Jim Lynch witnessed nearly two years of the American military’s involvement in Vietnam through the lens of his camera. As an Army photographer, he went all over country — often with his feet dangling out of a helicopter — shooting photos and telling stories for the Army. When he moved to Gainesville, he worked for 30 years as director of Alachua County’s office of veterans services. Our conversation took place Aug. 18, 2017, at American Legion Post 16 in Gainesville.
My name is Jim Lynch. I was born July 15, 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
What is your educational background?
I went to Miami Norland High School. I went into the service and came out and used the GI Bill to go to Santa Fe College for two years and then the University of Florida for my final two years.
What branch of the service were you in and did you enlist or were you drafted?
I was in the premier branch of the military, which would be the U.S. Army. I enlisted because my father was in the Army at the time.
What years did you serve in total?
I went in July 1966 and got out May 1969.
What portion of that was in country in Vietnam?
I got into Vietnam in September 1967 and came home in May 1969.
You mentioned your father had served as well. What was their response when you told them you were going to sign up?
It was kind of reverse. He told me I was signing up. This picture here is his brother. His name is Jimmy Lynch — my name. He was killed in World War II. My father was in the military at the time. He was a World War II vet and he was still in the Army when I graduated from high school. He said, ‘Time for you to go,’ so we went down there, and I enlisted and have no regrets whatsoever.
Do you recall the first moment you heard about a conflict in Vietnam?
Actually, my father had advised me that since I was enlisting, I would have the opportunity to make a choice in my MOS, which is military occupation specialty, and to avoid at all costs 11-Bravo, which is infantry, because of the conflict in Vietnam. I had just turned 18, never heard of Vietnam, had no idea where it was, but he told me that it was a war that you didn’t want to be an infantryman in, to try to get into an administrative field. That’s what I attempted to do.
We’ll get to what did happen. Did you know anyone out of high school or anyone else who purposefully did not serve?
No. I grew up in a military environment. All our friends were military, so no I didn’t know anybody who didn’t.
Where did you do your training at?
I took basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and then went to Fort Bevins, Massachusetts, for some on-the-job training and then went directly to Vietnam.
Where and when did you arrive in country?
I arrived in Ton Sah Noot in September 1967, originally stationed in the outskirts of Saigon while they were building our quarters out at Long Binh. When that was completed, I moved out to Long Binh and operated out of there.
Back to that first moment, what was your impression of the land, the culture, the people?
It smelled. There wasn’t any mountain where I landed at. This was Ton Sah Noot in Saigon. It was very hot, which I was accustomed to anyway because I was from Florida. A lot of guys were saying, ‘Oh, this is really, really hot,’ but that didn’t affect me as much. But the different smells, which I can still recollect today. It was like a stinky smell. People were cooking the foods out in the open. People were doing their cleaning out in the open. There was a combination of diesel fuel and jet fuel and just all combined together. I don’t know how to describe in exact terminology. Just a very unique smell of all those things put together that hit me as soon as I walked off the plane.
What were some of your responsibilities within your unit?
When I was stateside, I graduated from boot camp as an honors graduate because I came from a military family, knew what to expect, excelled and got promoted to E3 right out of boot camp. I got to Fort Bevins, Massachusetts, and was made a staffwriter for the camp newspaper. I started doing hometown stories like GI Joe here from Boston, Massachusetts, is stationed here, this is what he does, what high school he’s from. I did those hometown stories. Then I volunteered to go to Vietnam. As soon as I landed, I got assigned to a public information outfit. I was initially assigned as a correspondent, writing stories for the military press.
Stars and Stripes or another?
Combination of everything. It was for Stars and Stripes, for hometown publication, for a publication that our 1st Logistical Command put out. We just did a mass press release. Eventually I became a photographer, and those got published. After I was a writer for a very short period of time, I think my superiors realized I had to go to summer school to graduate from high school, and I wasn’t a journalistic-type person and could barely spell. I was only 18. The commanding officer said, ‘Hey, Lynch. How would you like to become a photographer?’ I said, ‘Yeah…’
No, I said, ‘Yes sir. Sounds interesting to me.’ He pointed to a trailer that was buried under the ground, which was a photo lab. He says, ‘Go down there, read the manuals, teach yourself how to take photos and develop them. Once you become proficient with that, we’ll put you on a rotating photo list, and whatever assignment comes up from there, you’re on it.’ That’s what I did.
