Born in 1941 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan amongst a Ukrainian community, Don Fedynak grew up during the onset of America’s involvement in Vietnam. While in college, he studied advertising at the Pratt Institute and participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program before developing a deep love for film and photography and transferring to the School of Visual Arts to study filmmaking. After completing his time at SVA, he went to his local recruitment office and rescinded his student deferment. Soon after, he was drafted to serve as a signal officer, and later 1st Lieutenant in the 221st Signal Corps. After completing his tour in Vietnam, he returned to the United States to continue his work with film and photography at CBS and later became the president of the Queens Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Don Fedynak interview by Jasmine Balderas, Ben Ginsburg, Angelica Pomar, Josie Tavera, Riza Uddin. August 1, 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York
Don was born right after Pearl Harbor and even though neither of his parents were in the armed forces he was influenced by his uncle who was an ex-marine. Don felt it was a duty to serve his country, since he had the honor of living in America, and he also sought out the discipline offered in the military.
Don Fedynak: I was born August 15th in 1941, which was just prior to Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was in December. And at the beginning of the war, the Second World War, they were not drafting married men with at least one child, so my father and his brothers, they were all older, and they all had kids, so they did not serve. But I had an uncle who served in both the Army and the Marine Corps. I remember him giving me a Marine Corps overseas cap, which I cherished for a long time, and I always connected military service to citizenship. I always thought that if we were lucky enough to be born in this country we had the expectation of us to serve in some way. It doesn’t have to necessarily be in the military. Later on, there was the Peace Corps and other means of service, but the military seemed like an interesting — and I always loved the discipline of it and the camaraderie.
So I was a little disappointed at SVA. There wasn’t the ROTC program, but I was able to concentrate on my film studies. And then, of course, afterwards, when I left SVA, that’s when I was subject, again, to the draft, and I have to say that on graduation from high school everyone, every male, was subject to the draft. You had to register for the draft. So you could be drafted at 18, coming right out of high school, and if you weren’t enrolled in a college course that you would be attending in September your odds were pretty high, unless you had some sort of a medical deferment or something else of that nature, that you would be drafted right out of high school. But I was going to college, so I got a 2S, a student deferment, which lets you off the hook. The student deferments were abused, I think, by a lot of guys who didn’t want to go to Vietnam, because the war was — when I graduated from high school in ’59, we already had advisors in Vietnam, and I can remember distinctly in high school hearing reports about American advisors being killed in Vietnam in places like Pleiku because their barracks were blown up by Viet Cong sappers. So I was very much aware of the war, and I had always been interested in politics as well, but the big build-up was in ’65, actually.
Well, I graduated from the School of Visual Arts, and I kind of waited a couple of weeks, and I thought the schools automatically let the draft board know that you were no longer a student, and they upgraded you to a 1A, which meant you were eligible for the draft. But after a couple of weeks, I wasn’t getting a draft notice, and a month went by, and I said, “Well, while I’m waiting for this draft notice to come, I might as well go to work.” I had been trained in the film business, so I went to work, and I found a job in the film business as an editing room assistant. And it just so happens that it was a company that was producing films for the Department of Defense, so I had to have a security clearance to handle classified material. This was a civilian firm, but they were doing work for the government. But after six months, after nine months, I was still not receiving a draft notice. And I said, “I really can’t go on.” I was already 26 when I graduated from SVA. I hung around a little longer because I had gotten a scholarship, so I was there not to avoid the draft but just to polish up my work in the film business. So I was 26, and I figured, “If I get drafted, I’m going to be in with 18- and 19-year-olds, and I think I can still keep up,” but you could still be drafted at that point up until the time you were 35, and I think that’s still true today, although we don’t have a draft anymore. So I didn’t want to wait and wait and wait and see if they would call me or not call me. It was the uncertainty that made you crazy, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they would call you or not call you.
