His Images Caught Heart, Soul of Region; Photographer Documented People of Vietnam, History through His Camera Lens
Piatt, Gregory, The Florida Times Union
Byline: GREGORY PIATT
Yellowing black and white photographs of a young man with a .38-caliber pistol strapped to his side lay scattered in an album that is falling apart as the days go by.
At his home in Jacksonville, Jim Lowell, now in semi-retirement, looked at photos of himself in Vietnam and reminisced about the young warrior with horn-rimmed glasses looking back.
"I was a 23-year-old kid still wet behind the ears," the 62-year-old Lowell said this week. "You know, I never pulled that pistol out of the holster, except to clean it."
When Lowell was first sent to Vietnam as an Army lieutenant, he didn't stare down the barrel of a gun. He looked through the viewfinder of a camera to capture images of the massive U.S. troop build-up ordered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. When he arrived in July there were 25,000 troops in Vietnam. By the time his third deployment ended 15 months later, that force grew 10 times in size, Lowell said.
Now, 30 years after the fall of Saigon to end the U.S. involvement in the war, Lowell reminisced about his photo team from the Department of the Army's Special Photo Office, that he commanded 40 years ago at the beginning of the war. Lowell also served in Vietnam with the 525th Military Intelligence Group.
But it was with the DASPO detachment of a half-dozen or eight soldiers that he received the baptism of war and lost one of his men in a mortar attack. That affected him and the unit because they were there not to fight, but to create a physical and historical record of operations, equipment and personnel in Southeast Asia. The photographs were then used by commanders to see what their troops were doing in the field, Lowell explained.
"Sort of Monday morning quarterbacking," he said.
The pictures also were made available to military publications, the news media and public at the Pentagon's photographic library, according to the National Archives and Records Administration's Web site.
"We were totally apolitical," Lowell said about his soldiers' work. "All we tried to do is get the best footage we could get from the various units we shot."
Lowell spent much of his time during his three deployments -- two three-month assignments with DASPO and six months with the 525th Military Intelligence Group -- in the then-South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.
One of his tasks was to put together a briefing book for Maj. Gen. Joseph McChristian, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Vietnam at the time. The briefing was filled with photographs of atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, the guerrilla insurgency force in South Vietnam. Although he didn't take the pictures, it was one of the few times Lowell said he felt he was playing a political and not a soldier's role.
"I created a book he used to show dignitaries and justify the inhumanity of the Viet Cong," Lowell said. "It was obvious that he would use it to justify that it was OK for the United States to occupy the country. It was kind of like the weapons of mass destruction argument [for the reason to invade Iraq]."
Even by 1965, the war was at the city's limits with glowing tracer bullets shot out from the capital and the earth shaking from the bombs dropping just outside Saigon. When Lowell wasn't sending his soldiers to photograph Army units or setting up the military intelligence's clandestine photography group, he braved Saigon streets that had hidden bombs or claymore mines to shoot locals for his own photo collection.
"Many of the pictures that I shot were to try and show who were these people we were trying to help," Lowell said of his personal photos. …