On His Way to Oceanside
Thomas Calabrese — Question: What was the name of an elite special-ops unit, liberated from red tape, able to deploy at a moment’s notice to wherever fighting broke out in Vietnam. A unit that did not have to wait for orders from above to mobilize. One that was authorized to hop any chopper, bump anyone below a Colonel from an Air Force transport, or even resort to civilian transportation to get themselves to where the action was happening?
Any guesses? See if these additional clues help. They were unattached to any regular Army unit and were ordered to ‘live off the economy’ whenever possible. Give up? Does D.A.S.P.O. ring a bell? Probably not, it stands for Department of the Army Special Photographic Office, a Special Forces unit of sorts, comprised of combat photographers. They captured some of the most powerful and revealing images of the Vietnam War.
DASPO was the brainchild of Army Chief of Staff General George Decker. After a Pentagon briefing in 1962 where he witnessed a slickly produced presentation about the Air Force, Decker gathered his staff and asked, “Why can’t we do that?”
With authorization from President Kennedy himself, Pentagon brass charged Major Arthur Jones with designing and organizing a brand-new command to provide high-quality photographs and documentary film to the Joint Chiefs, the Pentagon staff, and Congress. The unit was divided into three detachments; DASPO CONUS (Continental United States) DASPO Panama and DASPO Pacific. The mission of the teams was to capture photographs and film of front-line combat action, troop mobilizations and military equipment.
It was made clear that DASPO wasn’t going to be a public relations unit. They would not be covering parades, change-command-ceremonies or marching bands. “You are going to shoot documentaries, training films and most important of all, you’re going to cover combat,” Major Jones explained to a newly comprised Rapid Response Team. “You will be highly mobile, unencumbered by travel orders and have top secret clearances and state of the art equipment.”
DASPO Pacific was based at Fort Shafter on Oahu, Hawaii. It was separated into three teams; Team Alpha in South Korea, Team Bravo in Thailand and Team Charlie in South Vietnam. Major Jones was promoted to Lt. Colonel and with his staff began a ‘talent scout’ approach to stock his command with sound specialists, motion picture cameraman and still photographers.
When he saw the name, Joseph Wagner Jr. on the graduate list of the latest Army cinematography school at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, his eyes lit up, “Find out everything about this soldier.”
“Something particular that you’re looking for, sir?” Captain Hanson asked.
“There was a Joseph Wagner who was a cinematographer in the 30’s and 40’s. He collaborated with director Frank Capra on 20 films, including Ladies of Leisure, Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, It’s A Wonderful Life and as well as held 20 patents on various camera-related devices. He also worked with Capra on the seven episode Why We Fight series during World War II. If this Joseph Wagner is related to that one, then I want him in this unit,” Lt. Colonel Jones ordered.
“I’ll find out,” Captain Hanson was gone in an instant.
Joseph Wagner was a German immigrant and much like his friend Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant, both men had an intense desire to prove their patriotism to their adopted land. Within four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, both men quit their jobs in the film industry and joined the Army. During their meeting with General Marshall, Wagner and Capra were told of their mission: “I want you two to make a series of documented, factual-information films that will explain to our boys in the military why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are bound and determined to defend. You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and cause of freedom. Are you aware of that, gentlemen?”
Both men answered in unison, “Yes sir.”
After hearing his father and Frank Capra speak about their experiences in the military and their love of America, Joe felt the urge to serve as well, so he enlisted as soon as he was old enough. He was excited to learn that after he graduated at the top of his class that he was given a prestigious assignment in Hawaii and hoped to make films for the Army like his father did years earlier.
When he reported to duty, Joe was ordered to report to Lt. Colonel Jones, “Reporting as ordered, sir.”
Lt. Colonel Jones was on a strict time schedule and had no time to waste with small talk, “I’m putting together a special unit of photographers and motion picture cameraman.”
“Are you asking me if I want to volunteer, sir?”
Lt. Colonel Jones laughed, “Volunteering was off the table before you left New Jersey. You’re heading to South Vietnam.”
Although there were many other units of military photographers operating in country, DASPO worked differently than conventional units, their teams rotated in and out of Vietnam on three month tours and covered military action from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta.
Team Charlie was operating out of a three–story gated house in Saigon’s Gia Dinh neighborhood, just a two-minute drive from the Tan Son Nhut Airbase when Joe arrived in country. The compound served as both office and barracks.
From there, two and three-man teams would typically rotate into the field, with a new team departing on a new assignment upon the return of a previous one. The big difference between DASPO ‘shooters’ and the regular press corps was their access to the action once they arrived on scene. They became part of the unit they were covering, enduring what the unit endured, and staying until the mission was ended or they ran out of film.
Joe found that he had an aptitude for this kind of work, and whether he was carrying the Rolliflex, the workhorse of DASPO’s still photographers or humping the cumbersome Arriflex BL or ST 16 mm motion picture cameras, he would go into every type of terrain in Vietnam; the jungle, the Highlands, urban combat, swamp, riverine and rice paddy. He captured the war and the essence of the brutal struggle. His photos recorded for posterity the actions at Khe Sanh, Dak To, Ia Drang Valley and countless other operations large and small around the war torn country.
