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A window on the war

Times Staff Writer

A Marine hunches over the body of his fallen comrade, both hands on the wounded man’s chest -- giving comfort, checking for a heartbeat or stanching the flow of blood. A cigarette, burned almost to the filter, remains clenched between his teeth, left over from the peace of a moment ago. His gun still in its holster across his back, he looks up through the mesh of tall grass that hides the enemy. His eyes are thick with fear, anger, defiance. Below, the wounded man touches his rescuer’s arm, face turned up, lips open. He may be talking. Who knows now?

This scene was recorded in Vietnam in 1967 by Catherine Leroy, in a photograph that evokes all that is ugly and heroic in war. Leroy snapped the image lying on her stomach in an overgrown rice paddy near the Demilitarized Zone, where she, too, was hiding from the enemy. In as much danger as the men she was traveling with, she did not stop for fear. She was a photojournalist, and it was her job to crawl into the action and document it.

In an age when technology has allowed Americans to fight their wars from a distance, Leroy, a petite Frenchwoman who risked her life on the front lines, is here to remind us what ground combat really looks like. In her early 20s she bore witness to the death of American idealism in Vietnam, shooting photo after photo of bloody battles in which dying men fought to save their dignity in the face of unrelenting misery. More than three decades later, Leroy’s photographs show us that war is not comfortable. It is unbearably sad and becomes heroic only in the retelling. The rawness of her imagery is shocking, an in-your-face truth that came of access to action the U.S. military now deftly keeps off limits to journalists.

Disseminating images of the Vietnam conflict has become an obsession for Leroy, and to that end she has created a Web site, “Under Fire: Images From Vietnam” (www.pieceuniquegallery.com). The site offers for sale Leroy’s classic works, along with those of 10 of her friends and colleagues -- among them revered Vietnam photographers Tim Page, Henri Huet, Gilles Caron and Dick Swanson. The images are supplemented by biographical material and interviews, either with the photographer or, in the case of those who died on the job, with friends and co-workers. Links to other Web sites direct visitors to histories of the era, late ‘60s rock recordings, updates on current Vietnam veterans’ issues and more. A portion of the proceeds from sales on the site will be donated to the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund.

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“When you look at war photographs,” Leroy says in her thick French accent, “it’s a silent moment of eternity. But for me, it is haunted by sound, a deafening sound.” For her, the soldier with the cigarette triggers a memory of sudden fire, men screaming, the sensation of crawling forward on her elbows to a man who had been walking just a few feet ahead. “In Vietnam, most of the time it was extremely boring. Exhausting and boring. You walked for miles through rice paddies or jungle -- walking, crawling, in the most unbearable circumstances. And nothing was happening. And then suddenly all hell would break loose.”

As she speaks, she gestures with her hands, eyes fixed on her listener but also focused on a long ago picture in her mind that seems just as real today. There is a passion to her language as she speaks of this era. A passion that won’t go away with time.

A VARIED CAREER

Vietnam, as Leroy lived it from the spring of 1966 to early 1969, was a war shot live for all to see. Her pictures -- close up, emotional -- were widely published at the time in newspapers and pictorial magazines, and in 1967 she won the George Polk Award for news photography.

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An active freelancer, she went on to shoot battles in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Lebanon, winning the Robert Capa Award in 1976 for her work there. She has covered war, but like most photographers she’s run the gamut, from fashion and celebrities to projects she holds dear, such as one on Mohawk Indian “skywalkers,” the legendary ironworkers who build skyscrapers. She also was director and cinematographer of “The Last Patrol” (1972), a film about vet-activist Ron Kovic, and collaborated with Newsweek correspondent Tony Clifton on “God Cried” (Quartet Books, 1983), a book about the civil war in Lebanon.

These days Leroy is mostly out of the “snapping business,” as Page calls it. She lives in a modest apartment on the Westside of Los Angeles, where she spends most of her days running Piece Unique, a consignment business offering vintage haute couture through another, very different Web site she created in 1997 (www.pieceunique.com). This foray into fashion has satisfied a lifelong connoisseurship of fine clothing and provided an escape from years of jumping in where others might step back.

The unusual range of Leroy’s undertakings speaks to her layered character, which she reveals only slowly, over time. At 58, she is immediately striking. She dresses with flair, even in her more casual moments -- an Hermes scarf, a heavy bracelet by Robert Goossens, who once worked for Coco Chanel. Her throaty “bonjour” sounds today as if she’d never left her comfortable bourgeois childhood home in Paris. Decades of international hopping around disappear with a trio of air kisses.

She came of age as a Catholic boarding school girl with wild ideas. She’d trained as a classical pianist but wanted only to play jazz, and, reading Paris Match each week, she dreamed of nothing more than becoming a photojournalist. She also had a bit of experience in jumping from airplanes.

As Leroy tells it, when she was 18 her boyfriend was a parachutist, and she learned to impress him by jumping too. Five feet tall and 85 pounds, she didn’t offer much ballast, but she did it often enough to earn a license, which she took with her to Vietnam in the spring of 1966, when she was 21. She quickly made her way to the desk of Horst Faas, a photographer for the Associated Press who also served as editor for legions of photojournalists filing out of Saigon. She admitted to her lack of experience. He told her to go do some work. Undaunted, she did.

“I was making $15 a photograph,” she says. “There was a great appetite for this work.”

As a woman, she was rare among photojournalists but not entirely alone. And she firmly states that her experience among all those soldiers was completely without overtones of sexuality or gender biases. “My size 6 foot was swimming in my size 7 jungle boots, the smallest they had,” she says. “There was nothing sexy about me.”

