Photographer captured another side of the Vietnam War

Vietnam pics
Posted at 7:45 PM, Mar 27, 2023

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. For Ken Williamson, the photos he snapped while deployed to the Vietnam War told a different side of the conflict.

"You don't ever hear about it and it was a very dangerous mission for a lot of these guys," said Williamson.

He was assigned to take photos of the engineering unit building roads in all directions from Pleiku Vietnam.

"They were out there hitting the road and, you know, we had a mind sweep the road that was there every day before we traveled on it," Williamson said. "A convoy was ambushed as we're going through the mountain and central highway."

Williamson's photos appeared in a newspaper sent out to troops and even those back home to keep them updated on the progress the unit was making in the field. They were also published in The Kysu magazine.

He recalls his makeshift darkroom on Engineer Hill in Pleiku, Vietnam.

"We had a concrete building — we call it ... a bunker, it was a foot thick. And it was used for some purpose before I got there. I don't know what. And they had, when the engineers took over that hill, they turned that into the dark room, because it was the only place I could process film because it was dark, no windows," he recalled.

The water used for the final rinse of the photos came from a nearby lake and was filter through an old steel drum.

Williamson’s work caught the eye of those higher up and the next thing he knew new orders came down and headquarters had a bigger role for him.

"My commanding officer was a little upset. He said, 'Don't you like it here?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' I like it here just fine. But I had no knowledge, no part of it," Williams said.

His new photography position opened the door beyond the region surrounding Pleiku and an updated dark room.

"[They] gave me a media pass and I traveled the whole country of South Vietnam from the DMZ to the Delta, and documented what the engineers were doing," Williamson said.

Outside of bulldozers and machines, he often captured the world outside of the war.

"The trip to the orphanage was my first trip out in the field," he said. "And it was not a safe trip going there. And so you know, it was kind of a scary deal."

Seeing the children impacted by the war is something that sticks with him. He said venturing to other areas was also always a risk with every snap of the shutter.

"You have to be very, very careful because you can go nuts on some beautiful flower and get blown up pretty easily. Yeah, that was one of the deals is that the Vietcong would put booby traps in places where Americans would like to touch their hands," said Williamson.

He left Vietnam in January 1970 and would return for his first trip in 1998. After a day with a guide taking photos and visiting some places, he was left alone at his hotel and suddenly found himself trapped.

"My guide said before he left, he said, just go outside, you'll find someplace for dinner tonight," he said.

That venture back outside turned out to be a nightmare. Attempt after attempt trying to go from the hotel to a nearby eatery turned into a flashback where he found himself right back indoors. After four attempts going only as far as a block away from the hotel at one point, he found himself back inside his hotel room.

"I sat there for a while and I said, this is really crazy. You know, I've come halfway around the world to do this thing. And I've got to do it. And then I was reminded of some guys I met at the wall in Washington, D.C. And they were writing poetry and writing songs about their experiences. So, I thought maybe I could do that," Williamson said. "So, I wrote a poem for that night and tucked it away. You know, I did that for every day I was there. So, when I went to the orphanage, I had one for the orphanage. When I went back to Engineer Hill, I had one for that. So that was the process I used to get to get through it."

Since that trip, Williamson has revisited Vietnam and has published a book featuring his photos and his personal journey and time in Vietnam. The images in the book are also contrasted by reminders of what the world was going through back home.

"I wanted to give my reader an idea after all these years of what was actually happening on the days I was talking about in the book and the book is chronological," he said.

Williamson said going back to Vietnam and seeing fields of grass where he spent so many months helped him in some ways.

"One of the pictures I have is I'm standing here with my back to Dragon Mountain. And I see this hill was just some foliage. And there was no foliage on it when we were there because of Agent Orange," Williamson said. "I knew it well, and to go back and see that nothing was there. It was, it was sort of like, what if that war was in my head? You know, it wasn't. It wasn't something that's still there. And so that was the helpful part, for me."

The Urology Group of Cincinnati is hosting a 50th Anniversary Tribute to Vietnam Veterans at the Xavier University Cintas Center on Wednesday, March 29th. You can find more information by clicking here.

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