Memories of a Combat Photographer in Vietnam. - Air Force Bill Potter
"I went into town with an old boy, he'd been going into town for awhile. His name was Simpson. He was a black guy and we went into a bar. I didn't know where the hell it was. Come to find out it was two blocks from VC territory. I went in and had a couple of beers. I didn't think nothing about it. Luckily I had enough sense after having a couple of beers that I walked out of the damn bar. I walked across the street. As I got to the other side of the street, the damn bar blowed up. A damn kid, couldn't have been more than twelve years old, had parked a damn bicycle right outside that damn bar. It was loaded with dynamite or something. It blowed that bar all to hell. When I got across the street and that bar blew up, I caught the first damn taxi back to base and I stayed there. I never come off that base again."
With that story, my time of getting to talk to Air Force Staff Sgt. Bill Potter began. So far my Veteran series has consisted of mainly WWII Veterans, but I've been interested in Vietnam era history since I was a teenager. I was so honored to get to sit down with Staff Sgt. Potter, who served as a combat photographer in Vietnam for the Air Force. I am grateful to his daughter, Mary, for setting up his session. Mary also served in the Air Force during the Iraq War as an A1C and is a fourth generation veteran. Her great great grandfather, Joseph Lee Cross served in WWI, her grandfather, Donald D. Rule in WWII, her dad in Vietnam, and she served in Iraq.
" I joined in October 1963. I went to Okinawa. So I figured I'm safe, I won't end up in Vietnam. Wrong. I didn't look at the damn map, but Okinawa ain't that damn far from Saigon. This was on a Friday. Our NCO came and asked what we were doing that weekend. I said what we usually do. Go to town, get drunk, sleep it off so we can be ready to go back to work on Monday. He said 'well don't go anywhere yet. Stick around for a little while.' We had no idea what the hell was going on because we hadn't heard anything that was going on. A few hours later, this idiot came flying down the runway. He had a stack of orders for each one of us. In the meantime, a 124 had pulled up on the runway right next to our office. When that guy came in with all the orders, are NCO came in and said you got thirty minutes. Go to the barracks, pack your shit, and get back down here. When we got back down there, he said to load it on the 124. We've already got it loaded with your PPC, which was your portable processing center. So we did and we got on the plane. And that was the worst flying plane ever. It couldn't have been a 130, which was smooth. But that 124 we got on and we got into Saigon at two o'clock in the morning. We had to walk all the way across the base to get our blankets and mosquito nets. Then we had to walk all the way back across the base in the pitch black. We got to our tents, which were WWII issued tents. They were supposed to be for up to six men to a tent. Well we had anywhere from 10-14 men to a tent. Needless to say, they were crowded. We got into our damn tents, all the mosquito nets and shit put up and about the time we got in bed, it was time to get up. "
"Where I had to work was where we processed all of the aerial film that the 101's had shot. I remember one night I was on duty and we had a Lieutenant and Captain that had flown a mission come in. They had flown out over Cambodia and then down through North Vietnam and back. They brought the film in and I took it and put it in the processor. The film was on rolls. The rolls consisted of anywhere from 800-1200 feet of film. While it was being processed I had to go into another room. Then came in the Lieutenant came in and asked about his film. He asked if it was done and I said it'd be done in a few minutes, if he wanted to wait. He asked where it was and I said in there if you wanna see it. He walked in and he looked at the Captains, and it was perfect. He walked over and looked at his and it looked like shit. What had happened was whoever set up his camera on his plane set it up for night vision, not daytime. And it screwed it all up, and his came out not worth a shit. Luckily, the Captains was perfect. He came out cussing and was fit to be tied. He took off back to the flight line. I told them, oh my God, I hope to God. I'm glad that wasn't me. I know someone got their butt chewed."
