While M-60s, M-16s, M-14s, and grenade and rocket launchers where the prominent weapons of war during the Vietnam Conflict, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jerry Lee Lamb of the US Navy was shooting equipment of a different kind.
Armed with a Nikon Photomic TN 35 mm camera, it was his job as a combat photographer to film recovery crashes, air strikes and other aerial assignments via helicopter, as well as from the carrier deck of the USS Bon Homme Richard he was stationed aboard in the Gulf of Tonkin.
"I'm proud of what I did and the part I played documenting our actions and showing the dedication and valor of our service men," said Lamb, who served from 1964 to 1970.
Though occasionally issued a sidearm, and with other weapons at his disposal, Lamb said he chose to do his shooting with 35 mm and 16 mm cameras.
"There was enough shooting going on already," he said. "I did my shooting with a camera and saw everything through the lens."
A Speed Graphic 4x5 film camera Lamb described as "bulky" was the standard issue equipment.
"It was really only good for some close-up work and had a detachable side flash that used the large, old-type flash bulb that would practically give you a tan if you were too close," said Lamb, who explained combat photographers usually "dumped" this equipment as soon as possible, trading it for something more usable in the field.
A Hasselblad lens camera that took roll film was also used. It took great photos and compensated for parallax problems beautifully, but the down side to this camera, according to Lamb, was that the view finder was on top of the camera — meaning you were always looking down.
"Not always a good idea when you're in a war," Lamb said with a hint of humor, adding that the 35 mm Nikon Photomic was his camera of choice.
Lamb had become interested in photography while going to high school in Virginia where he lived with his mother and step-father, a career Navy man and Pearl Harbor survivor.
"My father died when I was very young, and my mother married a man named T.D. Gafford of the Greenview community when I was 9 years old," Lamb recalled. "So I lived and grew up on base in Norfolk, Virginia."
In the early 1960s, when Vietnam was heating up, Lamb, in his second year of high school, said he was making plans to join the Marines. His stepfather with 30 plus years of service, a survivor of World War II, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea, quickly intervened with a new set of plans for his young stepson.
"He kept me home from school one day when I was a sophomore, took me to the base and enlisted me as a Naval Reserve," recalled Lamb, explaining Gafford was not one you argued with. "He was the finest man I ever knew. He thought I had a better chance of surviving in the Navy than as a Marine. He probably saved my life doing what he did."
Between Lamb's sophomore and junior years he went through boot camp and advanced basic training.
"It was 85 days long. We were called the 85-day wonders," he remembered. "We had to pass a series of battery tests, then they gave us a list of positions we qualified for. I had done photography in high school, so I chose photography."
He was sent to a three-month photography school in Pensacola, Fla. between his junior and senior year, and when he graduated from high school in 1966, he was already an E4 Petty Officer 3rd Class with top secret clearance.
One week out of high school, Lamb received orders to report for duty. He was attached to the USS Bon Homme Richard CVA-31 and deployed immediately to West Pac Vietnam Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. He was 17 years old.
"My mom cried the day I left," said Lamb with a sad smile. "She would send cookies, and, somehow, hers were the only ones that never got broke."
Lamb said he was just a kid and had no idea what to expect.
"We had a lot of training before we got there. A lot of it was reactionary," he admitted. "You follow your training, do what you're told — get through it the best way you can. The reality of what you're called upon to do is hard. It's a real eye-opener for a kid, and a lot only survive because of the training they had. A lot of guys had it a lot tougher than me, but I saw my share of death and destruction."
It was a terrible war, Lamb said time and time again.
One of Lamb's most vivid memories involved their relief carrier, the USS Forrestal.
"There were two boats off the coast at all times," Lamb explained. "We'd bomb for 12 hours, back off, then the relief carrier would move up and take over."
According to Lamb, the Forrestal was loaded with planes full of fuel, ammo and bombs, when suddenly a rocket accidentally fired, causing a chain reaction.
