I was saddened to learn that photojournalist David Douglas Duncan passed away yesterday, June 7, 2018, at the age of 102. He had lived life with such gusto, as only one who takes the risks he took can do, in the thick of combat covering wars for over thirty years, on almost every continent. No photojournalist, before or since, has consistently captured the grimness and despair of battle like David did. Between these wars, he showed us the great joy and beauty in life. His opus, Photo Nomad, is a stunning photographic chronicle of the twentieth century.
In early June 2004, as I was preparing my first book, A Patch of Ground, for publication, I wanted permission to use a photograph that he had taken of Captain Baig, and the other “brain trust” officers, together in the Khe Sanh command bunker during the 1968 siege. I initially contacted a person at his publisher, HarperCollins-NYC, who advised me that Duncan still owned the rights to all his photos and provided me with his address in France. I wrote to him immediately, and eleven days later he called. When I picked up the phone, the first thing I heard was David’s ninety-year-old, curmudgeonly tone that sounded like a question, but was actually a statement of fact: “Mike, so you didn’t get your ass shot off at Khe Sanh, huh.” I have included in The Gunpowder Prince part of our conversation with regard to Captain Baig, and so will not replicate it here. David then asked me what Baig had done after Khe Sanh, and whether he was still alive. I filled him in on that tragic scenario and later that day mailed him a copy of Ray Stubbe’s monograph on Baig, The Mongol Prince (I had no idea at the time that I would be writing Baig’s story twelve years later).
David, a Marine officer in World War II, who had covered American troops fighting in that war, and the war in Korea, ended his thirty-year career as a combat photographer at Khe Sanh. That decision was not based entirely on his now being in his fifties and the grueling physical strain of battle that was beginning to take its toll on him. The fact was that, while David had seen countless dead and wounded American soldiers in his decades of reporting, his sobering, iconic February 1968 photo of body bags lined up beside the fog-shrouded Khe Sanh runway waiting for evacuation to some distant morgue, seemed to have been the last straw in reining in his anger and disappointment at what America was doing in Indochina. Soon after leaving Khe Sanh, David would produce two books, War Without Heroes and I Protest!, condemning the Johnson administration for, what David said was, their having changed the criteria for going war from the traditional, unfortunate, last-resort decision to preserve national security, to a lucrative business practice.
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.
While David’s reputation would have permitted him into the inner circles of world power, he preferred being out among common people, among common soldiers and artists like himself. What saddens me the most is not just that the world has lost such a rare talent, but a person who possessed the honesty and intellectual courage to state the truths he’d learned from his vast experience, irrespective of the bleating of more fearful, insulated and devious souls. Because of that, later in his life more doors closed for him, than opened.
David thanked me for requesting permission to use his photos, because, he said, many people used them without extending him that courtesy. I then heard his wife call him for dinner. He said they were “having a chicken and rice dish with a very good sauce on the chicken” (considering he lived another twelve years, to age 102, this recipe might be the elixir of life😉).
Before we said our goodbyes, David said, “I suppose you would like something [about the permission] in writing?” I said I would appreciate that. I’m attaching below a link( "Duncan Reply") to that wonderful message, handwritten boldly on the second page of my original request letter. As you can imagine, it has warmed my heart each time I’ve come across it in my files over the years (NOTE: To clarify two things in the text of my letter, the working title of my book at the time was “Murmurs,” which was promptly rejected by my publisher a few weeks later as being too “artsy-fartsy” [a decision for which I am eternally indebted to him]. Also, I subsequently learned how to properly spell Lieutenant Colonel Hennelly’s last name).
One last item, actually a confession that I need to make; one I did not tell David about, though I’m sure he’d have found it amusing:
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.
Rest in peace Mr. Duncan. Thank you for allowing us see the world through your eyes.