Vietnam vet’s photos show life in the midst of battle
The shoebox opened, and out spilled memories. Images taken from negatives suddenly flashed on his computer. Charlie Haughey, the bearer of photos taken during his year in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, found himself overcome with emotion. Maybe they should have stayed in the shoebox, he thought.
“Well, they’ve kicked down all the (emotional) doors now,” says Haughey, upon the release of some 1,800 Vietnam War photos, many of them in an April exhibition and many slated to be part of an upcoming book and an ebook. A group of volunteers, led by photographer Kris Regentin, worked with Haughey to digitize the photos and present them to the public as the Chieu Hoi Project, after his nickname in Vietnam (www.chieu-hoi.com).
“It’s an emotion that’s between happy and sad,” Haughey says. “I’m delighted to have the pictures come through and last. Some had considerable damage, and they had to spend an hour on each cleaning them up. Strangely, it’s like my involvement in Vietnam: It’s giving to me a lot more than it’s taking from me. But, it’s not all giggles.”
Haughey, 70 and a four-year resident of Portland, having moved here to be close to his son, says he watched a thumb-drive slide show of 1,726 images on a computer upon completion of some digitizing. It seemed weird, he says, watching photos flip quickly, knowing the stories and men and emotions behind them.
“I didn’t sleep for three days,” he says. “What I discovered is that I just Sheetrocked over places in my mind. I just didn’t go there.”
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the country will again honor the men and women who serve and sacrifice. Haughey can hardly utter words about Veterans Day and veterans. It’s too heart-wrenching. He survived Vietnam. More than 58,200 men and women did not. Haughey witnessed burning villages, dead bodies and absolute mayhem.
A ‘mental shield’
Drafted into the U.S. Army, Haughey, then from Michigan, deployed to Vietnam on March 17, 1968. He remembers disembarking the airplane, running for cover and watching as outgoing servicemen ran past him en route to the same airplane, yelling, “Fresh meat!” Haughey spent the first few months as a rifleman in the 25th Infantry Division. One day, a serviceman ran through Dau Tieng base camp screaming Haughey’s name for him to visit the captain. Upon the visit, the captain said the colonel needed a photographer with experience. Haughey figured the assignment would be better than walking point on mission, and let his superiors know — “Oh, I piled it on,” he muses — that he could do the job. He became a “morale” photographer, not a combat photographer, walking among peers and documenting the slice of life that few people observed during the Vietnam War.
He took photos, processed the negatives and made 8x10s for soldiers and submitted some for military publications. Haughey shot photos during combat, but stayed away from shooting grisly images.
“When I looked through the viewfinder — I could be scared to death for the guys I was taking pictures of — but it just alleviated me,” he says. “I didn’t feel the terror. It was kind of a mental shield in a way. Even though, the second day I had the job, I found out the reason that I had the job: The guy before me had been badly wounded, and they sent his parts and pieces back to Tokyo to put him together. I don’t know what happened to him.”
A sense of comfort
The photography job lasted from July through Christmas 1968 and into March 1969. He spent the final, extended couple of months in Vietnam doing odd jobs, before being dropped off in Oakland, Calif., in May 1969.
Upon returning to the United States, he tried to get a photography job at the Battle Creek (Mich.) Empire News — but was passed over because of nepotism, he says. So, Haughey put away cameras and film and went back to working in carpentry and woodworking — his father trained him as a cabinet maker — and he spent the final 10 years before retirement making interiors for corporate jets.
About 10 years ago, Haughey thought about digitizing his Vietnam images, and then realized that not only would computer equipment cost about $5,000, he didn’t know whether he could use the digitizing equipment properly, or have the patience. So, the negatives stayed in the shoebox.
Both Haughey and Regentin have spent time at the workshop/studio ADX in Southeast Portland, and they met there. Regentin learned about Haughey’s background, and it didn’t take long for him to deem the photos “high-caliber” in content and artistry.
He convinced Haughey to digitize them, and exhibited the best of them as “A Weather Walked In” in April at ADX (around the 40th anniversary of the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam). Veterans showed up, and it was quite emotional. Regentin and volunteers are now working on a print book with photos and an iPad book with photos and audio of Haughey, and lining up the pitch to publishers.
“It’s really humanizing,” Regentin says. “It was a horrific, terrible war. But seeing this from Charlie’s perspective is such a unique, almost behind-the-scenes look at how these people lived over there.
“And, the way Charlie took photos, the way he is, people tend to be very comfortable around him. You can see that level of comfort in the photos.”
Haughey was surprised at the reaction to the photos, because I didn’t see them as particularly worthwhile.” But, they held such emotional ties.
He adds: “My relationship with these (volunteers) is a little bittersweet. It’s very hard to say no to a group of people who are willing to volunteer hundreds of hours into something and see it through. It’s been a strange ride.”