Pulling the Trigger in Vietnam: A Veteran Confronts His Personal Archive

Charlie Haughey walked into a war with a rifle and a camera.

When 24-year-old Charlie Haughey flew into Tan Son Nhut Air Base on March 17th, 1968, the shadow of the Tet Offensive still loomed large. “The flight crew told us to run thirty meters, hit the deck, and wait until somebody came and got us,” he recalls. “The guys going home ran over the top of us to get to the jet, yelling at us about being new meat.” Six months earlier, Haughey had been working in a sheet metal plant in Michigan when he received his draft notice. Now, from the airstrip in Saigon, he could see bombed out bunkers smoldering in the distance. 

Haughey had arrived for a 14-month tour as a rifleman with the 25th Infantry Division, conducting search and destroy missions in the rice paddies and bamboo forests of South Vietnam, where VC guerillas operated from a vast network of underground tunnels. “Sometimes the firefights lasted four or five hours,” he remembers. “Sometimes they lasted days.” After two months on the line, Haughey was summoned to the office of his commanding officer. “He asked me if I had any experience with journalism. I told him I’d done a few things for my college paper – little stuff, like cartoons – and he says, ‘OK, you’re the battalion’s new photographer.’” Haughey liked the idea of doing something different, even if the assignment didn’t offer an escape from the rigors of combat duty. “It was understood that I was a rifleman first, and a cameraman second.”

Haughey’s mission: Boost morale with newsworthy photographs of soldiers doing their jobs with honor. During the remainder of his deployment, Haughey captured nearly 2,000 images. But he never became a true combat photographer. “I didn’t photograph the gore, or the burning villages, or the bodies,” he says. “I was interested in what everybody was doing when they weren’t at war.” Some of the negatives he developed in a makeshift darkroom in Vietnam, gifting the photographs to soldiers when he’d cross paths with them again in the field. Most of the negatives, however, were never developed, packed into a box when Haughey returned home from the war. They would remain in that box until Haughey was finally ready to face his war experience again, 45 years later. “I had walled it off in my brain,” he says. “And these pictures just knocked down those walls. It’s been terribly emotional, but it’s helped a lot.”

A team of volunteers has been helping Haughey digitize his entire Vietnam photo collection. They have also set up a crowdfunding page for his upcoming book, A Weather Walked In, which will include 114 photographs, and will be accompanied by an iPad edition featuring an additional 150 images.