Special Ops Photographers Offer Unfiltered Look at 'Faces of War'


It was said that the Vietnam War was the first "television war." Indeed, never before had the American homefront been exposed to a regular and often horrifying stream of images from the front lines.

Newspapers and magazines also published photographs unlike any that had been made public during previous wars. And it took courageous cameramen alongside equally courageous soldiers to capture those images and films.

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Many of those cameramen were also enlisted soldiers and their work not only captured much of the essential history of that war but now forms part of an exhibit called "Faces of War: Documenting the Vietnam War from the Front Lines" at Chicago's Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

I really would like the audience that looks at our footage [to] think about the man that was behind the lens.

–Ted Acheson


"We worked directly for the chief of staff for the army, and a four-star general, and that's where our orders came from," explained Bill San Hamel, a veteran of the Vietnam War who was a captain in the U.S. Army. Among his duties he served as Pictorial Unit Commander and Motion Picture Director for the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office (DASPO). "They wanted us to document the war, and that was one of our primary missions: get as much combat as we could. We also did training films. Periodically, they would give us a script that we would shoot to."

  • Rootin' Tootin' Raspberry, 1969. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division sets smoke for a helicopter extraction near Tam Kỳ in the Quảng Tín Province. Photo by Captain Roger Hawkins, U.S. Army.

    Rootin' Tootin' Raspberry, 1969. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division sets smoke for a helicopter extraction near Tam Kỳ in the Quảng Tín Province. Photo by Captain Roger Hawkins, U.S. Army.

  • River Rat, 1967. A crew member participates in Operation Coronado on a Heavy Support Boat (Monitor) in the Rung Sat Special Zone (“Killer Swamp”), southwest of Saigon in Biên Hòa Province. Photo by Specialist 5 Richard A. “Dick” Durrance, U.S. Army.

    River Rat, 1967. A crew member participates in Operation Coronado on a Heavy Support Boat (Monitor) in the Rung Sat Special Zone (“Killer Swamp”), southwest of Saigon in Biên Hòa Province. Photo by Specialist 5 Richard A. “Dick” Durrance, U.S. Army.

  • Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army

    Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army

  • Captain William D. "Bill" San Hamel, U.S. Army

    Captain William D. "Bill" San Hamel, U.S. Army

  • Specialist 5 Theodore "Ted" Acheson, U.S. Army.

    Specialist 5 Theodore "Ted" Acheson, U.S. Army.

  • Specialist 5 Robert G. "Bob" Hovis, U.S. Army

    Specialist 5 Robert G. "Bob" Hovis, U.S. Army

  • Anticipation, 1968. A Huey UH-1D helicopter carrying members of A Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, U.S. Army 1st Air Cavalry Division approaches a landing zone. Photo by Specialist 5 Richard A. “Dick” Durrance, U.S. Army.

    Anticipation, 1968. A Huey UH-1D helicopter carrying members of A Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, U.S. Army 1st Air Cavalry Division approaches a landing zone. Photo by Specialist 5 Richard A. “Dick” Durrance, U.S. Army.

  • Refugee, 1975. A South Vietnamese refugee cries upon her arrival at Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Florida. Photo by Specialist 5 Bryan K. Grigsby.

    Refugee, 1975. A South Vietnamese refugee cries upon her arrival at Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, Florida. Photo by Specialist 5 Bryan K. Grigsby.