So I decided that I would take my chances, and still I had this interest in the military as well. And at some point, I thought, “Gee whiz, at 26 I’m going to be tied up with — I’m going to be tied up working for the rest of my life, basically.” Even though I loved the film business, I thought maybe the Army would be one last adventure, although the war was always in the background, because the war was still going on. It was going on when I was in high school, and it was still going on when I got out of college. But I didn’t want to wait, so I went to my draft board, and I told the young lady at the desk that I was no longer a student, and she looked at me like I was a little crazy. And a few weeks later, I had my draft notice. So you had to go down for a physical to make sure you were physically fit and there were no other impediments to you going into the service, and then that was in 1966, and then I got my induction notice, and I had to report in January of 1967. And that’s when I was drafted in the Army.
In this clip, Don Fedynak discusses his experience as a war photographer during the Vietnam War. Don was appointed to be part of the 221st Pictorial Signal Corps during which he was sent out to photograph as much of the war as possible, which included a broad scope of activities, from active combat missions to filming military dentists. The goal of the war photography was essentially to document as much of the war as possible, in order to show people back home what the war looked like. Overall, Don played an essential part in how we view the war today, and helped bring recognition to the many underappreciated but necessary support units during the war.
Don Fedynak: We were assigned fairly quickly. I came in with another lieutenant by the name of Lieutenant John Morris, and we came in country almost the same day and were assigned to the same photo unit. And we then reported to Major Carson, who said, “Well, listen, fellas. You guys seem to know your way around cameras. At least, I think you do. I’m going to set you up…” The camera that we were using at the time, the motion picture camera, was a Bell and Howell 16-mm Filmo camera. It was a windup, spring-loaded, very tough, very heavy camera. So he said, “I’m going to send you out for a couple of days. I want you to cover just local stuff and just with black-and-white film just so we can see that you’re getting the feel of setting the focus and your — the different settings on the camera.” That was back in the days when it wasn’t a reflex camera, when you had to rack over, and you had a parallax view. You had to look through the viewfinder, and it wasn’t all– the viewfinder didn’t always match up, so you had to kind of keep things in — you had to make — we called it Kentucky windage, kind of adjust a little bit for that.
So, after that, John and I were sent out with color film after we passed the test, and we were sent out on jobs around Long Bình, but then we were sent down to the delta area where we were given jobs. We were told we had a broad scope, let’s say. We were told to photograph 1st Aviation Brigade activities, and then it was up to us to show initiative, to find out where the stories were, what needed to be done or where any action was taking place. And if we could link up with those units, that’s what we did, so we went out for a day, and then we would come back. Our job was done when we finished shooting film, the amount of film that we could carry with us. Our job was done. If we could get a chopper out, a helicopter, we’d be gone. And if we were out with an infantry unit, we always felt a little sorry. Those guys had to stay out there, but that wasn’t our job. Part of our job was to get the film back, make sure it was developed, write captions for the film, write captions for the still photographs, and that was part of our job. But it gave us respite. We could go back to the main base. We could chill out a little bit, go to one of the clubs and just have a drink, relax, and then we’d be out the next day.
Our mission, basically, was to overall to document the entire war, not just the combat but the combat support. We photographed everything from mortuary — you know, people die in combat, and you wind up in mortuaries. We photographed that. We photographed veterinary. We had dogs there who were guard dogs who sniffed out the enemy. They had to be treated, so we had veterinarians. We had dentists. We had all sorts of people in Vietnam. It was just like a cross-section of a civilian society. You know, we had logistics. Logistics are a very big part of it. For every one combat soldier, it takes about 10 combat support to make sure that he gets the bullets, the beans, you know, and whatever he needs to fight. But, I say, our job was to photograph them.
All of that material went back — went down to the National Archives, so now it resides in the National Archives. The Army used it for training and information purposes, and if you know a little bit about how documentaries are made, sometimes you’re doing a documentary but you’re referring to something that’s historical, so you’ve got to go back into the archives and find historical material. That’s where the footage that we shot came in.
In this clip, Don Fedynak recounts the events leading up to the death of David Russell, a young cameraman in his Signal unit. Don speaks of the emotional impact David’s passing had on his unit and himself.
