View from Vietnam: Through the lens of a soldier’s camera

As Ken Burns and Lynn Novick illustrate time and again in The Vietnam War, many soldiers on the ground had mixed and complicated feelings about the war itself.

Burbank resident Stephen Newman can relate.

As a young college student, Newman was against the war, but he notes he was a “less than stellar student.” To be perfectly clear on what this means, Newman started school at San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge) in the radio and television department. But, this was the time of The Beatles and he was far more interested in playing in a rock-n-roll band than doing school work. The college asked him to leave and he found a job at a radio station instead.

Leaving school, however, meant he left his draft deferment behind. He recalls the considerations he entertained in his head at the time:

Thus began Newman’s time in the military. He did Basic Training at Fort Ord, where he trained as a radio operator. Then he headed to Georgia to study radioteletype. And finally, he was shipped off to Vietnam where he joined the 1st Logistical Command.

Phan Rang airbase, photo by Steven Newman

Let’s take a moment here for a quick primer on these types of communications.

Basically the way radio operations worked at the time was this: one guy would have a radio on his back and follow a lieutenant around. If the lieutenant asked him to call headquarters, there’d be other people using the same frequency able to accept the message, which would be in Morse code because it cuts through noise better than voices.

The teletype component is something Newman describes as the pre-cursor to texting:

“You can also type into this machine. It will go analog into this radio and the signal goes out over the radio and another radio receiver at the other end—analog—gets that signal, converts it into text, or teletype. In this way commanders could send longer messages … and your job was to take these messages sometimes encrypt them in code … and send it to another place, then the other commander would get it.”

The radio teletype equipment at the station in Phan Rang. Photo by Steven Newman.

He’s quick to acknowledge that sometimes they’d pass the time messing around on the radios.

What I did in Vietnam was not much, I mean I wasn’t in combat really. I had a sandbag little bunker with a radio station and I sent not that many messages. We had a couple messages a day about supply. Where I was at we were involved in petroleum and food for the units out in the field that were actually doing something in the war.

Newman spent around a year at the Phan Rang Logistical Support Activity which occupied a small corner of the Phan Rang airbase. While he did not see much in terms of combat, Newman recalls that every once in a while, the Viet Cong would mortar the airbase causing much middle-of-the-night confusion”. Once or twice the VC did shell his side of the base, which he remembers as his “scary war story”: the night mortar shells went raining all over.

Panorama of Phan Rang Logistical Support Activity, photo by Steven Newman

“We lived in a tent, which everybody calls ‘hooch’—it was like half tent, half building. It was like sandbags on the bottom and the canvas thing on top. And maybe ten guys lived in it … my bed was in one corner of the hooch … and so we were sleeping one night. The usual drill was you’d either hear sirens or booms and they would be going off maybe half-mile, quarter-mile away trying to get the planes at Phan Rang Airbase … All of a sudden you hear these explosions happening, pretty close.”

Newman stops here to describe how a mortar round sounded to him: like having a giant put his hand on the hugest vacuum cleaner you could find, then pulling his hand away—the gasping loss of suction sound that would result.

With explosions sounding in the night and dirt flying around, raining down on the roof, Newman did what a lot of us would have: got down on the ground. He explains that the Viet Cong would “walk” the mortar rounds, meaning they’d explode in one place and they’d move the next one a little bit further away. As the mortar sounds got farther away, Newman prepared to head out to the radio bunker, only to have the Viet Cong start walking the mortars back. He returned to the ground, swearing as he went. When the dust literally settled, his tent was still standing, but as close as 50 yards away, there was major damage.

This is, Newman notes, his war story.

“I never fired my rifle in anger at anybody,” he says in a tone that sounds a little apologetic. “I hope I’m not disillusioning you about the heroism of war time … I tell everybody the better part of the 20 months that I spent in the army, the 12 months in Vietnam, was easier than the eight months that I spent training and being harassed in the United States.”

Throughout our conversation, Newman emphasizes—several times—that his time in Vietnam was easy. His job wasn’t bad and he was able to take time off and hitch rides to Da Nang to visit one of his oldest friends who was stationed there with the Navy. He had a camera in Vietnam and took pictures.

Newman’s childhood friend, Hugh Pickrel, a dental tech in Da Nang. Photo by Steve Newman

When Newman returned home from Vietnam he felt culture shocked. He recalls calling his mother from Sea-Tac to say he was on his way home and his mother saying he didn’t sound happy about it. He thinks he just didn’t have anything to relate to. One night, soon after he came home, he visited with some friends. When the host’s little brother ran into the room yelling “Hit the dirt!” Newman obeyed the order instantaneously and dove on the floor.

He took up transcendental meditation not long after.

Spending his year on the ground in Vietnam did not change his opinion of the war itself. When he left the army in July of 1969, the anti-war movement was heating up. Newman went back to school and worked at the college radio station. While he never formally aligned himself with the movement, he did boycott classes during the student strike and did his best to get the news onto the radio station. He also continued his photography, capturing some key moments of the anti-war movement on his campus.

Angela Davis at rally at San Fernando Valley State College. Photo by Steve Newman.

He did better in school the second time around, graduated, and eventually spent three decades at NBC4 as an editor. He didn’t experience any real instances of trauma in or after Vietnam.

“It might have been worse had I actually been actively participating in the, uh, killing as it were. The war effort. But I wasn’t totally immune to the fact that I was actually supporting war fighting units, but other than that I just basically settled down and did my job … I think the combat experience does affect you and I was lucky not to have it.”