How long was that? Your entire stint?
I volunteered for a second tour. I was there for my first year and came back for another half a tour. All that time, I was a photographer.
Combat photographer as well?
No, it was a primarily convoys that did aerial photography, logistical photography — like I’d go out to a ship coming into port that had supplies like ammunition. I’d follow that crate of ammunition through the system, all the way to when the guy puts it in his rifle and fires it out in the field. I did a lot of work with the different units. I spent two weeks with the ROK unit (Republic of Korea), the White Horse Division, went up there and worked with them for a couple weeks. I did a really interesting assignment. They had an Army calibration team came in that calibrated the large artillery weapons. They were a specialty unit, and I followed them for about three weeks. We went to the most remote artillery bases in Vietnam, and they calibrated them to make sure the shells were going out on the correct trajectory and stuff. I went to some really, really far away, far flung places. Most artillery is on top of mountains or the highest area you can to shoot down. That was an interesting assignment. I did a little bit of everything. A lot of convoys…
While I wasn’t a combat photographer as a specialty, just my year and a half in Vietnam put me into numerous situations where combat happened to be happening around me. One of the good things was I wore a U.S. Army photographer patch on my shoulder and had priority orders that I could leave that area on any means of transportation available — primarily helicopter — and the only people that could bump me were wounded first, then majors and above.
I’d say, ‘Dudes, I gotta get on that chopper and get out of here and get this film back to headquarters.’
I had a funny saying to my friends that when a situation got hazardous to my health, when bullets were starting to fly everywhere, I’d say, ‘Dudes, I gotta get on that chopper and get out of here and get this film back to headquarters.’ I’d show them my pass and next chopper that came in, I’d hop on and leave. I look back on it now and I feel guilty for saying it, but I kind of played at war. Eighteen or 19 years old, I would go in, see what was going on. Stuff would start happening all around me, and I had the opportunity to leave and get back to a relatively safe area while those poor guys that I was taking pictures of stayed there and endured all the time. I went everywhere from North Vietnam to the DMZ all the way to the south. I looked into Cambodia and Laos. I went all those places, but I always could leave and go back to a safe area, if there is such a thing in Vietnam.
Was your predominant mode of transport a helicopter?
Anything. For long distances, I would take choppers or convoys. I took boats. I was even on a train once. Just whatever my photo assignment was, I was told to get there. It wasn’t like you go to a travel agency, pick up a pass, and hop on a flight. Just go to wherever helicopters were landing, whatever airport was near us, and show them my orders that put me at the top of a list. They would fly me on whatever direction was needed to go.
When you first get there, had you done that in training?
No. Never was on a helicopter, and I loved them. I used to fly with my feet hanging out the door. I just felt invincible. You’re 18, 19 years old. You always think something is going to happen to the other guy, not you. Flying along at 100 knots, inches above tree levels, with your feet hanging out, was exhilarating. Just exhilarating. Flying into areas where you’d have to jump out of the helicopter, run and hide somewhere as the helicopter takes out. Have to hope it gets out of the way without getting shot down. Just exhilarating. It’s kind of almost shameful to say that I found it adventurous when people were getting hit and killed somewhere around me. But for me, it was exhilarating flying through the air like that at 100 miles per hour.
The pilots? They were my age. I used to smoke pot with the helicopter pilots before we took off. Then, we would go and they’d be stoned, I’d be stoned. We’d be flying around Vietnam, all of us stoned. That’s the honest-to-God truth.
