War as a Career Move

Norman Schwarzkopf, Robert Capa and Bill Perkins

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Bill’s dad, an Army pilot during World War II, got a job with Eastman Kodak after the war.

The job took the family to California and Bill grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Hollywood.

Bill’s dad taught him about cameras and Bill began shooting short films in high school.

He loved making movies.

A year out of high school, Bill visited with the Marines.

They told him he could become a combat photographer and work with a Mitchell movie camera, the type of camera that was then used in Hollywood movie studios, if he enlisted.

So he did, along with his high school buddy.

The Marines sent Bill to Signal Corps photography school after he completed basic training.

Two photos. A young man with short blonde hair is indoors operating a film video camera. He wears a uniform. He looks into the viewfinder in one image and adjusts a setting in the second image.
A student in the motion picture photograph school, US Army Signal Center and School, at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Perkins is seen here working with a Mitchell 35mm motion picture camera as he and fellow students practice making a reenlistment film.

Six months later, in July 1967, Bill was in South Vietnam, making movies about the war.

It was a career move.

Bill was walking the path of famed D-Day photographer, Robert Capa.

Bill’s big moment came in October 1967 when he was sent to photograph a large search and destroy operation in the Hải Lăng Forest, a dense jungle region near the Laotian border in South Vietnam’s northern highlands.

The North Vietnamese Army maintained a staging area there that supported two NVA regiments that posed a threat to US bases nearby.

The search and destroy mission, designated Operation Medina, would be the Marines’ first foray into the area.

The operation began with a Marine helicopter assault into the forest as ground units swept the perimeter of the landing zone.

The NVA countered the assault with mortar and small arms fire.

It was heavy combat.

One Marine later said the NVA troops came at them in human waves.

“You just kept shooting them,” he said, “and they just kept coming.”

The heaviest fighting took place in a small jungle clearing.

At the height of the struggle, a North Vietnamese grenade landed near Bill and a group of four other Marines.

An officer in the group later wrote that Bill hollered “incoming grenade” and grabbed it. Bill covered the grenade with his body and absorbed the explosion.

Bill died instantly, while saving the others. He was twenty years old.

Bill’s death occurred three hundred miles south of the place where Robert Capa had been killed by a North Vietnamese landmine thirteen years before, while filming the advance of French forces into hostile territory near Hanoi.

Black and white photo taken from a low position on the plant-covered ground. Military personnel huddle around the opening of a helicopter with blades spinning, loading someone in. Behind them, a young man in uniform is filming or photographing the scene.
Perkins, second from left, films a medical evacuation on the afternoon of October 12, 1967, during Operation Medina. This photograph was taken about two hours before he was killed in battle.

Operation Medina ended eight days later.

It was indecisive.

The NVA was not driven out of the Hải Lăng Forest; but Marine commanders said their operations had been disrupted.

Marines recovered four tons of rice, sixteen enemy weapons and a supply of small arms ammunition.

Fifty-three NVA soldiers had been killed.

Marine losses were 34 dead and 143 wounded.

President Nixon gave the Medal of Honor to Bill’s parents at a White House ceremony in 1969.

Bill is the only combat photographer to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Bill’s aged mother gave his Medal of Honor to the Smithsonian a few years ago. Then eighty-nine years old and in poor health, the mother said she didn’t want Bill’s medal to “end up in a brown box in somebody’s basement.”

The Smithsonian has displayed the medal, along with Bill’s shrapnel-damaged camera, in the National Museum of American History.

When asked what she wants people to learn from seeing her son’s medal and damaged camera, the mother said, “As far as I’m concerned, the war was a waste.”

A few years ago, a friend asked if I would come to her half-brother’s funeral at Fort Myer, Virginia. Few would be there from ‘her side of the family’ and she needed moral support; so I agreed.

It would be my first military funeral since my grandpa’s back in the 1970s.

The half-brother had attended West Point many decades ago and had risen through the ranks to become an Army brigadier-general, a disappointment to a storied military family that had expected more of him.

Burial would take place in Arlington Cemetery, adjacent to the Fort Myer chapel, and all would be done with full military honors. Notable West Point classmates, including Norman Schwarzkopf, would serve as pall bearers.

When I arrived at the Old Chapel, every pew was packed with retired soldiers and their wives. They all knew each other.

I sat near the back.

The funeral service opened with the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and everyone seemed to know all the words.

“This must be how it’s always done,” I thought.

I watched these men, in their sixties and seventies, stand erect and sing loud. Most had served in the Army for decades, through many conflicts, achieving high rank and acclaim.

I didn’t sing; I just looked at the people.

These were the once young officers I used to see in CBS news interviews from Vietnam.

These were the anxious wives, once sporting bouffant hairdos, fishnet stockings and holding squirmy little kids, who waited for them at photographed homecomings.

These are the men who had been to Vietnam and made it home.

Going there had been a career move for them, too.

There are reports that, after his harrowing time photographing World War II, Robert Capa had vowed not to cover any more wars. He found a job in Japan after the war.

But then, in 1954, Life Magazine put out the call for a replacement photographer to cover the French army in Indo-China, not far from Hanoi.

Capa broke his vow and took the fateful job.

It was a career move.

I’d like to think there is something more profound at play in these war stories.

The Smithsonian exhibit of Perkins’ effects says its purpose is to demonstrate ‘the price of freedom.’

Is it realistic to believe that high school students on Washington, DC, field trips will learn ‘the price of freedom’ from Perkins’ story?

Some win; some lose. Isn’t that the lesson?

Harsh, but it seems to simply come down to that.

Stay well. I’ll be back with another report on Thursday.

— Brenda