  • Sergeant First Class Lawrence S. Windon, U.S. Army

    Sergeant First Class Lawrence S. Windon, U.S. Army

  • Recon by Fire, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade in Quảng Ngãi Province uses his M16 rifle to conduct reconnaissance by fire. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Recon by Fire, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade in Quảng Ngãi Province uses his M16 rifle to conduct reconnaissance by fire. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Captured, 1967. Members of U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division return to base camp in the An Lao Valley with Viet Cong prisoners. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Captured, 1967. Members of U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division return to base camp in the An Lao Valley with Viet Cong prisoners. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Chasin' Charlie, 1966. Members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade prepare to move across a rice field near Tuy Hòa in pursuit of the enemy.Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Chasin' Charlie, 1966. Members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade prepare to move across a rice field near Tuy Hòa in pursuit of the enemy.Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Connecting, 1967. Soldiers of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division provide food and medical attention to local villagers near Thuận Giao. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Connecting, 1967. Soldiers of the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division provide food and medical attention to local villagers near Thuận Giao. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Drained, 1967. An exhausted soldier from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division takes a break inside a M113 Armored Personnel Carrier near Củ Chi. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Drained, 1967. An exhausted soldier from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division takes a break inside a M113 Armored Personnel Carrier near Củ Chi. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Dustoff, 1966. An executive officer with the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division is evacuated aboard a 'DUSTOFF' Huey UH-1 air ambulance after receiving a leg wound in a firefight near Pleiku. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Dustoff, 1966. An executive officer with the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division is evacuated aboard a 'DUSTOFF' Huey UH-1 air ambulance after receiving a leg wound in a firefight near Pleiku. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Fire for Effect, 1967. Members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade fire 81 mm mortar rounds at enemy targets near Tam Kỳ. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Fire for Effect, 1967. Members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade fire 81 mm mortar rounds at enemy targets near Tam Kỳ. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Home Cookin' 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division eats his first hot meal in five days after operating in the Quảng Ngãi Province. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Home Cookin' 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division eats his first hot meal in five days after operating in the Quảng Ngãi Province. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Not a Drop to Drink, 1967. A DASPO motion picture (“mopic”) cameraman accompanies members of the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade as they wade through a deep irrigation canal near Cát Lái. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Not a Drop to Drink, 1967. A DASPO motion picture (“mopic”) cameraman accompanies members of the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade as they wade through a deep irrigation canal near Cát Lái. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Pig, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division fires his M60 machine gun at a tree line in the Filhol Rubber Plantation near Củ Chi.

    Pig, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division fires his M60 machine gun at a tree line in the Filhol Rubber Plantation near Củ Chi.

  • Praise the Lord, 1966. A Catholic chaplain conducts Mass for members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade near Tuy Hòa. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Praise the Lord, 1966. A Catholic chaplain conducts Mass for members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade near Tuy Hòa. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Recon by Fire, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade in Quảng Ngãi Province uses his M16 rifle to conduct reconnaissance by fire. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Recon by Fire, 1967. A member of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Brigade in Quảng Ngãi Province uses his M16 rifle to conduct reconnaissance by fire. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Refuge, 1966. A soldier from the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division holds a puppy that managed to survive an air strike near Laike. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Refuge, 1966. A soldier from the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division holds a puppy that managed to survive an air strike near Laike. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Sawadee, 1967. General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of United States Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, attends ceremonies welcoming the Royal Thailand Volunteers. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Sawadee, 1967. General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of United States Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, attends ceremonies welcoming the Royal Thailand Volunteers. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

  • Tunnel Rat, 1967. Flashlight and .45 pistol in hand, a squad leader from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division searches for the enemy in an underground tunnel in Củ Chi, northwest of Saigon. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

    Tunnel Rat, 1967. Flashlight and .45 pistol in hand, a squad leader from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division searches for the enemy in an underground tunnel in Củ Chi, northwest of Saigon. Photo by Specialist 5 Robert C. Lafoon, U.S. Army.

"I really would like the audience that looks at our footage or our still photographs [to] have an idea and think about it, and look at those pictures and think about the man that was behind the lens," said Ted Acheson, a Vietnam veteran and a former motion picture cameraman with DASPO. "What did that guy have to go through to accomplish that and get that photograph?"

Acheson was named Cinematographer of the Year in 1969 by the Department of Defense and the National Press Photographers Association. His work in Vietnam appeared frequently on nightly newscasts in the U.S. He is also a recipient of the Purple Heart after being wounded in a May 1968 firefight. 

Robert C. Lafoon also was with the Department of the Army Special Photo Office. Many of the Vietnam combat photographs you see in publications and on the History Channel were probably taken by him, including this photo taken in February 1966. Lafoon won the Communications-Electronics Command Awards (CECOM) for the photo.

"It's the 101st Airborne in Operation Van Buren, up around Tuy Hòa," Lafoon said about the image. "We had been helping all day long and they flew the chaplain in and he conducted a mass for the day–a couple masses–and that's pretty much it."

We're pleased to welcome the three veterans and cameramen to "Chicago Tonight."


About 'Faces of War'

In addition to rarely seen photos and film from Vietnam, the exhibition features original cameras, equipment and other artifacts, and an audio tour with commentary by DASPO veterans. The museum website notes:

Armed with their cameras, sound equipment, and light weaponry, the elite photographers and cameramen of DASPO captured, in stark detail, the true horrors and humanity of the Vietnam War. Deploying to the front lines aboard Hueys and Air Force C-130s, these special operations teams operated with unlimited access—producing some of the most iconic and important images from the conflict.

Visiting the exhibition

  • "Faces of War" will be on display through May.
  • The museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • Admission is $5; and free for members and active military. 
  • Tours take place daily at 11 a.m.

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