would write a Sempringham post about Huet.

Then the Republicans nominated a megalomaniac as their candidate for President, and ambition went out the window.

Happily, Mike picked up the torch and wrote the post for me, in the form of an email to our siblings. He has given me permission to edit it slightly to make it more like a blog post, and to publish it here:
It's interesting: you can find many of Henri Huet's photographs in Wikipedia but little of his life. He was born in Vietnam of a French father and a Vietnamese mother. He was sent off to school in France at about the age of five. He studied art while in France and one observer wrote his photos were composed like paintings rather than photos. I can't comment one way or another on that but I do know that he was called "the best photojournalist of the Vietnamese war" by the Saigon AP bureau chief.
Henri Huet
I met him on only one or two occasions at the press club in Danang, Vietnam. One of his bureau chiefs wrote that it was enjoyable working with Huet because he always had a smile on his face. I observed that smile, and even then I thought it was not a smile of a happy man but of one who had seen so much that he felt it was better to smile.
The Marines of the Third Battalion, who were stationed in and around Danang then, thought highly of him. He had been in Vietnam during "The First War". He was in the French Navy, where he learned the basics of photography. He stayed in Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Henri had a wife in France and a mistress in Vietnam.
Medic Thomas Cole, wounded himself, assists a wounded soldier from the First Cavalry Division.
The Marines thought highly of him for several reasons. First, because he was the "old man"; he had seen this war back when it was a French war and now it was an American war. He had seen much carnage and death. Second, because he really immersed himself in the life and ways of  the Marines in "I Corps", unlike many photojournalists who were there to "cover the war". It was these people that I saw angrily pushed away by the Marines who didn't want "a goddamn camera" pushed into their faces while they were recovering the bodies of their buddies. I remember distinctly a group of college kiddies from some school in Ohio who came out to report on how horrible the war was. I was seriously afraid that we would have to get those kids out of there before the Marines slit their throats. You don't preach antiwar stuff to Marines who have just finished a firefight. Third, Henri could speak French, English, and Vietnamese, which made him useful. And interestingly, most of all the Marines considered Henri a good luck charm, since he always seemed to come back from even the worst battles with whatever group he went out with. I realize that I met Henri only once or twice but he made an impression on me that lasts until this day.

Infantrymen in a bomb crater search for snipers firing at them.
I don't know if any of you are familiar with his photographs. They made the front page of Life Magazine in the 60's. You might want to look some of them up, they are in Wikipedia. One I had never seen before was in the book that a brother sent me about photojournalists in Vietnam. You see a soldier dragging a wooden ammunition box up the bank of a river and in the background you see a 40 mm machine gun. I thought, "Gee it was pretty clever of them to set that machine-gun up on a sliver of soil in the middle of the Mekong River." And then you look more closely and you see that the machine-gun is being held up by one great big hand! Some soldier was crossing the river and didn't want to get the machine-gun wet so he was holding it up high over his head and that means the river water was over his head, he was walking on the bottom carrying an M60 machine gun (not one of those dinky AK47's)! This is an incredible photo.
Huet also captured this photo, similar to the one Mike describes above.
Henri's luck ran out in the early 70s – not with a bunch of Marines in a firefight but in a helicopter carrying several photojournalists and a Vietnamese general. The crash site was finally found after the second (i.e American) Vietnam War had been settled. They found small pieces of bone along with the helicopter wreckage. At that point there was no way of determining whose bones had been found and there was a big brouhaha about where to bury them. They were finally interred at the Newsmuseum in Washington, DC, in a small ceremony with about 100 attendees.
Huet took this photo of a chaplain administering last rites for photojournalist Dickey Chapelle as she died from a booby trap explosion.
Every Memorial Day I think about Henri and wonder if there are any people left in France who remember him and his accomplishments. Soon we will probably all be gone and people will have to look them up in Wikipedia.


Anonymous said...

I am proud to call both of you my brother. Thanks to you both.

Uncle Ted said...

Small correction, if I may. That is not a 40mm machine gun sticking out of the water. It is an M-60 machine gun, which the Army used in those days (and with which I was an "expert" myself). It is 7.62 mm (or thereabouts). A 40mm machine gun would require a vehicle to carry.

Just sayin . . .


Bob Miller said...

Thanks for the correction, Ted. I've made the correction.

And thanks again, Mike, for letting me post this.