Minuteman, January 2019
Steven Burchik graduated from Manhattan College in the 1960’s. After graduating, he joined the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War. After training in the United States, Sergeant Burchik was sent to Vietnam to spend a year in the rice paddies north of Saigon as a forward observer with the 1st Infantry Division from June 1968 to June 1969. After returning from Vietnam, Burchik graduated from Michigan State University with an MBA degree, and was a successful marketing executive and food industry entrepreneur. He is the author of two books – Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam, and Focus on Vietnam. The Town of Danville had a photo exhibition from November 1 through December 16, 2018, entitled Conflict and Compassion Through the Eyes of a Veteran, which had photographs from Steven Burchik.
When Steven Burchik was sent to Vietnam, he brought a personal camera with him. He was not able to use it every day, and primarily used it in his free time. He did not take any battle photos, as he was otherwise occupied. He took about 4,000 pictures in Vietnam. The black & white film would be developed in the military PX, usually taking a few weeks, and he would send the pictures back to the States. The slide film was sent directly to the States, and he did not see them until he returned home.
When he returned from the war, he did not talk about his experiences in the war to avoid arguments. A few years ago, a teacher asked him to speak about his experiences to her class. A couple days later, he and his wife had dinner with the teacher, who brought 60 thank you letters from her classes. This was the first time anyone had said anything positive to him about his service in Vietnam. Someone asked him when his book would be published, and it gave him the idea of writing a book about his experiences, and featuring his photos. His wife had their correspondence during his time in Vietnam, so he wrote his first book, Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam. In 2015, his book won a silver medal publisher’s award in New York. He had gone from avoiding talking about the war to doing a couple presentations a week.
In 1968, Steven Burchik was stationed at the Oakland Army Base, and one night he was put on a bus to Travis Air Force Base. When he arrived, he was put on a Braniff plane bound for Asia. They refueled in Hawaii, and finally arrived in Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam. He arrived in June 1968 in the monsoon season, when it seems to rain constantly. The country of South Vietnam was divided into four zones, each with its own Army Corps. Steven Burchik was assigned to III Corps, which was the area around the capital of Saigon. Every two months, his duty station would change. His first duty station was the water plant serving Saigon. The benefit of this station was having hot showers. At night, Stven Burchik would climb the water tower, look for flashes of light (which was artillery being fired at Saigon), and report it.
As a forward observer, he would commute by helicopter to a forward area in the morning, and then be picked up at night by helicopter (unless they were ordered to stay for a few days). When the helicopter approached the forward position, they would radio for someone on the ground to fire off a smoke bomb so they would know where to land. Later the Viet Cong stole smoke bombs, and they would monitor the radio and fire off smoke bombs trying to trick the helicopters into landing in a trap. Later the US military had to request specific color smoke bombs to reduce the chance of falling for the Viet Cong traps. Steven Burchik said they often spent the day soaking wet, and would change into dry shoes and socks at night. He was fortunate to serve in a unit with a 2% casualty rate – other more forward units had a 10-15% casualty rate.
At base camp, everything would need to be delivered by helicopter – food, water, fuel, ammo, and supplies. They would form a conga line to unload the helicopters. There were diesel explosives surrounding the camp, to be used as a last resort if they were being overrun by the enemy. Fortunately, they only tested the system – they never had to use it while he was there. They had Kit Carson Scouts, who were former Viet Cong members trained by the US and assigned to Army units as scouts. One of them led Burchik’s unit to a Viet Cong base camp. They found the usual supply of rice and water, but also newspapers and typewriters. They had stumbled on a Viet Cong propaganda unit. They searched the area and found weapons hidden in the mud.
While in Vietnam, Steven Burchik saw USO shows with Bob Hope and Tippi Hedron, and had his picture taken with Tippi Hedron. In 2013, he saw she was having an appearance for the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, and he got his picture taken with her again.
The military had a Pacification program, where they would visit rural villages in Vietnam to build a relationship with the people, and gain support for the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. The military would distribute medicine and cooking oil to the villagers. Steven Burchik got permission to take pictures of the local people and children. He asked his fiancée to send a gumball machine, and he showed it to the kids. The boys would line up for the gumballs, and then the girls would line up after the boys were done. The village tinsmith would pay people to forage for scraps of metal, which he would hammer out, and sell to other villages.
The Red Cross Girls (known affectionately as “Doughnut Dollies” from serving doughnuts and coffee to soldiers in World War II) would visit the soldiers in Vietnam. They were flown out for a few hours, and they would talk with the soldiers. There were about 650 volunteers, who were all college graduates, and they would spend one year in Vietnam for minimal pay. They were a great morale booster.
When his duty station changed to higher ground, they had to look for tunnels. A small soldier, called a “tunnel rat,” would go through the tunnel. They never found Viet Cong soldiers in the tunnels, but they often found weapons. They would use C-4 explosive on the end of a stick, and blow up the tunnel entrance. One time, a farmer’s water buffalo charged the soldiers and they were forced to kill it. The farmer was able to file a claim, and get money to buy another water buffalo. One time, some Vietnamese boys, about 9 years old, asked to clean their rifles. They field stripped the weapons, applied oil, and reassembled them like a professional. They were shocked by their skill. They hoped it was because they were trained by a relative in the South Vietnamese Army, and not because they were Viet Cong boy soldiers.
His final duty station was the power station near Saigon. For sanitation, they would dump the latrine barrels in a burn pit, pour in diesel fuel, and set on fire. Even today, in some remote bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, they use burn pits. Two weeks before he left Vietnam, he went on his final patrol, and spent the remainder of his time filling sand bags. This reduced the likelihood of a soldier being killed days before he was to go home. Finally, his time in Vietnam came to an end, and he boarded a Freedom Bird at Tan Son Nhut Airfield, and they took off. The plane was silent until the plane cleared South Vietnamese airspace; then a cheer went up that they were really going home. He concluded with the statement that war has been described as “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” President Tim Ernst presented Steven Burchik with the SAR Certificate of Appreciation for the photo documentary of his experiences in Vietnam.