Don Fedynak: The death of a soldier that you serve with is always memorable. It’s something you never forget. During the Tet Offensive I happened to be down in the delta when our main base was attacked. That was February 26th. During that battle at Long Ben or at Biên Hòa, we had a photo team that was out. There was a young man on the photo team who received a Bronze Star that day, although I didn’t know it at the time. I’ve come to know it since his death. He guided a Vietnamese family who was under fire during that battle to safety, and for that act of heroism he won a Bronze Star with a V for valor. I wasn’t there that day, but because of that battle we were — all the photographers who were out in the field were called back. So, the next day, I was back at Long Bình, and although the battle had broken off on the ground, every night we were getting rocketed for the next three or four days.
After that, I was assigned to a photo team that was already down in the delta, and this young man who had just won the Bronze Star — or he was put in for the Bronze Star — he was also assigned to that photo team, but he traveled down to Cần Thơ a day or two before I did. And when I got down there, I was told — I had my script ready to go. I was going to take them out with the First ARVN Division in a place called Mỹ Tho. And I said, “Well, where’s Russell?” “Oh, Lieutenant, they sent Russell down to cover another operation down at a place called Nui Coto, which was a mountain in a range of seven mountains. It was a stronghold, a VC stronghold. It was — these mountains just popped up out of the middle of nowhere in the middle of this flat delta country, rice paddies and the like. And Russell, they sent Russell down there. I said — well, I didn’t even ask at the time. I said, “Somebody sent him down there,” and at the time our photographers were — we were a little like free-range chickens. Wherever the story was we went, and Russell, I learned later, was a bit of a risk-taker. And I thought that maybe he was freelancing, but they said he was going to meet us at Mỹ Tho in a couple of days. “OK, that’s fine.”
The next day, we’re preparing to leave, and we get word that Russell has been killed, was killed in action. The word went from the unit out at Nui Coto to our headquarters and then down to our detachment in Cần Thơ. And they called me out at Eakin Compound. We were all shocked. One minute, Russell is alive, and the next minute he’s dead. But his body had been recovered, and that wasn’t always the case. His body was recovered, and he was at the morgue out at Cần Thơ, so I and one other photographer, a fellow by the name of Gene Campbell, went out to Cần Thơ, to the Cần Thơ Army Airfield where the mortuary was, and we did, in fact, identify Russell. And after that, we were recalled to Long Bình, but we had a brief memorial service. We couldn’t linger on the fact that somebody had been killed. We had to push that to the back of our heads so that we could go back out, because after that memorial service we went back down to Cần Thơ and were out again doing our jobs. So we couldn’t linger on that. The problem is, you pushed these feelings of remorse or — say guilt — feelings of repressed — just sadness, overall sadness for the loss of somebody. And even when I got home, you push that to the back of your memory because you want to get on with your life.
Don Fedynak discusses how the death of a fellow crewmember, David Russell, inspired him to begin writing. This activity has assisted him in dealing with the internal issues he faced both during the war and after. Fedynak discusses both his writing’s content, which addresses his mental and physical experience, as well as the differences in writing styles that were taught to him by his mentor.
Don Fedynak: Well, initially I started writing about — when I first started thinking about Russell again. It was, like, around 1979. I don’t know if you rem– well, you guys are probably too young, but the Iranians had a big revolution in Iran. They took a lot of Americans hostage, a lot of diplomats, and they held them for, like, 440 days. After that 440 days, they let them loose. They came back home. They were given a hero’s welcome. They were paraded up to West Point. They came down Broadway with the ticker tape parade, and I said to myself, “What are we, chop liver?” Vietnam veterans, we all served in a combat zone, and we were getting nothing. And then, I started thinking about Russell again, and I started having dreams. I started having dreams about being the only defender of this small castle, going from parapet to parapet defending myself against these invaders, faceless. I didn’t know who they were, but those were the kinds of dreams that kept coming back to me. So I started writing about that, and because these things were recurring — and I also started thinking about going out to that mortuary and identifying Russell. And I started writing about going back there night after night after night, going back, making the same trip over and over again. It didn’t change anything. Russell was still dead. Russell will always be dead, but yet I had to keep going back. So I didn’t bring anything to read for you, but some of the things I think I said. “Why do they keep sending me back? Am I the only guy in this damn Republic of Vietnam?” Of course, it’s all in my head. That doesn’t change anything. So I’m writing about that, and I’m writing about my other experiences. I’m writing about basic training. I’m writing about a lot of things. I started writing in the third-person, and now I’m going back. My old company commander has become kind of my mentor recently. He’s an old advertising guy. He’s like, “Why don’t you write in the first person?” Well, I wanted to keep it — I wanted to be separate from it. So I’m writing in the first person again but as a character. So, you know, there’s — you have to make choices, but now I have to rewrite a lot of stuff in the first-person that I’ve already rewritten in the third — that I’ve already written in the third, so — but that’s the kind of stuff I’m writing about. I’m writing about what happened during training, some of the funny things, the lighter moments, about some of the dark stuff and the stress that you — that that — that whole time period, the ‘60s, it was a stressful time. (laughs) I don’t know if it would come up in a later conversation, but when I was working — when I came back and I was working at CBS, I belonged to the IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which the Motion Picture Editors are part of. And they decided they were going and protest the war, so there was a theater on Broadway, and I said, “All right. I’ll go with you.” I didn’t wear my fatigue jacket, (laughter) but I marched against the war, because it — the war had been going on for a long time. I thought it was going on too long. Somehow, we should figure out a way to end it.