" There was one bar owner that had a monkey. If you weren't careful and you sat at the bar, this monkey would shit and throw it at ya. We had a Green Beret that came in there one day. He was pissed. This monkey came in and threw shit at him. It pissed the Green Beret off. He yelled at the bar owner, is that your monkey? The guy said yeah. The Green Beret said if he throws shit at me one more time, I'm going to kill him. The bartender thought he was kidding. It wasn't a few minutes later that damn monkey did it again. That Green Beret pulled out his damn .45 and he blew that monkey into the next world. I mean he killed him deader than hell. It was hilarious. Little shit like that helped you make it. It helped to pass the time."
"The only real way that you could survive over there was to stay half-drunk, and I did. I stayed about half-drunk. I spent eighteen months and three days in Vietnam. Processing film was probably about eight months, and the other ten months I spent out shooting. It was unreal. If I could go back and do it over again, I wouldn't really do anything different. When we first got into Vietnam, we were in our tents and we heard the most God awful noise we ever heard. We came running out of our tents trying to figure out what it was. It was a damn coup. He was flying in a damn helicopter flying around our tents. It was unreal. "
" I got into photography at Lackland. They assigned me photography and then assigned me to Lowry Air Force base. That's where I had photo school. From there is where I got sent to Okinawa, and then from Okinawa to Vietnam, then from Vietnam I went to Japan, Alaska, Singapore, and Thailand. Then in Florida, I got the best damn duty I'd ever had. I got sent to the climatic lab. I was the only military person there. The only other people there were civilians. I had my own little office. Anytime they wanted pictures, they'd call me and I'd go down and do them. They could drop that temperature in the main lab to minus 65 degrees. We had a B-52 bomber in there. It was enormous. I got pictures in my house with ice hanging off of it. But my favorite was the SR-71 Blackbird. That son of a gun was gorgeous. I loved that plane. I really did.
"After Vietnam, I was in Thailand. It was a Friday and one of the officers came up to me and said what are you gonna do this weekend. I said what we usually do. Go into the town, it wasn't much of a town though, and have a couple beers. He said, why don't you stick around a little while. I said oh shit, here we go again. It was me and another guy that hadn't been there too long. He went and got another guy and brought him back. I knew they were fixing to screw us again. I could feel it coming on. He came back and brought us orders, and it was one of the best damn surprises that I ever had. What it was, we got sent to the kings summer palace in Thailand. And I'll be damned, come to find out that we were sent up in the mountains and once we got up there and it was gorgeous! It had this great big damn wall all the way around it. At the entrance you gotta take off your shoes. I was like damn, well there goes our shoes. I figured as soon as we took them off they were going to steal them. We took our shoes off and walked in. Lining the wall on the inside all the way around were forty foot tall, pure gold Buddhas. Pure gold! I looked at this old boy that was with me, and I was like can we have a finger. These people are living in poverty and these were just the little ones. In the middle of this was the big Buddha. It was about sixty foot tall and that's where all the Buddhists go in to pray. You can walk in and look, but this big Buddha in the middle of this thing was pure gold and it weighed I'd say one hundred and twenty tons. These were all standing Buddhas. "
Before we sat down to talk, Mary brought in various slides that Staff Sgt. Potter had taken while in Vietnam. There were various aircraft photos and napalm explosions. Towards the end of those slides, there were some where some Viet Cong had captured a man on a bicycle and proceeded to behead him, and stick his head on a stake in the road. At the end of our interview, I asked Staff Sgt. Potter about those slides because I was blown away by how tight the shots were.
"I was using about a 200mm. I'd say I was about twenty-twenty five feet away. They weren't worried about me. They didn't give a shit. He was another Vietnamese. They had caught him coming down that damn road on a bicycle and that was it. "
I really enjoyed getting to speak with Staff Sgt. Potter and A1C Mary Potter. As a teenager, I was really interested in the Vietnam War. Getting to speak and listen to stories about the war, and his other experiences after his tour in Vietnam was extremely informative, and just an amazing experience. I really hope that you enjoyed reading some of his story as much as I enjoyed hearing it myself.