SOUTHINGTON — Although Vietnam War veteran Dan Brookes primarily served in the photo lab, taking and developing pictures, he remembers one night he was driven out to a remote part of an airstrip, told to get down in a ditch, watch the tree line and not shoot unless he had a definite target.
“A photographer was not a non-combatant,” Brookes said. Sometimes it was necessary to “put down your camera and pick up a gun.”
Brookes has finished compiling his book, “Shooting Vietnam,” which tells the story of the war from the perspective of several military combat photographers like himself. The project was 3 ½ years in the making and contains 350 full color pages featuring about 1,000 photographs taken by him and his colleagues during the war.
Brookes co-authored the book with fellow veteran combat photographer Bob Hillerby, who died last year following a motorcycle accident at the age of 69. Brookes and Hillerby reconnected years after the war through the internet and realized they both had always dreamed of putting together a book about the war illustrated with their photographs. They decided to start the collaborative project together, and began reaching out to other combat photographers to share their stories.
The forward to the book, written by veteran Joseph Galloway, author of “We Were Soldiers Once... and Young,” explains how budget cuts resulted in 90 percent of the footage shot by military combat photographers being shredded or dumped in a landfill.
“A lot of them have been lost forever. They weren’t considered historically significant at the time,” Brookes said.
Much of the book is filled with the personal collections brought home by the photographers after serving. Pictures of soldiers in the heat of battle or lost in the dense jungle fill the pages. Some of the content is exceedingly graphic. One picture depicts the head and torso of a Vietnamese woman lying in the grass, eyes still wide open.
Brookes said he never expected to be drafted for the war.
The Southington resident was overweight at the time and had no idea what use he would be. Unknown to Brookes, the government was pushing to get photographers into the military to document the war, and he was drafted.
“It was very dangerous at times, we lost several combat photographers,” he said.
One chapter contains the story of William Perkins Jr., the only combat photographer ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“He was killed after he threw himself on a grenade to save his brothers,” Brookes said.
The final chapter of the book provides an alternative look at the war. Titled “Vietnam Was Also A Country,” the chapter showcases the stunning landscape of a countryside full of bright flowers, the beautiful architecture of Saigon and smiling Vietnamese women and children.
“This is the other face of the country,” Brookes said. “Not the war side, but the human side.”
Brookes’ literary agent, fellow Vietnam veteran and Gulf of Tonkin whistleblower John White, of Cheshire, said the chapter provides a sense that Vietnam was more than just a hub of martial activity during the period.
“Dan’s personal coverage of Vietnam as if he were a tourist or a traveler has some excellent photos of the country, urban and rural, at that time,” White said.
Although the book has been completed, White said he is still in the process of pitching it to prospective publishing houses. He said by the end of the week he hopes to hear from a major publisher of military history books.
“It’s a book which I think every Vietnam vet would want to peruse,” White said.