“Mortars, Heavy Equipment, and Books” could easily be added to the subtitle of Snakes, Rain and the Tet Offensive: War Stories With Photos by William Ingalls (War of Words, 271 pp., $90), a remarkable recollection of the author’s 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty.
Ingalls’ first day with the 362nd Combat Engineers was also the first time he had done “more than turn the key in a road grader,” he writes. “Each day was a learning process.” The unit spent five months in the shadow of Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain), expanding Tay Ninh Base: building roads, helipads, bunkers, and hootches. The Viet Cong were entrenched on the mountain so mortar and rocket attacks were a constant threat.
Ingalls freely expressed his antiwar opinions, but he also was dedicated to his work and took pride in the well-built culverts and base construction projects he worked on. When he was selected as his company’s Soldier of the Month, the officers and NCOs asked for his opinions on the war. “Just following orders didn’t work for the Germans and Japanese,” Ingalls replied, “so why should it work for me?” The Soldier of the Month award was withdrawn.
Ingalls made good use of his downtime, shooting some three hundred slides of daily life on the base, including photos of the showers, mess halls, hootches, and bunkers and the occasional makeshift brothel or store. He read Hemingway, Kafka, T S. Eliot, e e cummings, Rod McKuen, and others in his grader cab during work breaks.
During Ingalls’ sixth month in country the company was relocated to what he calls “The Cambodian Adventure,” building a Special Forces base camp on the border “directly in front of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Disobeying a sergeant’s order to go to the aid of some men wounded in an ambush saved Ingalls’ life. He refused, citing an Army regulation never to abandon your equipment.A group of engineers “drove down to the ambush site, and were all promptly killed,” Ingalls writes. “Thirteen guys gone, just like that.”
He credits his first wife Faith for sending his “Communist East German EXA-1″ camera to him in Vietnam, enabling him to produce a photographic record that Ingalls likens to Mathew Brady’s work in the American Civil War.His wife saved all the slides in a shoe box.
The quality of the images ranges from hastily shot photos to carefully captured ones, such as nighttime explosions and tracer trails.
Bill Ingalls’ MOS was 62E-20 (Road Grader Operator). With this work, he has added Photojournalist to his resume.
The author’s website is www.warofwords.co