After two years in the war zone and being wounded three times, Joe was ready to get out of the Army and return to California. Lt. Colonel Jones flew into Saigon to see Joe before he left, “You did a hell of a job while you were here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Joe replied.
“I was talking to General Decker about you and he told me I was authorized to make you an offer, but I told him that you probably wouldn’t be interested.”
“What kind of offer? Joe inquired.
“If you re-enlist for two more years then I can give you a battlefield commission to First Lieutenant and command of Team Charlie.”
“My dad is retired and living in Valley Center, California breeding Golden Retriever dogs and boarding horses with Sally Scott, a family friend. They’ve got a nice quiet job waiting for me when I get back. If I get too bored then I’ll try and get some work at one of the studios in Hollywood,” Joe answered.
“That’s what I told the General, a man of your skills is going to be in demand back in the ‘World’, but we’ll get by…somehow. You’re the best shooter in DASPO and it’s going to be damn hard to replace you, but since you’ve got everything all planned out already.”
Even after he signed his papers to stay in the Army and remain in DASPO, Joe still didn’t know how Lt. Colonel Jones got him to do it, while making him think that it was his own idea.
Many of the photographers didn’t carry weapons; they were already humping a lot weight as it was. One DASPO shooter, Bob Reynolds used to say, “If it gets to the point where I need to put down this camera and pick up a weapon, there will be plenty available.”
“You’re probably right, but I’d rather not wait that long. I can shoot photos and Viet Cong at the same time,” Joe countered as he cleaned his 12 gauge shotgun.
Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101 Airborne Division were ordered into the A Shau Valley on May 10, 1969 and Joe Wagner and his team flew out to meet them and over the next eleven days, they fought alongside the soldiers while carrying out their assignment. The North Vietnamese mounted a counter assault against the Americans while Joe was loading his camera, he saw the enemy coming through the thick foliage and instinctively dropped his camera, picked up his shotgun and pumped out six rounds that took out five enemy combatants, then picked his camera, finished loading it and shot an entire roll of film. His two team members made sure that Joe had either a gun or a camera to shoot during the firefight while he continuously exposed himself to hostile fire.
The battle for ‘Hamburger Hill’ lasted 12 days and American casualties were high. The fact that the hill had little strategic significance made the hundreds of photos even more poignant; they emphasized the bravery of the soldiers in a wasted endeavor. It also highlighted the bull-headed approach that some commanders took in their battlefield strategy.
Joe rotated back to Hawaii and was promoted to Captain upon his return and once again his plan to leave the Army got derailed somewhere along the path of swaying palm trees, sun and surf. He was put in charge of critiquing all film once it was processed and he was authorized to make the final determination on which ones were fit to print.
It was while he was in Oahu that Joe crossed paths again with Sean Flynn, photojournalist and son of Errol Flynn. They had briefly met when they were teenagers back in Hollywood and several times in South Vietnam. Sean Flynn arrived in Vietnam in January 1966 as a freelance photo- journalist. He made a name for himself as a group of high-risk photojournalists that included; Dana Stone, Tim Page, Henri Huet, John Steinbeck IV, Nik Wheeler, Chas Gerretsen and Mark Kona. These men would do anything to get the best pictures, even go into combat and were often in the same places as DASPO photographers.
Wagner and Flynn had a mutual respect for each other and while they approached their jobs in a slightly different manner, they both placed immense value on getting the best photo. Sean would go anywhere to get his story and photo, but on the other hand, Joe would only go where he was sent and he was as much a warrior as a photographer. Sean preferred to fight only as a last resort.
In March 1966, Flynn was wounded in the knee while on patrol with the Green Berets, Chinese mercenaries and Wagner. They had to fight their way out of a deadly ambush and afterward, “We almost got greased on that one,” Flynn grimaced as a combat medic treated his injury.
“You need to remember that you’re not bulletproof,” Joe responded.
“Look who’s talking, I was just following your lead.”
In June 1966 Flynn left Vietnam just long enough to star in his last movie, Five Ashore in Singapore. He returned to Vietnam in November 1966 and spent time with an Australian platoon before reconnecting with Joe when they both made a parachute jump with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
“What brings you to Hawaii?” Joe asked.
“My damn knee got infected again, they told me to stay out of unsanitary environments until it is completely healed,” Sean answered.
“You need to stay out of Nam for good.”
“As soon as the war is over, I’m outa’ there,” Sean promised.
“But you’ll be off to another one,” Joe replied.
Over the next few months, Sean stayed in Hawaii while his leg healed and on this particular evening while the sun was slowly setting over the Pacific Ocean, he was having a cold one with Joe on Waikiki Beach, “I need to get back.”
“Good luck, I’m happy to ride out the rest of the war right here,” Joe finished his beer and set it in the sand.
“You keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll start to believe it,” Sean grinned.
Joe returned to South Vietnam in March, 1970 and was on his way to an assignment when he came across a group of photojournalists stranded by the Demilitarized Zone, Sean Flynn was among them, “Didn’t I tell you that you’d be back?”
