Mar 172019

The lead image here is called “Burst of Joy” a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder, taken on this date, 1973 at Travis Air Force Base in California. The photograph came to symbolize the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and the prevailing sentiment that military personnel and their families could begin a process of healing after enduring the horrors of war. I will talk about Vietnam’s healing after the atrocities committed by the U.S. military in a bit (yesterday was the anniversary of the Mỹ Lai Massacre in 1968).

The first group of POWs leaving the prison camps in North Vietnam left Hanoi on a U.S. Air Force Lockheed C-141 Starlifter strategic airlift aircraft nicknamed the Hanoi Taxi, which flew them to Clark Air Base in the Philippines for medical examinations. On March 17th, the plane landed at Travis Air Force Base in California. Even though there were only 20 POWs of that first increment released aboard the plane, almost 400 family members turned up for the homecoming. Lt Col Robert L. Stirm, USAF gave a speech, “on behalf of himself and other POW’s who had arrived from Vietnam as part of Operation Homecoming.”

Smithsonian Magazine says that “Veder, who’d been standing in a crowded bullpen with dozens of other journalists, noticed the sprinting family and started taking pictures. ‘You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air’.” Veder then rushed to the makeshift photo developing station (for 35 mm film) in the ladies’ room of the air base’s flightline washrooms, while the photographers from United Press International were in the men’s. Smithsonian Magazine says that “In less than half an hour, Veder and his AP colleague Walt Zeboski had developed six remarkable images of that singular moment. Veder’s pick, which he instantly titled “Burst of Joy,” was sent out over the news-service wires”.

The photograph depicts United States Air Force Lt Col Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family, after spending more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on October 27th, 1967, while leading a flight of F-105s on a bombing mission, and was not released until March 14th, 1973. The centerpiece of the photograph is Stirm’s 15-year-old daughter Lorrie, who is excitedly greeting her father with outstretched arms, as the rest of the family approaches directly behind her.

Despite outward appearances, the reunion was an unhappy one for Stirm. Three days before he arrived in the United States, the same day he was released from captivity, Stirm received a “Dear John” letter from his wife Loretta (running happily to greet him in the photo) informing him that their marriage was over. Stirm later learned that Loretta had been sleeping with his fellow officers back home throughout his captivity, receiving marriage proposals from three of them. In 1974, the Stirms divorced and Loretta remarried, but Stirm was still ordered by the courts to provide her with 43% of his military retirement pay for alimony and child support once he retired from the Air Force. Stirm was later promoted to full Colonel and retired from the Air Force in 1977.

So . . . how much of what we see in the photo is real? The photo became the image of what the end of the war meant for the United States, but it is an extraordinarily limited depiction of all that was actually going on. Even at that moment Stirm felt utterly betrayed by his wife. Ever after, he could not bring himself to look at the photo. Certainly the joy of his children was real. Certainly, also, the feeling of joy of the US nation was quite real. The feeling in Vietnam was not in any sense equivalent. The country had been oppressed by the French colonial masters for well over 100 years, and, when they were finally evicted, the country was divided by civil war, and the US moved in to support the South against the North. When the US finally pulled out – defeated – the country had been devastated by endless bombing, chemical attacks, and civilian massacres. “Burst of Joy” is a reasonable depiction of the relief that the US felt at the ending of a war that had divided the nation politically, but the US did not have to face the decades of reconstruction and renewal that Vietnam had to face. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but this one tells a most lopsided story. Pardon me, but I live on the Mekong Delta across from Saigon, so you will understand that my vision is a little skewed.

Pho is the classic Vietnamese dish that can be found in infinite varieties across Vietnam. Pho with beef is absolutely standard, and the heart of the dish is the broth made by long boiling of marrow bones with spices. This video gives you the general idea but you have to go to Vietnam for the real experience. These days you can buy concentrates to make the broth at home, but they do not have the richness nor complexity of a broth made from scratch.


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