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Valencia man recalls days as war photographer

Paul Berkowitz's footage to air on TV special Monday

Posted: March 3, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 3, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Paul Berkowitz, of Valencia, holds up a photograph of himself taken while he was a photographer in the Vietnam War from 1969-70.

Paul Berkowitz of Valencia will receive his 15 seconds of fame this evening when the retired Vietnam War photographer appears in an episode of the “Raw War” military show.

That’s 15 seconds more acclaim, however, than he — or any of the other 200 enlisted U.S. military photographers — ever received for documenting one of the nations’ most controversial wars.

Berkowitz and others assigned to the military’s unique 221st Signal Company (Pictorial) were given a 16-millimeter movie camera, a still camera and a .45 caliber pistol, then dropped off in Vietnam and into one of the most brutal conflicts witnessed last century.

Their mission: “To document the Vietnam War and provide a historical record of photography and audio visual services of what happened.”

Berkowitz worked as photo team leader with the 221st from July 1969 to March 1970. Photographers in the unit, he said, snapped everything from combat photography to “grip-and-grin” ceremonies.

“I’m proud of all our photographers,” Berkowitz told The Signal in an interview at his Valencia home Sunday. “They risked their lives but they were never really recognized. Yet their footage is used all the time — as if it shot itself.

“We never expected recognition back then, but now, I think it’s time we had some,” he said.

For the most part, their “life-risking” work sits in warehouses maintained by the National Archives — thousands of yards of film footage and hundreds of thousands of photographs — often without even the name of the photographer attached.

But as time goes on, more and more of that “stock footage” is being dusted off, digitized and — as in the case of Monday’s TV show — broadcast for the first time.

“We’re the only (Vietnam) unit still doing our job in getting our pictures out,” Berkowitz said. “Everything we did became a historical record.”

Berkowitz created a website with the primary purpose of acknowledging the hard and dangerous work down by his fellow official U.S. military photographers.

But the website not only reconnected surviving members of the 221st; it also enabled a good portion of their work to be made public for the first time.

One of the 221st veterans found a reel-to-reel audio copy of a rare 16 mm film recorded at the battle for Hill 724 at Dak To. He reached out to Berkowitz with the audio tape, which had been left in a drawer for 40 years.

“From all our company records, no film had come back from Dak To,” Berkowitz said.

With keen interest, he digitized the audio recording, then contacted some veterans of the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry who fought the battle on Nov. 11, 1967.

“It was this horrific battle — one of the worst of the war,” Berkowitz said. “The brave men who died on that hill deserved better.”

With information garnered from the audio recording, the “lost film” of the battle was found at the National Archives.

On Monday at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m, the Military Channel is expected to show the film in an episode of “Raw War” called “Lost Film,” billing the show as “an exclusive first look” at the battle of Dak To.”

Berkowitz said the show provides “over-due recognition” for the role of the military combat photographer — while at the same time honoring the men who fought this little known battle.


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