An afterthought: As a result of being the county veterans service officer, the sheriff and I became buddies, and I talked her into letting me ride on the sheriff’s helicopter. It had been years and years since I’d been in a helicopter. I got in a sheriff’s helicopter at the Gainesville Airport. Strapped in. Crossed here, crossed here. In Vietnam, I just sat right there and held on. He dipped nose down, and I almost had a frickin’ panic attack. I thought I was going to fall out. I thought we were going to crash. After a while, I took a deep breath and said, ‘Ain’t no way you’re falling out. You’re strapped in here, there, and everywhere. The helicopter’s been in service for years.’ I had to calm myself down and started thinking, man, I used to do all these wild and crazy things. Here it is, years later, and I’m worried about falling out of the helicopter and I’m totally strapped in. It’s a different perspective when you get older, I guess, when you have something to lose — wife, and kid and job. Back then I had nothing.
Did you carry a service pistol or rifle?
All depends where I was going and what I was doing. When I went on convoys, I took a rifle with me. They were up in the mountains and stuff. When I was just doing regular stuff, I had a .45-caliber attached to me. That was a useless weapon, unless they’re three feet in front of me, and by then it’s just too late to use. But as far as other weapons, I was a photographer and didn’t have to deal with machine guns, grenade launchers, that kind of stuff.
You said you were not a combat photographer but you’d end up in situations of a firefight or ambush. Did you continue shooting (photos) or look for that exit route?
In a couple situations, I was with a lieutenant where he got awarded a Purple Heart. We were in a jeep during Tet. For some reason, we were sent out on the outsides of Saigon. I was driving him. The citation said we were ambushed. We weren’t ambushed; we drove into the middle of a firefight. We came around a street on the outskirts of Saigon. The road was blocked, and there were a bunch of Allied troops — Americans, South Vietnamese, Air Force personnel — shooting over us. Behind us was whoever it was shooting at them. We pulled right up in the middle of it. It was the most amazing thing. And then the firing stopped. It was like, ‘What the hell are you two idiots doing out there in the middle of a firefight,’ you know? There was an MP laying in a ditch, saying, ‘Get out of your damn jeep and get over here before you get blown away.’ This was all within a matter of seconds. Soon as we got out of the jeep to run over to the ditch, everybody said, ‘OK, these numb nuts are out of there. Let’s start shooting again.’ Everybody started shooting, and the lieutenant, unfortunately, got hit in the butt, and we scrambled in the ditch. Within a half hour, everything was over with. We got back in the jeep and took him in the hospital, and everything was fine.
What are you doing during all of that besides ducking for your life?
I didn’t take photographs because I’d left the camera in the jeep because I was hauling *** into the ditch.
I wasn’t photographing because I didn’t know where the fire was coming from. What was interesting about that particular episode was I could hear stuff going over me like a zip-type noise. Since we were in the middle, I didn’t know if it was them shooting over our heads or the enemy shooting over our heads at them. I was confused and didn’t know where to fire, because it was a city. I didn’t know if there were civilians there or what. It wasn’t like there was an enemy soldier standing there firing at me. He was concealed, so I didn’t return fire. I didn’t take photographs because I’d left the camera in the jeep because I was hauling *** into the ditch.
Was there one particular moment that surprised or shocked you — seen through your lens or otherwise?
The things that initially shocked me when I got there was the cruelty that Americans displayed to the South Vietnamese. Since I was new to the country, I didn’t really understand why Americans were so abusive to the South Vietnamese army, literally knocking them off their vehicles with our vehicles or always saying bad things about them, because those guys even held hands. It wasn’t a sign of homosexuality. That was their culture. Guys hold hands over there. That was a culture shock to me, to see two soldiers holding hands, you know? After I was there for a while, I realized what incompetent soldiers they were and how they didn’t seem to be giving a **** about what was going on in their country. They were letting the Americans take over all the actions, and they were always behind the lines, reluctant to advance, to do anything. It wasn’t until I got home, got older, a little more experienced and understand they’ve been fighting that war from the get-go, and I was just doing my one year and getting out. And they stayed there. Their whole lives was war. I think they were probably sick and tired of it and said let you Americans do it for a while.
