Today’s Snapshot of the Film Community is going to be a little different. It is not going to be an interview like usual. In fact, I am not even going to ask this person questions. I will simply let him tell his story about his Nikon F and the Vietnam War. Let me explain.
One of the first videos I created on my YouTube channel was about the Nikon F. In the video (and article) I just talked about my favorite SLR, because it was bringing me so much joy. I created it while I was still recovering from a bad Crohn’s disease related flare up and my face was still very swollen from the high dose of prednisone that was keeping me alive. I am not particularly proud of it, because I knew nothing about making videos at that point. Ironically, that video is my best performing to date.
I have had many comments left on the video, but there was one in particular that recently caught my eye. It was left by a man named Lee Dudley and he mentioned in his comment that he has a Nikon F that he used while in the Vietnam War. This interested me, because I have been very interested in the photojournalists, such as Don McCullen, that used the Nikon F during the war. I responded and asked him if he was a soldier or a photojournalist over in Vietnam. His reply was amazing to me and I have asked him to share it for this edition of Snapshot of the Film Community.
Lee Dudley’s Nikon F and the Vietnam War
It all started upon my graduation from high school in 1965 when my dear, dear Uncle Sam, not the government one but a real one, gave me my first camera. an Argus C3, alias “The Brick” as a graduation present. It was fascinating to me at the time because you had the ability to vary shutter speeds, lens openings and actually focus.
It was fun considering the times and my age. Most of my friends had point and shoots with waist level finders or Instamatics. The thing was that it led me to the local camera shop where SLR’s were appearing on the shelves. Very sleek and professional looking but most of them looked pretty much the same aside from the brand name printed on them.
Enter the Nikon F
One did, however stand out from the rest. The beautiful and majestic looking Nikon F with a 50mm f1.4 lens staring right at me. Then came the sad part. The price tag of $404. Considering you could buy a nice new car in those days for about $2200-$2700 it was just a dream. I would be going to school and a toy like that was pretty much out of the question but over the next few years my good friend Ken got drafted and wrote to me that if I was willing to wait for his return he could get me a brand new one for half price.
So in 1968 I got my Magnificent Nikon F with a 50mm f1.4. Well it wasn’t long till I got drafted. I left my beautiful girlfriend behind, my nearly new ’67 Olds Cutlass, my family and friends, my new job and my Nikon, and found myself in the delta area of South Vietnam.
I would like to make note at this time that my girlfriend, before I left, bought me a Minox spy camera to take with me. If you don’t know what that is you should look it up.
After being assigned to an artillery battery in a remote area I had my father send me the Nikon, but now instead of shooting pictures with my 35mm SLR, I was now shooting a 105mm Howitzers in the middle of the night. This went on for 5 very long months, but here comes the good part.
The Sargent in charge told me one day to accompany a truck driver to headquarters to drop off some paperwork and bring back some items like diesel fuel and rations. I was the guard riding shotgun. I decided to bring the Nikon with me just in case I saw a pretty girl or something.
When we got to headquarters, a Captain walked over to me, seeing the Nikon camera hanging from one shoulder and an M16 in my hand and asked me if I knew a lot about photography. I of course said I did, though I really didn’t, but I figured I knew more than most. He then asked if I had ever worked in a darkroom to which I again replied “yes”. I had never seen a darkroom. He told me that they had a photo lab on base and that the soldier that was operating it was due to go home in about a week and wondered if I would be interested in taking over. I would have to take unofficial pictures for the base commander, run the air conditioned photo lab and occasionally drive him to places he needed to go.
A Small Heaven
The photo lab was actually a recreational place where soldiers would come and I would educate any of them as to how to develop their own film and print their black and white photos. The lab was essentially a mobile home with 4 Omega enlargers, a print dryer and everything needed to easily make pictures. In addition to all of this I was occasionally sent out on an assortment of duties; to take pictures with a ranger squad, the Navy on their PBR river boats, the company doctors who would go to schools and orphanages to examine and treat Vietnamese children, and with helicopters on occasions.
This was almost a dream come true. I never imagined that one day, make that one night, I would be out feeding artillery rounds to one of the Howitzers, sometimes under fire, to running my own photo lab, teaching myself the trade, and accompanying rangers, sailors, doctors and helicopter pilots, and seeing all kinds of interesting places and making oh so many friends because everyone wanted to come to the lab and everyone wanted pictures to send home. There I was helping them, and in the end I have the Nikon F to thank for getting me the recognition from the right person at the right time who noticed me and that wonderful camera.
The next day when I returned to the artillery base the First Sargent called for me and said, “I don’t know how you did it but get your things. You’re going to headquarters.” The Nikon F was a very versatile camera for it’s day but I never imagined it could take me from hell to heaven. It was a masterpiece in its day.
Writing this article, and getting to interact with Lee has quite possibly been the most rewarding experience I’ve had since starting this blog. Growing up I was always curious about the Vietnam War because I saw the profound affect it had on my stepfather and my best friend’s father. I took many trips to the VA hospital with him, and witnessed a lot of the damage the war had done to many people.
When first talking to Lee, (Ironically was also my stepfathers name), I was amazed at his sense of humor and ability to talk about his time during the war. I was cautious at first in asking for his participation, because I didn’t want to put him in an uncomfortable position rehashing unhappy memories. However, I am so grateful that he was so willing and generous in sharing these photos and memories with me. I love these photos so much that I have suggested he create a book.
Lee’s experience with photography is a great example of the way this medium can save your life. In his case, it may have been extremely literal, but I know for myself and many others, it has been a lifesaver in so many ways. I want to thank Lee for his service to our country, and thank you all for reading this.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Lee’s story featuring his Nikon F and the Vietnam War. To check out my other Snapshots of the Film Community click here. Please sign up to get my articles in your inbox down below.
Lee Dudley was born in St. Louis Missouri on May 2nd 1947. He married Janice on June 9th 1973. His photography interests began as a result of a high school graduation gift in 1965, his first camera an Argus. He began shooting Nikons in 1968 with the Nikon F Photomic Tn. He spent 7 months as the company photographer in Vietnam in 1969-70.
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Until next time, stay motivated and keep shooting.