Fifteen years earlier in 1953, nine months before the French defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh Army at Dien Bien Phu, David produced a prophetic piece for Life magazine, titled “Indochina All But Lost.” As such, he was enormously frustrated to still be photographing war in that land, so many years later at Khe Sanh. Yet, he was unflinching in his admiration for the troops who served, as many a Khe Sanh vet who benefited from his kindness over the years can attest.
Earlier on a February 1968 evening, just before David shot the photograph I was requesting to use, he had been standing outside at the entrance to the command bunker chatting with Gunnery Sergeant Leon Risch, a salty Korean War veteran, about David’s age. Coincidentally, I was just then reporting for my radio shift and before I left my own bunker I had too-hurriedly put on my web gear, including my utility belt, which held sundry items like bayonet scabbard, ammo magazines, bandages, etc. The belt was buckled in the front by inserting a metal hook into an eyelet. In my haste, I had not secured the hook all the way in, and, as I arrived at the edge of the cement steps that descended into the command bunker entrance, the belt suddenly unlatched and all the gear attached to it slid down to my ankles causing me to trip and tumble head-first down the stairs. I landed at the feet of Duncan and Gunny Risch, and, as gunnies are traditionally known to do, he immediately unleashed a torrent of profanity chastising me for my clumsiness. The commanding presence of the famous David Douglas Duncan loomed above me in silence; but his eyes eloquent in the unmistakable squint of “Old Corps” disdain.
I’m relieved to finally get that one off my chest.