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Peaceful front

by David Gist, 13 March 2019

Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 15 Jan 1969 by David Combe
Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 15 Jan 1969 by David Combe  

Private Ernie Thomson of Erskinville, NSW, a medical assistant with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), gives an injection to a Vietnamese woman during a cordon and search of her village of Phu My.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

‘Is this one of yours?’ David Combe still remembers reading the letter from his father in early 1969. Like every soldier serving in Vietnam, he valued any missive from home. This one included a newspaper cutting from the front page of The Australian, featuring a photograph of an elderly Vietnamese woman receiving an injection from an Australian soldier. Combe’s father had kept close tabs on any photographs coming out of the conflict where his son was serving as a photographer with the Army’s Directorate of Public Relations (DPR). As it turned out, this was indeed one captured by the young Sergeant Combe.

The photograph was taken during a cordon and search operation in the village of Phu My. The village was cordoned off, and while homes and personal belongings were searched for weapons or other signs of enemy activity, army medical staff set up posts where the villagers could receive medical treatment. Such operations combined the pursuit of the enemy with the quest for ‘winning hearts and minds’, by demonstrating to the villagers that the Saigon government, through its Australian allies, could provide them with a better future than the Communist enemy. Or, as the Australian headline states: ‘mixing humanity with war’. A fine goal in theory, but in practice, says Combe, considering the difficulties experienced by the villagers, ‘[We] were the sugar pill in amongst the disruption caused to these peoples’ lives by the war.’

2790049 Sergeant (Sgt) David Reginald Combe, official Army Public Relations (PR) cinematographer documenting Christmas messages from Australian soldiers serving in Vietnam.  

Sgt Combe is operating an Aurion Pro 600 sound-on-film 16mm camera and carrying its battery pack with inbuilt AC inverter on his side. Sgt Combe served as an army PR photographer in Vietnam from November 1968 to November 1969. He was awarded the Army Public Relations Ilford trophy for picture of the year, 1968, for his photograph of Milo the tracker dog (see image COM/68/1049/VN). His collection of official photographs and cinefilm are held in the Australian War Memorial's National Collection.

Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Combe and his DPR colleagues photographed these and every other conceivable type of Australian Army operation. Their photos were created specifically for newspapers and magazines back in Australia, with the aim of encouraging support for Australia’s war in Vietnam. Like a classic DPR photograph, the original focus of the shot was the work of Private Ernie Thomson who is administering the injection, but the angle of his head means that most of his face is obscured by shadow, blending into the large area of shadow in the background. As a result, the photograph essentially becomes a portrait of the Vietnamese woman – it is her face that commands the observer’s attention. From Combe’s perspective, this was a face that exuded the stoicism and dignity that typified Vietnam’s civilian population, and which, he states, made such an impression on him during his service.

The cutting David Combe received in the mail all those years ago is now held in a scrapbook documenting his work in Vietnam. In addition to the personal fulfilment of family support, receiving the cutting was professionally significant because it was a rare occasion that a DPR photographer got to see his own work. It was the nature of the army’s workflow that the film shot by these men, both cine and still, was processed either in Saigon or sent back to Australia. Combe relates that this particular opportunity to see his work gave him an added thrill: ‘Every photographer wants a front page pic!’

David Combe, 2019

The work of David Combe and other Australian Army photographers is featured in ‘The Jungle Look’ in the Summer 2018/19 issue of Portrait magazine.