Did you have any attitude toward your chain of command, either back in Saigon or at the Pentagon while in country?
I came from a military family. I was told to follow orders. I volunteered. I enlisted.
I was just too young to understand all that. I came from a military family. I was told to follow orders. I volunteered. I enlisted. I didn’t have any regrets and thought we were doing the right thing while I was there. It wasn’t until I got home and went to college and started viewing the big picture, and said, ‘Man, what a cluster**** the whole place was.’ We should never have been there, and the military brass did not allow us to fight the war we should have fought. We could have won that war a long time ago or got out of there a long time ago. To me, I look back on it now and say what a waste of 58,000 lives, because we really didn’t accomplish much and we should have been out of there a long time ago.
From your perspective, what was the way the war should have been fought?
I think the main thing was we should have been able to hit their supply depots. We should have been able to follow them into their sanctuaries that were outside of Vietnam. They would come across the border from Laos or Cambodia or whatever the surrounding countries were and attack the Americans, inflict a lot of damage, go right on the other side of the border, shoot us birds and say, ‘You ain’t going to touch us over here.’ And we didn’t for a long time. They would go there, recuperate, build back up their forces and get new supplies and come back and do the same thing again. This is crazy. Some of the pilots I talked to said they were not allowed to attack certain supply ships because there might be foreign personnel on there. There’s this huge supply ship bringing in material to kill Americans, and they weren’t allowed to attack it. Too much restriction on the war. You’re going to war, you need to go in there with the point that we’re going to win this war and get the hell out of there.
Did you have any other encounters with news media independent of the military while there?
On many assignments, I went out with civilian photographers. They had absolutely no restrictions. My restrictions when I brought film back — this is ridiculous — I wasn’t allowed to show any damage to American property and/or American casualties. Those guys had no such restriction. They could go and do whatever they want and then publish their pictures without any censorship. All my pictures went back to a staff of people who never left an air conditioned building, and they’re the ones who determined what got sent out for press releases, not me.
Did you get along with them?
Absolutely. They were really cool guys. And one lady I met. I can’t remember their names, but they were pretty liberal people. We did some good partying, and we went out and they did their thing. I admired them. Matter of fact, at one time I wanted to get out of the military, come back and be one of those guys.
You mentioned that trailer that was buried — a darkroom, essentially?
It was a tractor trailer that was buried under the ground. It was a photo lab. Did all of it. On my camera straps, I had film canisters. When I’d finish the roll, I’d put it in that canister, and had it wrapped around me, so I never developed film anywhere but my photo lab back at my headquarters.
And (the censors) would extract any ones they didn’t want anyone to see. What they did with those I have no idea.
When did you leave Vietnam?
It was May 1969, middle of the month I believe.
When you got back, did you stay on reserve?
No. The reason I extended my additional six months after my first tour was the American government had a thing that if you extended, they would let you out of the military at the end of that six-month extension. Had I not done that, I would have had another nine and a half months of military duty to do. One of the things that became very evident to me at an early stage was that I was not career military like my father was. We used to call people like my father ‘lifers.’ I knew the Army life was not for me. I already started to let my hair grow long back then. Didn’t have to shine your shoes or anything like that. I was supposed to go back to Fort Knox, Kentucky, which meant formations in the morning. Even though I was an E5, I would still have to do all that military stuff again. In Vietnam, I didn’t have to do all that military stuff. I said, ‘No, I can’t deal with that. I’ll extend for six months, get out three months early.’ When I left Vietnam, I went back to Oakland Army Base in California. Got there about 2 o’clock in the morning, went through all the route processing. They shaved my head, which pissed me off.
Just for the heck of it?
