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On the March with Roger Peterson 1967

(When it came down to finding a publisher, we had to cut savagely into Tony Hirashiki’s manuscript. Here’s another segment that got trashed in the in process.)

Marines generally marched at a steady pace with twenty minutes of walking followed by a five minute break. Those breaks were sheer joy because I could rest my camera on the ground and sit down. Sometimes, during those breaks, Roger would take a can of fruit from his knapsack and we would all share it. My favorite was peaches in syrup in a can.

Roger Peterson in the 1980s when he was a General Assignment Correspondent in Washington DC.

Roger Peterson in the 1980s when he was a General Assignment Correspondent in Washington DC.

Roger’s knapsack was the biggest size that the US Army had and it was so heavy that I couldn’t even lift it. But even the largest knapsack looked small and rather light on Roger’s big shoulders. He used it to carry just about everything I could imagine. I would watch awestruck when he set up camp for the night. It was like a magician pulling endless stream of odd object from a tiny hat. First would be a neatly folded rubber mattress which he would blow up in less than five minutes—something that would have left most of us gasping for breath on the ground. It was really big! At least seven long and three feet wide.

Next, Roger would unstrap the shovel from the side of the knapsack and dig foot-wide ditches along the sides of the mattress to keep the heavy rain that would usually fall in the night from flooding his bed. Then, using a large knife, he cut down tree branches for tent poles. With these, he supported his big poncho over the mattress and there would be a tent as comfortable as you could ask for. If we were in deep jungle or heavy woods, he wouldn’t use the mattress but just hang a hammock and a mosquito net between two trees. He had a blanket for the cool nights that happened even in Vietnam’s hot climate. No matter the weather, he was usually pretty comfortable.

 

Here are a few of the other things in his knapsack: a towel, soap, a toiletry kit, a shaving kit, a portable radio with spare batteries, a flashlight, anti-malaria pills, a bottle of salt tablets, pills to sterilize water, powder for athlete’s foot, insect spray, aspirin, anti-diarrhea medicine, various tools, a can opener, a coffee pot, portable fuel, socks and underwear for three days, several notebooks, a writing kit, paperback books, a picture of his wife, letters from his wife, a corn cob pipe, pipe tobacco, a cleaning kit for the pipe, and at the bottom there was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey wrapped in extra clothes to make sure that it wouldn’t get broken. I know that there were even more useful items in there that I can’t remember. It always seemed magical to me—no matter what was needed, it would be in there somewhere.

My knapsack was tiny and light compared to Roger’s. I couldn’t carry a lot of things because my first priority was the camera which weighed between 30 and 40 pounds. Anything else I carried was very carefully chosen. First, I had to carry cans of unexposed film and extra magazines to hold the film on the camera and a number of other camera tools and accessories. Basically, when I had all this loaded, my knapsack was full but it wasn’t all I needed to carry.

The rubber-coated, hooded poncho is essential in a war zone. It was a raincoat, the roof of a tent, and a carpet to sleep on. Folded in half with poles on each side, it was an emergency stretcher strong enough to carry a wounded man. Sadly, it had one more use—as a final shroud for the dead. Vietnamese troops would say that someone was “coming back by poncho,” meaning that he’d been killed in action.

Don Farmer and Terry Khoo

There was “no war” in Laos. Everyone knew that–including the soldiers that were fighting it and the reporters who were covering it.\]

Since I didn’t have any space for a mattress, hammock, or mosquito net, I made do with a military surplus nylon blanket which was lightweight but enough to keep me warm at night. When I knew that we were going out for a long period, I would pack a toiletry kit, first aid supplies, aspirin, diarrhea medicine, underwear and socks, cans of food, dry food, and candy for quick energy.

In the end, it always came down to a choice between film and food. A 400-foot roll of 16mm film weighs twice as much as a can of food but I knew that, once we got to the front lines, I might be able to get food supplies but there was no way to get more unexposed film. I would always end up carrying more film and leaving the canned food behind.

I also had a canteen of clean water hanging on my waist which was quite heavy but totally essential. Roger always carried two canteens and I knew that one was filled with water and the other with Jack Daniels. Roger loved to drink, especially Jack Daniels. At the end of a long day in the field, when he had finished writing the script for that day’s story or arranging to get our film back to Saigon, Roger would relax, open one of the canteens, and, with a gentle smile, sip from it while smoking his pipe. I know this was one of his favorite times and with that corn cob pipe in his mouth, I often imagined that he looked like General McArthur.

 

Yasutsune "Tony" Hirashiki circa 1967 with Auricon Camera and faux fatigues.Tony Hirashiki around 1967

 

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