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Wednesday 18 September 2013

Typewriters and the Vietnam War

Having by now developed an eagle eye for typewriters appearing on screens both big and small, I was surprised to see this image pop up on an Australian commercial TV network on Sunday night, during an interesting program on Vietnam War veterans seeking to return personal items to the families of fallen North Vietnamese soldiers.
Surprised because, for reasons I cannot explain, images of typewriters related to the Vietnam War aren't all that common. Indeed, if one keys in "Vietnam War+typewriter" in a Google images search, the first one that appears is one from my own blog. This is a photograph taken by a friend of mine, Peter Crossing, during a visit to Vietnam  years ago, and is of a Voss portable used by Ngo Ba Thanh ("The Rose in the Barbwire Forest") (1931-2004). It is now on display in the Hanoi Women's Museum. See the post here.
Now back to this post: A day after I first posted it (September 18, 2013), a reader sent me these images he had snapped of a Vietnamese keyboard Olympia Splendid 66 portable "used in the field" by the Viet Cong. It is on display in the Hồ Chí Minh City Museum, where its history is described:
Still, compared to the Korean War or either of the two World Wars, there seems to a strange shortage of Vietnam War images which involve typewriters. Here are some others, including two of US Women's Army Corps members (one with a Remington with a wingspan almost as wide as Rob Bowker's Adler) and a series of Associated Press correspondent George Esper (at the Underwood) with AP bureau chiefs in Saigon in 1972:

As well, there is this February 1967 image of French freelance photographer Michèle Ray  (later movie producer Michèle Ray-Gavras, also see here), who had been captured near Bong Son by the Viet Cong. She is seen recuperating with the aid of her Antares Domus portable typewriter in a private hospital:
Ray with her Renault.

Zalin Grant looks under Ray's Renault after she had been captured and the car was booby-trapped.
Ray was the first journalist to be captured in Vietnam. She arrived there in 1966, a former Chanel model who had made a name for herself in France by driving from the tip of South America to Alaska. The Viet Cong treated her well and she was converted to their cause. In later life, Ray recovered Che Guevara's diary in Bolivia and gave it to Fidel CastroThere is a very interesting story about her and other Vietnam war correspondents here. However, there is not a typewriter in sight on this post.
From LIFE magazine, February 1967
Ray soon after her release. Another typewriter, an Olivetti, can be seen in the background.
Why? Well, the caption on top of the LIFE magazine article about Ray might explain something. It quotes Ray as saying Americans never left Saigon for the DMZ by road (I have heard similar stories from the Six-Day War. I have also been told that Vietnam was the first war in which correspondents were deliberately kept away from the war zones and fed "official" information from a distance.). So is it because, unlike Korea and the two World Wars, war correspondents in Vietnam didn't get that close with typewriters to the front lines? Cameras were abundantly seen, but not typewriters. The typewriters that were seen, at least from the US point of view, were in offices in Saigon or other relatively safe havens in the south.
Another painting from the collection now held by the Operation Wandering Souls project team in Australia, which wants to return the paintings to the family of the dead North Vietnamese soldier who painted them.
Americans did use typewriters - and Vietnamese language ones at that. This letter was written to his Viet Cong counterpart by US Major-General John H. Hay after the Battle of Ap Bau Bang in March 1967, complaining about the Viet Cong "disgracing themselves" and behaving in an "unsoldierly manner". It was, apparently, subsequently used as an somewhat effective propaganda leaflet. See here (but turn off the sound).
One thing we can be fairly certain of - the North Vietnamese used portable typewriters, and they did so close to the action. The image at the top of this post is ample proof of that.
This image is of a painting from a North Vietnamese soldier I believe was called Haung Sương. However, I cannot confirm that that was his name, as although many paintings by this man were found by Australian soldiers at the battlefront and brought back to Australia, and attempts are now being made to return them to their rightful owners (presumably any of his family still alive) nowhere other than on the paintings themselves is his name mentioned.
And there are many online stories about what is called Operation Wandering Souls, concerning the quest to return these items found during the Vietnam War. What's more, on none of these sites is this image of a North Vietnamese soldier at a typewriter seen (apart, now, from this one).
Yet another of Haung Sương's paintings.
The story I saw on the Seven Network on Sunday night can be seen here.  The presenter is giant Australian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, who won the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan. The image of the North Vietnamese soldier at the typewriter can be seen at 8 minutes 17 seconds.
Roberts-Smith, centre, with Vietnam War Victoria Cross winner Keith Payne, right, and another Afghanistan War VC winner, Mark Donaldson, left.
The Operation Wandering Souls project aims to return to Vietnamese families items that were "liberated" from bodies or captured on the battlefield by Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Vietnamese people helped Australians find, identify and repatriate six "MIAs" (missing in action). The Geneva Conventions (Convention 1, articles 16 and 17) say this must be done. The project is now asking Vietnam veterans who may have taken documents or other items from bodies, or collected items from the battlefield, and still have them, to consider returning them to Vietnam so that Vietnamese families can be reunited with items their loved ones once carried.
This portrait has been returned to the surviving brother of the artist. It is of their mother.
The brother of the artist with the portrait of their mother.
In Vietnamese culture, those who lie in unrecorded graves are believed to be "wandering souls" unable to find peace. The Vietnamese government estimates that there are more than 300,000 of their soldiers still listed as MIA since the war. Vietnamese families want to perform the rituals that will allow the souls of the dead to find peace. They also want to hold, and place on the family altar, items that are tangible reminders of their lost relatives. 
Bob Hall, right, and Derrill de Heer.
The Operation Wandering Souls research team's website is here. The team is based at the University of New South Wales branch at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. It is led by Vietnam War veterans Bob Hall and Derrill de Heer.
This image of Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), founder of the Vietnam Workers' Party, was taken in 1950 in the Viet Bac military base during a campaign against French forces. He is using a Hermes Baby portable typewriter.
Below, more images from the collection awaiting a return to the surviving families of the fallen in Vietnam:

 Derrill de Heer shows surviving family members a database indicating where the bodies of fallen Vietnamese soldiers may be recovered.
Bob Hall, left.


Bill M said...

Great post. I actually got lost in the link. I clicked and did not realize that I would get really involved in reading a very long article.

In a way I am glad I missed this post in the morning before work. I would not have had time to read it in its entirety.

Unknown said...

My father-in-law (a Vietnamese) gave me a typewriter as a wedding gift. It is an Olympia almost identical to the one depicted in your post, like at the museum (which I now must go and visit).