Just for the heck of it. About 4:30 in the morning, some poor 2nd lieutenant had to come and give us a reenlistment talk. We had one foot out the door. I don’t know what that 2nd lieutenant did to piss someone off and get that job. (Laughs.) Everyone was booing his *** and saying, ‘Let us outta here. None of us are reenlistment. Let us outta here.’ I went to a bar, ordered a beer, and the guy carded me. I wasn’t even 21, and the guy kicked me out of the bar. ‘You’re not old enough to be in here, son, get out.’ I said, ‘Man, two days ago I had grenades strapped to me. I’d lob one of them son-of-a-****** in on you because I just spent almost three years in the Army, year and a half in Vietnam, and I’m not old enough to order a beer?’ He said, ‘No.’ In Oakland International Airport. I was trying to get back to Miami.
I was in my military uniform, an E5, couple little decorations and just wasn’t old enough to order a beer. Flew back to Miami, put my uniform away, never wore it again. Like I said, they shaved my hair shorter than your hair. This was 1969, and everyone had hair like this (long), and I had a hard time getting back into my little social group. They either thought I was a narc or a Vietnam veteran, and neither was popular back in 1969. I immediately let my hair grow, and slowly but surely found my old friends again. Brought me back into society and didn’t cut my hair for another year and a half, and I was one of them again.
What did you do for work?
I actually came back with another Vietnam vet friend of mine I’d met over in Vietnam. We met in Miami, got an apartment and we just started doing odd jobs. It was mostly construction work. I was just turning 21, so my main interest was hunting women down. Partying, just having a good time, and that’s what we did.
For the next 30 years, I was the director of veterans services for Alachua County. Best job ever… It was a great job.
That’s when I was working my ass off doing construction, partying all night, pounding nails in the morning. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s not a good combination. I did that for about a year, met my wife, then things calmed down a little bit as far as my partying level went. I was driving a truck at the time. This light went off while I was in the cab, said, ‘Hey, man. You got a free college education. What are you doing down here busting your ass? Minimum wage. Driving trucks. Laboring jobs.’ I went home, told Carrie to pack up the baby. We’re moving to Gainesville. I’m going to college. I quit my job and put everything we had into two or three bags. Hopped in the car and moved up to Gainesville. Went to Santa Fe, got on the GI Bill, went to the University of Florida, and my life changed. I was the first one in my family to graduate from college. I went from digging ditches and pounding nails to an office job. I was a social worker for 10 years, then I applied to the Alachua County Veterans Services as their director. Blew me away, they offered me the job. I couldn’t believe it. For the next 30 years, I was the director of veterans services for Alachua County. Best job ever… It was a great job.
What all did that encompass for you for 30 years?
In the state of Florida, every county has a veterans service office by Florida Statute. I was that guy for this county. I would get a copy of every guy’s military discharge papers, send them a letter saying, ‘Welcome home. Get in touch with me. We need to discuss potential VA benefits.’ They would come in, I’d find out if they were injured or wounded while on duty. Any benefit they were eligible for, I eventually was trained by numerous governmental agencies, I was trained to be proficient in getting them that benefit and the maximum benefit they were entitled to. The one thing I learned in that business was the VA is not quite the best friend you think they are, as far as benefits go. Healthcare, got no complaints. But benefits — it’s kind of like Social Security (Disability) — gotta appeal, go through this process. I went to as many trainings as I could, and I battled the VA on behalf of thousands of veterans during that 30-year period. To this day, I’ll still walk around in movies, stores, bars, and someone says, ‘Hey, Mr. Lynch! You changed my life. Got me the benefits I was entitled to. You’re the only one that ever did it.’ Makes me feel good that I know I really helped out a lot of people.
How did your attitude begin to shift?
This was 1969. The war was really unfavorable. There were a lot of students fighting against it. My social group was one of those groups fighting against the War in Vietnam. Then I started hearing things, reading things, listening to different reports. That’s when I changed my mind about what was going on about Vietnam. Not while I was there, but after I got home.
In what ways did the war change you — if at all?
