Combat Photographer: Vietnam through the lens of Marine Corporal William T. Perkins, Jr.
The Vietnam War was the nation's first televised war. Within hours, combat footage of young Americans in uniform in the jungles of South Vietnam could be seen in living rooms across the country. Among those capturing the footage was Corporal William T. Perkins Jr., a 20-year-old Marine deployed to Vietnam as a combat photographer.
Armed with a Bell and Howell 16mm motion picture camera and his personal 35mm still camera, Perkins documented the actions of his fellow Marines as they supported and defended the South Vietnamese people against the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. For his heroism in protecting those Marines, Perkins became the only combat photographer ever honored as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Born on August 10, 1947, Perkins grew up hearing rich stories of his family's military service in the Civil War and World War II. After Perkins expressed an interest in photography, his father bought him a Kodak camera that he used to learn about the hobby while a member of his high school photography club. After graduation, in 1965, Perkins enrolled at Los Angeles Pierce College to study photography. Restless and patriotic, the following year Perkins enlisted in the Marine Corps.
During boot camp, Perkins expressed a desire to be a Marine photographer. After receiving this assignment, to his chagrin, he found the work as a still photographer at Marine Corps Supply Center, Barstow, California, dull and unfulfilling. "All I do is take photos of the general in parades," he told his family, as his father recalled years later.
That fall, Perkins requested assignment to the U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to receive training in motion picture photography. His headquarters agreed, but with a caveat: Perkins could attend the school, but his follow-on assignment would likely include service in the Republic of Vietnam. Undeterred, Perkins headed east and eagerly immersed himself in the art. "I can't believe how lucky I am to be doing exactly what [I want] to be doing," he wrote home to his family.
On July 17, 1967, Perkins arrived in the Republic of Vietnam. The following day in Phu Bai, the Marines assigned Perkins as a photographer with Service Company, Headquarters Battalion, 3d Marine Division (Reinforced), and issued him a Bell and Howell 16mm Filmo motion picture camera and a .45 automatic pistol. The Bell and Howell proved Perkins's primary weapon in the field, supplemented with his personal 35mm still camera. Almost weekly, Perkins mailed his family rolls of his film, taken throughout the Marine bases in the northern provinces of South Vietnam.
Below are examples of photographs Perkins took during his travels in and around the northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam in August and September 1967, paired with words he wrote home in letters to his family.
On October 11, Perkins joined the men of Charlie Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment, for Operation Medina. The operation intended to find, fix, and destroy enemy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in the Hai Lang National Forest. The following day, NVA forces ambushed the Marines in a shower of grenades and bullets. As the ambush intensified, other Marines established a defensive perimeter where they cleared fields of fire and prepared a landing zone to fly out the 11 wounded and one killed and bring in reinforcements. Medevac helicopters arrived that afternoon and Perkins filmed the entire operation.
Just as the last helicopter flew off from the clearing in the dusk's fading light, all hell broke loose. Three NVA companies assaulted Charlie Company on two sides. Enemy blast and fragmentation grenades rained down upon the Marines from NVA soldiers who tied themselves high up in the trees on the perimeter edge. Green tracers of the enemy weapons slashed across the American lines as friendly red tracers answered back, the roar of battle punctuated by screams of the wounded. Enveloped by darkness, Perkins took up a position by a log on the edge of the landing zone perimeter together with Marine Corporal Fred Boxill and Lance Corporals Michael Cole and Dennis Antal.
Enemy fire was relentless. Suddenly, an enemy grenade appeared in the air, silhouetted against the flash of another explosion. Antal saw the grenade falling, as did Perkins. Propping himself up on his arms, his Bell and Howell still strapped to his chest, Perkins cried out "incoming grenade" as the explosive landed behind the log, three feet from the huddled Marines. Perkins dove at the grenade, kicking Antal in the process, and tucked it securely beneath his chest. The grenade exploded, the blast lifting Antal in the air as shrapnel wounded both him and Boxill.
As a fellow Marine treated the two wounded men, a navy corpsman arrived to check on Perkins. When Antal asked, "Is he all right?" the corpsman shook his head. As dawn broke on October 13, 1967, eight Marines—including Perkins—lay dead, 39 men were wounded, and 40 enemy lay dead scattered in and around the landing zone perimeter.
In a private ceremony at the White House on June 20, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon presented Corporal Perkins's posthumously awarded Medal of Honor to his parents, William and Marilane Perkins. The citation accompanying the decoration proclaimed how Perkins,
in a valiant act of heroism, hurled himself upon the grenade absorbing the impact of the explosion with his own body, thereby saving the lives of his comrades at the cost of his own. Through his exceptional courage and inspiring valor in the face of certain death, Corporal Perkins reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Fifty years after his heroic deed, Perkins's actions are not forgotten. In the Medal of Honor section of the museum's exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, visitors will be able to view Perkins's posthumously awarded Medal of Honor and Purple Heart beginning in early November 2017. These decorations accompany Perkins's Bell and Howell camera, bearing the scars of an enemy grenade and dirt from the Hai Lang Forest. The camera is on loan to us from the National Museum of the Marine Corps; this display is the first time the camera and Medal of Honor have ever been presented together. They'll be on display here for at least a year. Perkins's films from his time in Vietnam remain preserved for viewing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. His footage captures the faces and actions of his fellow Marines, images preserved by a selfless young man whose love of country and photography made him a national hero.
Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.