“You’ve got a long wait if you’re expectin’ me to tell you that you were right,” Joe answered “A strange twist of fate brought me back, that’s all.”
There was an official briefing and the journalists were notified that the Viet Cong had set up several checkpoints along Highway 1. The reporters were also informed by military intelligence that it was too dangerous to travel at this time. They were told to stay where they were until helicopters became available, and then they would be airlifted out.
“I’ll see you back in Saigon,” Joe said and for some reason decided to take a photo of Sean and Dana Stone as his team boarded a helicopter for Hill 1167.
After three days of waiting Sean Flynn and Dana Stone became impatient so they bought motor bikes from local villagers and decided to leave, “If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get a photo of the Viet Cong,” Dana said.
“Maybe,” Sean replied “Let’s ride.”
The two men drove off and were never seen or heard from again. Four other journalists, two Frenchmen and two Japanese were also captured on the same day.
It was only after Joe returned to Saigon several weeks later that he heard about Sean Flynn’s disappearance. He made numerous inquiries to Army and Marine units in the area, but even after numerous patrols, there was still no sign of Flynn, and he was eventually listed as missing and presumed dead. Joe sent the last photo ever took of Flynn to his mother, Lili Damita. When he finished his current enlistment he did not sign up again and returned to Southern California. It wasn’t long before he became restless and took a job working for National Geographic. Joe worked out a schedule where he was on the road six months out of the year and at the Valley Center ranch for the other six.
He covered the invasion of Panama, codenamed Operation Just Cause in December 1989 and the first Gulf War, codenamed Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm from August 1990 through February 1991. By this time Joe Wagner had become one of the most respected combat photographers of his generation and could pick and choose his assignments. With the help of Sally Scott and his father Joseph Sr, he expanded the ranch to include an animal rescue and sanctuary. Joe had more than his share of traveling and was completely content to stay in one place and the only time he took an assignment now was when the ranch needed extra operating capital.
Joe was a humble man and didn’t like to talk about his accomplishments, awards or experiences. If a picture was worth a thousand words, then Joe was a man of several million, few of them spoken. He remembered every photo that he ever shot, but always said, “I was just in the right place at the right time,” while discounting the courage and skill that it took to get the image on film. Without exception, he never failed to mention the courage and bravery of the American servicemen that he served with.
When the Veterans Center of Oceanside approached Joe about putting up an exhibit of his combat photography, he was hesitant to do so, until Director Frank Wyatt informed him that all proceeds from admissions would go to help fund programs for veterans. Joe was completely on board after that. It was early Sunday morning and Joe put several of the cameras that he used during his career in a large leather case, just in case anyone had any questions about his ‘tools of the trade’. He decided to take Highway 76 to the Center that was located on Mission Avenue. When Joe looked ahead, he noticed that traffic was slowing to a stop as he approached the Bonsall turn-off. Highway Patrol officers and deputy sheriffs were walking between the rows of vehicles and looking at the occupants. “What is your destination, sir?” asked the Deputy Sheriff.
“Going to Oceanside,” Joe responded.
“Shouldn’t be too long.”
“No problem,” Joe turned up his radio when he heard the song, The Letter by The Box Tops and substituted his own lyrics, “Gimme a ticket for medivac. Ain’t got time to take an amtrac. Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home. My baby just a-wrote me a letter.”
As he leaned back in his seat and waited patiently for traffic to begin moving, he heard gunfire. Two Highway Patrol officers were hit and the Deputy Sheriff standing beside his window took a round to his right thigh and fell to the ground. Four men with automatic weapons exited their SUV which was several vehicles ahead of Joe’s and began firing at the law enforcement personnel.
What Joe did not know was that there was a home invasion robbery and assault of a family in the Fallbrook Hills twenty minutes earlier. The badly injured father was able to crawl to a phone and call 911 and roadblocks were immediately set up.
Some habits are hard to break and Joe immediately grabbed his Rolliflex and exited his car. He took off his belt and placed a tourniquet above the Deputy Sheriff’s wound and pulled it tight to cut off blood flow. He took deputy’s service revolver from the holster and looped the strap of the camera around his neck, and crawled on all fours toward the four men, who had taken cover behind a police cruiser. Joe’s adrenalin was pumping, but not to the point where he was scared or frozen in place, but rather where his senses were heightened and he was completely focused on the task at hand. To him, this was just one more battle to add to his list.
Joe rested his hand on the hood of a Toyota Prius to steady his aim, fired and hit one of the gunmen in the shoulder. When a second man sprayed a burst of gunfire in his direction, he took cover behind the front wheel as bullets hit the car. Joe popped up when he guessed that the gunman’s magazine was empty and fired three rounds two of which found their target in the man’s chest. Right about now, other law enforcement personnel were engaged in a fierce gunfight with the other two men. Joe set down the weapon and began shooting photos of the altercation, and by the time he had used up his roll of film, the other two gunmen were lying dead. One of the images later won the Pulitzer Prize for best photo of the year.
When interviewed about the incident, Joe humbly answered, “I’m just a Shooter, who was On his way to Oceanside.”