I appreciate human life a hell of a lot more than I did back then. I saw some things that were just really pathetic. I saw trucks running over people, just because they were on the side of the road. They’d run them over and laugh and keep going. I never did that, but I saw that and kind of grinned at it, too. I went along with the program. That was a really terrible thing to do. After I got back, I learned to have a grudging respect for the NVA. Americans went and did their one-year tour. Then they got the hell out of there. The North Vietnamese were the most energized, very determined. They would hump a damn rifle from North Vietnam, through the Ho Chi Minh Trails, all the way down to South Vietnam and do their battles and just live with minimal provisions in the utmost, roughest conditions. They were very determined. I had a grudging respect for them afterwards. Those guys were in flip flops shooting old rifles. We had all the modern warfare, jet power, superior weapons, everything. They were tenacious enough to hang in there and keep battling us. Their philosophy was ‘we’re willing to sacrifice more than you’re willing to sacrifice,’ and sooner or later that came true.
How do you feel America treated returning veterans from that war and has it evolved?
Terrible. Once again, I didn’t realize that until later. Most of us Vietnam vets weren’t joiners. Even to this day, this American Legion Post, it’s mostly older guys. When I came home from Vietnam, I’m a prime example of probably any other veteran returning from war. You’re young. You just got out of the military. You don’t want to be associated with the military any more, especially just coming home from a war. You want to raise a family, get a job, pay bills, go to school. You don’t have time to join an American Legion and come down and shoot the **** with the fellas when you got things going on a little more important in life at that time. They just assembled back in society and blended in. Treated terrible by the public. It’s not our fault that went over there, especially the guys that got drafted. I was 18, dumb and ready to go on an adventure. You should never criticize the soldier. Criticize the war and not the soldier. I never was one that got spit on or anything like that because I came home in the middle of the night and didn’t have any crowds greeting me. But the aftermath of that, the VA denying so many benefits to so many veterans.
It took forever to get Agent Orange (coverage). I’m 100 percent (compensation from the VA), because I have cancer due to Agent Orange exposure.
It took forever to get Agent Orange (coverage). I’m 100 percent (compensation from the VA), because I have cancer due to Agent Orange exposure. It took me forever to prove that. Initially, as a veterans counselor, you had to prove that you were in an area that got sprayed by Agent Orange. I’m talking years of developmental claims. A Vietnam vet would apply. They’d say, ‘You gotta prove you got sprayed with Agent Orange.’ Well God dang, man, the wind blew it. They say, ‘We only sprayed right here, and you were over here, see?’ You don’t get it. The wind blew it. It got in the canals. It carried it down. Took forever. I’m talking about years for the government to finally say if your boots stepped down in Vietnam, you’re exposed to Agent Orange. There’s no way we can no longer say it was just one area. I was part of the battle that fought the VA to get them to acknowledge that Agent Orange wasn’t just sprayed in one particular.
Do you have any idea where you might have been most likely to be exposed to it?
No, I was everywhere. My experience in Vietnam was pretty unique compared to most guys, because most guys were assigned to a unit and operated in this area. I was in Long Binh, to the DMZ, both sides (north and south), over the border to Cambodia, Laos, everywhere in between. I traveled constantly as a photographer.
So you saw plenty of foliage destruction?
Everywhere. It was amazing how quickly it happened. I didn’t think about it at the time, but what about the people who lived there? The soldiers would be in and out and they never specifically sprayed on top of them, but I can’t imagine the type of problems those people have today.
When was your diagnosis?
I’m still battling. That’s why I’m at 100 percent (compensation). Most time they give you some type of medication that brings you under control. I’ve had radiation to get rid of some of it, but it just keeps coming back. The VA keeps me at 100 percent. I get a chemotherapy shot once a month.
Is it concentrated in one particular area?
They’re just keeping an eye out. Hopefully, they say I’ll die of old age before I die of prostate cancer.
Yeah, around the prostate. When they took the prostate out, I shouldn’t have any more problems with it, but apparently, there were some cancer cells around what they call the bed where the prostate was, and it seems to be spreading a little bit. They’re just keeping an eye out. Hopefully, they say I’ll die of old age before I die of prostate cancer.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Below is a collection of photos Lynch provided to WUFT from his time as an Army photographer. Special thanks to the University of Florida Libraries’ Digital Support Services for digitizing assistance.