Gordon Ward Gahan Collection

Dak To

Dak To

On January 16, 1968, Gahan was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for the period of November 15 to December 17, 1967, when he was stationed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the central highlands of Vietnam, near the border outpost of Dak To. The citation for the medal specifies that Gahan had accompanied part of the 173rd “to record on film the conditions and operations characteristic of the forward combat zone” and that “with complete disregard for his own safety, he remained with the unit as they engaged the enemy on Hill 882” [1].

Hill 882 was one of the so-called “border battles”—the bloody, costly, and often fruitless search-and-destroy missions waged in the sparsely populated and economically undeveloped yet strategically important highlands along the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These battles, the culmination of a prolonged period of “sustained offense” on the part of the United States and its allies that dated back to October 1966, produced what photographer Philip Jones Griffiths saw as “some of the best combat photography in the war” [2]. Gahan’s contributions to this corpus are, in many respects, among the most striking images in the collection, with their vibrant colors, intimate views of frenzied bursts of action, and the tense moments in between.

Gahan is further commended in the citation for the Bronze Star for the “superb” and “remarkable” slide photographs he captured of the battle. Credited with having “contributed significantly to military and civilian comprehension of the role of the Army fighting man in Vietnam,” he was selected to present his work to the Army Commanders’ Conference in Washington, DC. Several photographs were also chosen for publication in the March 1968 edition of Army Digest, accompanied by transcribed excerpts from an audio recording of the battle that day. The chaotic atmosphere and staccato bursts of activity recorded on tape and in print are captured clearly in Gahan’s images of men pinned to their spots, pressing themselves into the ground, and gazing intently into the trees and over their shoulders.

One of Gahan’s photographs was reproduced on the cover of the January 1, 1968, issue of Newsweek, but, possibly to shield Gahan’s identity, was attributed to UPI photographer Kyoichi Sawada. Other photographs by Gahan of fighting in the Dak To area had appeared in earlier issues. As these publications document, the hill battles were among the army’s most intense, and accounted for some of the heaviest losses in Vietnam; their high cost frequently raised questions about their value.

 


1. Citation for Bronze Star Medal, awarded to Gordon Ward Gahan, January 16, 1968.

2. Quoted in Peter Howe, Shooting under Fire: The World of the War Photographer (New York: Artisan, 2002), 60.