The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word: A Thousand Words

Larry Burrows, taken on the Laotian border three days before he was shot down in Laos. (Photo: Roger Mattingly)

Alexandria, VA – “Larry Burrows was as much historian as photographer and artist. Because of his work, generations born long after he died will be able to witness and understand and feel the terrible events he recorded.” –David Halberstam

I have stared at many pictures in my life. Some made me smile, others laugh out loud (or LOL to you millennials out there). Some provoke thoughts, and others have dragged me to the depth of tears.

Over the past two years, I have watched world events erupt into open combat. Armies against armies, terrorists or rogue militants wreaking havoc on innocent civilians, many evoking religious epithets as if they were mantras as their ranks eviscerate schools, hospitals, daycares, and dwellings. Lone-wolf gunmen plying their merciless trade under the demented guise of “the law,” the “holy book,” “the Constitution,” or “the natural order of things.”

Growing up as an Army brat, I saw many photographs that filled the pages of Life and Time magazines. The images of one photojournalist, Larry Burrows, published in those magazines were particularly vivid to me then and remain so to this day. His photographs of the Vietnam War are iconic, and to his contemporaries, Burrows remains the epitome of the war photojournalist. He is taught in many journalism schools as the trademark photojournalist for his ability to capture the “feel” of his subjects and as a real, captivating first draft of history.

His pictures said a thousand words to me the first time I saw them in print, and I have the same feeling today as I look at them. I remember seeing his story “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” in an April 1966 issue of Life magazine. It depicted a day in the life of a Marine helicopter crew flying a combat mission. Burrows took us from pre-flight routine through the mission against Viet Cong insurgents, YP-13’s heroic effort to rescue the crew of a downed Marine helicopter, the horrendous firefight that ensued, the attempts to save the wounded crew members, and the emotional breakdown of the crew chief at the end of a long and bloody mission.

I saw it again recently, and I was immediately 11 years old again, seeing images of the kind that are all too familiar to people who live a military life.

Larry Burrows in Vietnam. He preps his camera on a helicopter to capture the action which became his story “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” in Life magazine (Photo: Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

If my father were alive, he would be 99 today. He served in WWII in the Navy and in Korea, Laos, and Vietnam in the Army. His combat branch was “Armor” (tanks), and his hearing suffered from constant exposure to the drone of diesel engines and high explosive ordnance. Despite this handicap, however, he could hear a helicopter’s approach long before my young, healthy ears could catch it. Maybe it was the low-frequency hum that a “chopper” emits. More likely, it was his trained senses for the approach of the magic “bird” that was so essential to security, health, and well-being since choppers were the lifeline to many service members serving in combat during those conflicts.

My father carried his Nikon F in Laos and Vietnam whenever he went to the field. His blossoming enthusiasm for photography was due in no small part to the photographs found in Life and their long-serving war photographer Larry Burrows. Dad frequently showed me Burrows’ pieces. We discussed his technique, the composition of the photograph, and the “eye” the man possessed to capture the exact right moment to convey the meaning of what he, and you, were seeing.

Dad often told me that a photograph not only tells a story but has the power to present facts and to make us understand the truth of a situation. As one of those who believed that we should not be involved in a war in Southeast Asia – an idea alien to many unless one had served, as he did, in the Special Forces during that time and in that region – facts are stubborn things.

In 1970, my father was assigned to Saigon as the Public Information Officer for Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). He was responsible for daily press briefings for over 500 journalists covering the war for their news services worldwide. Nicknamed the “Five O’clock Follies” (although the briefings were at 4:30 PM Vietnam time), he presided over three briefers: one for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, one for the U.S. Embassy, and one for MACV headquarters.

During that time, he handled thousands of press queries. Many reporters and photojournalists were well-grounded in their trade, and despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the bulk of these people were highly professional and knew their business and the ground rules for the press in-country.

Dad had the opportunity to meet and work with Larry Burrows several times. He greatly respected the Englishman who spent over nine years covering Vietnam for Burrows’ balance and knack for being with the troops and going where they went. This visual Ernie Pyle had almost a sixth sense about where to be and how to capture it.

On a February day in 1971, news spread throughout the MACV press room that Larry Burrows and three other journalists were lost in a helicopter crash in Laos. Dad said that his fellow journalists all understood that the icon was gone but that the very nature of the job – of seeing combat through the eye of a lens –  carried a feeling of detachment, a feeling that one was almost immune from the action they were seeing. They all knew it could happen to them anytime as well, that it was a corollary to their jobs. Just like soldiers, medical personnel, or aid agencies, their detachment from the fighting was necessary to do the job.

Burows’ iconic photograph, “Reaching Out.” It wasn’t published until after he died in 1971. (Photo: Larry Burrows)

I recently saw one of Burrows’ most powerful images again. “Reaching Out” depicted a bleeding, bandaged Black soldier reaching to help another wounded soldier in mud and blood-splattered surroundings. Life did not publish the photograph when it was taken, thinking it was too graphic. It appeared in print, however, after Life learned of Borrows’ death. It is one of those images that, once seen, one never forgets. It carries the same impact on seeing it again as when I first saw it.

Today, we are surrounded by those same stubborn facts. Images of innocent people being shot while under arrest, young girls being kidnapped as “wives” by insurgents in Nigeria, ignorant and violent mobs attacking the U.S. Capitol building, mass shootings in movie theaters, schools, malls, and places of worship in our cities. Russian troops wantonly massacring thousands of Ukrainian civilians in hospitals and apartment complexes during their “Special Military Operation,” and most recently, Hamas terrorists swarming across Israel’s borders to execute their ruthless pogrom against innocent civilians all under the cloak of a perverted religious doctrine.

Facts are stubborn. Nigerian rebels attack schools and take young girls hostage every day. Fact. Russia invaded Ukraine. Fact. Hamas invaded Israel. Fact. Violence is always senseless. Premeditated violence is a crime against all that humanity stands for. Fact.

The images that play across our media screens today carry the same trademark that Larry Burrows sought to capture through his lens. His legacy may well be that he directly influenced future photojournalists and reporters. Those stubborn facts of Larry Burrows and his camera are why we feel them today.

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