"One of those pilots on the Forrestal recently ran for president," said Lamb, in reference to John McCain. "It was his plane that was the first one struck. Then it was just a chain reaction — they were cookin' off."
Lamb called it a "24-hour train wreck."
"It was a horrific event," he emphasized. "For 24 hours we assisted, took on wounded. They wanted pictures, so we flew over. I saw some real heroes. Men were pickin' up bombs, throwing them over the side. Others were emptying fuel tanks, doing everything they could do. I saw about 20 guys just vaporized."
He went on to say that some men were jumping overboard and in a short period of time every manner of watercraft imaginable was picking up men, even North Vietnamese craft (rewards were given out for the capture of Americans).
"There was fighting going on all around trying to protect men and the ship," he recalled. "It was a dangerous place. Guys were getting killed. I lost some good friends."
When it was finally over, 130 men had lost their lives that day.
After his first tour, Lamb said he just wanted to serve his time and get out.
"After what we experienced, I just wanted to do my duty," he said. "I didn't want to make a career out of it. Don't get me wrong. I think serving your country is one of the finest things a young person can do. It's a very honorable profession. But I just wanted to do my part and get out."
Lamb ended up serving a second tour in Vietnam, before his military enlistment ended in 1970.
"I was offered $6,000, a lot of money in the 60s, for reenlistment, but two tours was enough for me. I elected to be released from active duty and get on with my life," he admitted.
Lamb counted the days to getting back into the world of civilian life.
"You're on the line one day, and then in a matter of days dropped back into society — into civilization. It takes some adjusting," He admitted. "I was 20 years old, couldn't vote, couldn't buy beer — it was a totally different world."
One of the first things he did was give away all his personal camera gear.
"I didn't take a picture for 10 years," he said. "Some made it their life's work — me, I wanted to get on with my life, move on to the next phase."
Lamb moved to California where he went into law enforcement, but retired in 1979 due to injuries. Then he went into loss prevention as a fraud examiner for one of the largest grocery distributors in five Western states, including Hawaii. He retired in 2004 and moved to Hopkins County where he said his fondest childhood memories had taken place spending summers with his grandparents.
"Greenview to me, was coming home," he reflected.
According to Lamb, he does have some good memories of his time of service. He saw the world, experiencing places like Japan, Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Malaysia and and the Philippines while on leave with his buddies.
"When you're 18 years old and have a pocket full of money in a foreign country, anything goes," he explained. "Made a lot of friends, made a lot of memories — tons of fun memories."
In 2006, Lamb and his wife, Lynda, hosted a shipmate reunion at their home in the Greenview community. Comrades came from California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Mexico, just to name a few.
"We all agreed to just thinking about the good times," said Lamb, succumbing to the memories of shipmates who didn't make the trip home, much less the reunion. "One couldn't take it and committed suicide."
As for today's “War on Terrorism,” Lamb said he doesn't know if Iraq is where the United States need to be, but he has very strong feelings about striking back after 9/11.
"Quite frankly, the only way to win a war is to make it so horrible they don't want it anymore," Lamb said. "The government lost the war for us in Vietnam. There was too much personal involvement, select targets — we couldn't bomb this harbor 'cause this Russian ship might be there and we didn't want to start trouble with them. They held us back from doing our job.
"It was all very unfortunate," he added.
As for medals, all Lamb would say is they speak for themselves.
He was the recipient of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon; Presidential Unit Citation; Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Stars; RVN Campaign Medal; RVN Meritorious Unit Citation; and the Gallantry Cross.
"Serving one’s country is the greatest thing you can do. I've done my part," said Lamb. "I highly recommend young people to serve in any branch of service today. It makes you grow up, gives you a different perspective on life, and I'm very proud of all who make that decision. People just need to remember the troops didn't start this war, or any war in the past — they are just doing their jobs. And any place our troops are, they deserve our support — anything less is unpatriotic."
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