Vietnam through the lens: Staples photographer shares his wartime experience
STAPLES—It was a half-century ago when Ken Klose learned Vietnamese, but a few phrases still roll easily off his tongue.
"'Trâu chậm uống nước đục'—'the slow water buffalo drinks muddy water,'" Klose, 72, recalled. "It's an old Vietnamese adage. ... It's something that was in one of our textbooks."
Klose didn't choose to learn the complex, monosyllabic language—rather, the U.S. Army chose him. Early November snowflakes drifted through the air outside his downtown Staples photography studio as Klose recalled a pivotal time in his life.
Subjected to the draft after the Johnson administration determined first-year graduate students were no longer eligible for deferments, the Staples native left central Minnesota in 1969 for basic training in Fort Knox, Ky. But his educational background and aptitude for language and writing didn't go unnoticed, and Klose was selected to become an interrogator. Klose said the program was typically reserved for officers or enlisted men, but at that point in the Vietnam War, officials began pulling in draftees as well.
"(A lieutenant said), 'You can say yes or you can say no. If you say no, they may put you in it anyway, or they may send you to Fort Polk for infantry training,'" Klose said. "'If you do this, you will be stateside for most of the year going to language and intelligence school.' So I said, 'Sign me up.'"
Klose spent the next seven months studying Vietnamese with other college-educated men at the Army Defense Language Institute in El Paso, Texas—a temporary facility operating during the war. From there, a two-month stint at Fort Holabird in Maryland prepared him for interrogations, and then he was off to Camp Eagle, the main base for the 101st Airborne Division near Hue, South Vietnam.
It was June 1970 when Klose stepped off a plane into the oppressive heat of the mountainous jungle terrain. He wasn't sure what to expect, but was glad his time began well after the Tet Offensive, during which the longest and bloodiest battle of the war happened in Hue. By the time Klose served, he said the region of northern South Vietnam was pacified compared to the southern delta regions.
That didn't stop him and others on the team from conducting interrogations, although there weren't many. The most successful interrogation Klose was involved in revealed the existence of a North Vietnamese regiment operating near Camp Eagle, the existence of which U.S. troops were previously unaware. Most of the work involved reading documents, or anything else with writing, found on captured or dead enemy soldiers. This primarily came in the form of letters or papers, although Klose said he was once asked to translate a name inscription inside a bloodied helmet riddled with bullet holes.
While the occasional document yielded intelligence, Klose said he often found himself reading letters that never made it home to the soldiers' families. Reading those words led Klose to develop empathy for the enemy—the letters' contents so often mirrored what he and his Army buddies wrote home themselves.
"A lot of guys would probably say you shouldn't feel that way," he said. "You've got to understand, these guys went down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and it took them four months to get to where they were going. They'd send a letter back home and it'd take weeks to get back and forth. We'd send a letter home and it would get back in probably four days or something. So they had hardships. ... It put a face on them. That's pretty simple."
The relative quiet of the region meant Klose and the interrogation team found themselves with a lot of free time. They spent it driving a Jeep through the stunning Vietnamese countryside, which Klose documented with the first real camera he ever bought. Hundreds of images came home with him—those depicting breathtaking mountain vistas, seaside villages, bustling Hue marketplaces and the buildings and people on base. Awakened within Klose was a love for photography that would reign for the rest of his life. It was something positive he could attribute to his time spent contributing to a war effort history does not remember kindly.
"I never demonstrated against the war or anything afterwards, but like a lot of other vets, I think you could see the futility of it. It was obviously not really going to end well. There was a lot of money and a lot of life being spent for something that wasn't going to end well," Klose said.
"We were just there, I guess. Going there you don't know what to expect. You don't know what your workload is going to be, or anything else, or what effect you're going to have. You kind of settle in."
In April 1971, Klose returned to Staples, collected unemployment and spent a summer using a membership at the golf course. He said he didn't experience some of the negative feedback upon his return other Vietnam veterans cite, although he was no stranger to behavior his unmistakable crewcut would solicit.
"When we were stationed at Fort Holabird, we'd go down to Washington, D.C., to Georgetown to the nightclubs and try to get a dance or something. They just wouldn't talk to you. They wouldn't have anything to do with you. That hurt, especially I felt because that was my own generation doing that," he said. "I think it's ironic that now a lot of those people are the ones coming up to you and saying, 'Thank you for your service.' I mean, times have really changed."
Just weeks after moving back to Staples, an advertisement caught Klose's eye—a school in New South Wales, Australia, sought teachers. Klose interviewed for the post and was hired, leading to what he described as some of the best years of his life. But, he said, he might have never pursued the opportunity if it weren't for his exposure to the world the Vietnam War unwittingly cast upon the rural central Minnesotan.
"I did some things I never dreamed I would do, like going rock climbing and body surfing, and I traveled quite a bit there. I took the camera I'd bought in Vietnam and took a lot of pictures over there, too," Klose said. "Just being in Vietnam for that year opened me up to a lot of things. I probably never would have even thought about applying for a job in Australia, if it hadn't been for that. I probably would've finished the master's degree and been ensconced in some school somewhere, some high school or college or something. And that part I think was good for me. I think it was."
Klose said he was too busy living the life of a 25-year-old traveling the world once he'd returned to think about Vietnam. It took time and hindsight for him to recognize the significance of those years. Nearly a decade ago, a desire to share his story with his daughters drove him to assemble a comprehensive scrapbook documenting the time—bringing together his photographs, writings, and mementos, such as a going away card from Staples residents and his first pay stub, into two neatly organized binders.
He also seeks to honor veterans, many of whom he said experienced more hardship than he, through his work as a member of the board of directors for the Staples All Veterans and Community Park Association. He helped brainstorm designs for an eagle sculpture welcoming visitors, and is in the process of designing engravings for the new black granite adorning a retaining wall. When he's not renewing the frames of people's portraits or capturing photos himself, Klose finds time to beautify the park in other ways, pruning bushes and maintaining flower beds.
"It's something that I consider worthwhile, and it's something that I'm interested in."