She mentions incidents that others might make more of -- such as that she was the only journalist to jump with the 173rd Airborne during Operation Junction City, on Feb. 22, 1967. The commanding officer, General John R. Deane, had suggested several months before that she seek credentials, which she easily obtained through Military Assistance Command Vietnam because of her license from her teen years. Two days before the jump, she was told to report to the 173rd headquarters. She was, she remembers, the seventh to jump from the seventh plane. She shot photos from the air, which AP sent out. “I’m very proud of myself because I didn’t jump into a tree,” she says with a laugh.

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But later that spring, she was injured. On May 19, Leroy went on patrol with a marine unit in the DMZ. In the middle of a wide-open rice paddy, she was hit in an ambush by mortar fire. Thirty-five pieces of shrapnel pierced her body, her jaw was broken and her cameras destroyed. In fact, she believes it was a camera hanging from her neck that saved her life. Because they were in a “hot zone,” she and the other injured had to be evacuated by tank instead of helicopter, driven to base camp at Con Thien and flown from there to Dong Ha. In six weeks, Leroy was back in the field.

She was captured, too. In early 1968, Leroy was on holiday at China Beach when the Tet Offensive began: “I had brought my bikini and my cameras. I had everything. As fate had it, I never got to use the bikini.” She and a French journalist made their way to Hue, where they “heard there was action.” They spent the night in a cathedral full of refugees, but were asked to leave the next morning because the refugees were afraid of having foreigners among them. They left knowing they would be captured. “Five or six men, all carrying guns, jumped on us, took my camera, tied our hands behind our backs,” she says. They were taken to an occupied colonial home, where they were held in the servants’ quarters.

To their surprise and relief, a North Vietnamese colonel, “about the same age as us,” decided to return their gear and allowed Leroy to take photographs and interview him and his soldiers. “It was an extraordinary experience for me,” she says. “I had seen many North Vietnamese prisoners, but they were always in great fear and great pain. This was the first time, suddenly, that their humanity was in front of me.” The resulting essay, which she sent to her agency, Black Star, earned Leroy a byline cover story in Life magazine, on Feb. 16, 1968.

Leroy tells her stories bluntly, without bragging. She does not believe that following soldiers into the field was courageous. “I always felt that it was a great privilege to be with the soldiers,” she says. “To be accepted, to spend a couple of days or maybe a week with them. But I could leave any time, and they couldn’t. Within 48 hours I would be in Saigon, have a long shower and rest. I would be in a French restaurant where the food was nice, where the wine was decent, and I always felt guilty inside. To me, it was as if I was a deserter. Which is a bit ridiculous, but it’s true.”

‘DOGGED PERSEVERANCE’

Tim Page, a daredevil himself who saw more than his share of action and was severely wounded as well, remembers Leroy’s gumption. “She’s a tiny mouche, a mosquito-like person, he says. “She had this dogged perseverance. She was always popping up with a picture.”

Although there were as many as 600 journalists in Vietnam at its height, Page says, the group of freelance photographers was small, maybe 20 or 30 at any given time. “There was enough work to go around,” he says. There was also “fearsome competition” among them, although camaraderie prevailed too and endures to this day. Photographers would carry one another’s film in from the field and file for one another. There was a tremendous respect for the work, agrees David Burnett, another photographer represented on the “Under Fire” site.

“She was a legend, and I had heard about her. I wanted to do a story on Catherine Leroy,” says Gloria Emerson, who covered the Vietnam War for the New York Times and has since written extensively about it. “One was struck by how tiny she looked. Size is not important, but she looked like a Peter Pan child. I have a photograph taken by Larry Burrows of GIs taking a wounded man by holding on to his clothing. They were rushing, and there were no gurneys or stretchers. And Catherine is in the background, dancing around. It’s really remarkable how much combat she saw.”

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The story most often circulated about Leroy is one she doesn’t readily bring up, although she will talk about it when asked. Not long after she jumped with the 173rd, she was eager to jump again, and, seeing a small group of Marines climbing into a helicopter with parachutes, she asked if she could join them. “I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to go with you.’ Things were as simple as that.” The officer arrived, she made her request again, and he told her no. It didn’t stop there. Leroy, wearing her wings from her earlier jump, insisted that she was qualified. The officer was condescending to her, she believes, and she responded in kind. “I became disagreeable,” she says euphemistically, “and it escalated. It was ridiculous.”

The story has become somewhat apocryphal, and different versions abound. Most agree that she swore at the officer. Some have heard she kicked him. (She firmly denies the latter.) Nevertheless, the officer reported her, and her press privileges were temporarily suspended. “He was extremely arrogant,” she says. “Supposedly I was banned for six months, but I don’t remember that even happening. It’s very hard to fight the official version, but I never left the country.”

Joseph B. Treaster, a New York Times reporter who covered the war in Vietnam, suggests that the incident may have escalated because, despite the commonplace nature of profanity in a war zone, Marines did not like hearing such language from a woman. He adds, too, that having one’s press credential suspended was not generally regarded as a sign of impropriety, as more than one journalist was sanctioned simply for diligent reporting.

There is no question that Leroy’s foremost desire was to get the story. Robert G. Brown, a now-retired businessman who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1969, was wounded that day in May alongside Leroy. He remembers her unrelenting determination to be in the action, although at the time, along with many of his military colleagues, he saw journalists as a strange breed: “When I think of her, I wonder what makes a person do what she did. Reporters and photographers, I guess, are strange people in a sense. I first thought that she might be a little crazy for wanting to be in Vietnam, and I even thought that she had to be stupid. But that’s not it at all. She is far from either one, but there is something that drives these people.”


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