Thái Bình, Vietnam
2 months from the conclusion of the First Indochina War
Relentlessly, the rain continued to fall. Thick clouds over the Vietnamese jungle blocked out much of the sun’s light, turning the early morning into a joyless dusk. Raindrops zipped and pinged off every surface, a painful reminder of comrades and friends taken by bullets.
Soldiers were coming and going, loading trucks, preparing for the journey. It was an evacuation. The men knew that France would not be victorious in her self-proclaimed ‘war against communism’. This did not sadden the men, nor did it bring particular comfort. Innumerous horrors witnessed much too young had brought numb detachment to many among their number. A team of soldiers hoisted a large chest into the back of the truck, whilst another planted detonator charges on a diesel generator. French soldiers would not be returning here.
Only one among the last hundreds to leave the camp was not a Frenchman. Robert Capa, armed only with a camera, stood motionless in the centre of this hive of activity. His dark eyes watched as empty shells of men loaded full shells of explosives onto the backs of trucks. With the same practised ease that many of the surrounding soldiers might load a rifle, the Hungarian with the American name slid a roll of film into his battered Minolta.
With the trucks nigh on loaded, a whistle blew. At once, the men formed into short rows before their pre-assigned vehicle, and saluted the tricolour for a final time. Even in these final months of a lost war, ridiculous military formality remained.
Capa mused on this, framing his final photographs of the camp. The whistle again sounded, and the men climbed aboard. Walking smartly over to the truck he was to ride in, the photographer looked inside to the darkness within. Counting 15 pairs of boots and gaunt eyes staring back at him, he ran a hand through his grey-flecked hair and took a seat.
Not long departing his thirties, Capa had promised himself that this would be his last assignment as a war photographer. Too many friends lost, too many close calls. While not enjoyable work, it brought a grim sense of satisfaction – photographing conflict was a deadly vice which he had endured for years. Having resolved never to return to the battlefield, Capa aspired to turning his hand to the pen, and becoming a writer instead.
The trucks began moving, one by one, until the only thing which remained of the French was a red, white and blue flag, hanging limply in the rain. It was an adequate metaphor for the morale of the soldiers.
Unpaved dirt roads played havoc with the suspension of the convoy’s vehicles. This, paired with the unforgiving wooden bench seats on which the French men, and one Hungarian, sat, made for an uncomfortable journey.
Eyes now accustomed to the gloom, Capa saw that the troops sitting near to him were perhaps two decades his junior. The man, if he could be called that, to his immediate right was the youngest of them all – no older than 18 years. Capa had photographed this face many times throughout his career. He was young, terrified and likely only in the military for want of alternatives.
Removing a battered silver lighter from his breast pocket, Capa efficiently lit a cigarette. He offered the cigarettes around the truck. Most soldiers refused, some did not even acknowledge his presence. Whilst running a thumbnail down the lighter’s well worn engraving-‘Taro’- the photographer sighed deeply, swallowing down a memory.
The silence continued inside the truck for several hours, punctuated only by staccato drumbeats of raindrops striking the tarpaulin roof.
All at once, the convoy stopped. The soldiers in the truck barely reacted. Stepping off the back of the stationary vehicle, camera in hand, Capa went to investigate.
Walking down the convoy, it was not quite clear what was amiss. After reaching the lead truck, however, the photographer understood. The vehicle sat with its bonnet open, engineers buzzing around its engine like flies. The erratic alternating between baking sun and oppressive rain, which was all too common in the jungle of Vietnam, often caused machinery to grind to a halt unexpectedly. Fortune had it that the company possessed skilled mechanics, but this was still an unwanted interlude in the convoy’s progress.
Capa stood in the rain, observing and capturing the work of the men. With his imperfect grasp of French, Capa could make out that a fan belt had snapped due to the elastic range of temperatures.
A short time later, the men had completed their work, and were performing final tests to ensure that the problem would not recur. With the intention of photographing the advance of the trucks, a rain-soaked Robert Capa continued down the muddy dirt road. The lighter’s cryptic clue was suddenly at the forefront of his mind, memories popping up out of nowhere as they had done so many times over the years. 100 or so yards along the road, the photographer turned to face the vehicles. There was an engine coughing and the trucks began to move forward. Capa, viewfinder to eye, took a step back, camera trained on the convoy, another small step and then another. There was a bright flash. His world ended. The landmine was not kind to his ragdoll body.
* * *
There she stood. Beautiful, as ever. Forever smiling, happy, just as he remembered her. Clothed in white, angelic, perfect. White, everywhere. Pure, unmarred white. No pain. White.
‘Taro,’ Robert Capa whispered gently into the void ‘Taro.’
The man’s body was still. Capa and Taro were reunited once more.