In this clip, Don Fedynak talks about Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed by the United States during the Vietnam War, to deny the enemy coverage. Don talks about how the effects of Agent Orange followed him home from the war and led him to delay having children in fear that they would be born with defects. In this sense, even though the war was over, Vietnam veterans are still dealing with the effects of the war.
Don Fedynak: Agent Orange was a — do you know what Agent Orange is? It was a defoliant that was used in the war, and it was used all over the place, basically. It was used along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to try to — it was used along the riverbanks of the Mekong Delta down in the delta to effectively deny the enemy cover. You can’t hide behind a bush if there are no leaves on it. The only thing we didn’t realize then, what the American public didn’t realize then, was that Agent Orange was a toxin. Dioxin is a prime ingredient in it, and it poisons people, and it poisons the land for generations to come. I and many other veterans delayed starting families because we became worried about it when we got back. We started hearing about it, only started hearing about it when we came back a year or two after that. And then, we started seeing more about it. There were subway posters in the subways saying — about dioxin saying, “Call this number,” so my wife and I put off having a family until I — we were — we wanted to make sure that we were not going to be affected by it, although there was no 100 percent guarantee. So it affected us in that sense. Luckily, my daughter was born healthy. I had — but when I came back, and one of the reasons I was — I thought about it. I had never had acne in my life, but after Vietnam I started having acne on my face, and there’s such a thing as chloracne. The ingredients in Agent Orange, dioxin, caused chloracne, and I was worried about that, and that’s why we delayed. And I went to various doctors, and then I went to the Veterans Administration, all sorts of things. I went to a homeopathic doctor who gave me a sulfur type of pill that made it worse. Then, I went to the VA, and they gave me a lotion, which miraculously cleared it up. It was probably an acne that was created by stress, because, lord knows, we were stressed from the time we registered for the draft to until the time we got back from Vietnam. So it was probably that, but there we have documented cases of veterans who have — their children and their grandchildren, sometimes it skips a generation, but they were affected. And certainly, in Vietnam itself, the children of Vietnamese families are affected to this day, and a lot of veterans have put clinics — have raised money to put clinics back in Vietnam so we can try to help that situation there. Through no fault of their own, they were exposed to this stuff. As I said, we went home, but this was their land, and they were exposed to it, and they’re still suffering.
And now, the VA covers a multitude of things. If you served in Vietnam, if you have diabetes, if you have this, that, and the other thing, they just presume that it’s caused by Agent Orange because there’s no way to differentiate. So it was a big thing. It was a big thing, and even now the blue-water Navy guys — some of the ships that carried Agent Orange, they were never cleaned properly afterwards. There was spillage in the ships. The planes that carried it, there was spillage in that, helicopters that sprayed it. Guys that sprayed it, they had backpacks with Agent Orange. They were spraying around bases so that they would kill the foliage. They were exposed to it. Nobody ever said, “Put a protective mask on your face.” So there were all sorts of ways you could get exposed. You could get exposed walking through the jungle, getting close to where it had been sprayed, so there was no way to tell. So that’s another way that the war followed us back. It was over, but like Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And for us, it’s not really over. We’re still dealing with stuff.