Legendary Photos: The Stories Behind 5 of David Hume Kennerly’s Iconic Images

Photo of Vietnam by David Hume Kennerly
© Getty Images

Lone Soldier on Devastated Hillside Saigon

In 1972, after a year in the field I became UPI’s photo bureau chief in Saigon and lived above the office. UPI news bureau chief Bert Okuley was in the same building. One morning he woke me at 4:00 A.M. sounding agitated. “You’d better come down here and have a look at this message.”

Naturally I assumed that something had gone wrong with the transmission of pictures from the day before sent via radio transmission to New York, and the main office was getting on my case, so I ran down the stairs from my apartment into Okuley’s office. “Look at this,” he said, handing me a sheet of paper torn from the wire machine.

“01170 SAIGON-KENNERLY HAS WON PULITZER FOR FEATURE PHOTOGRAPHY, WHICH BRINGS CONGRATS FROM ALL HERE. NOW NEED EFFORT SOME QUOTES FROM HIM AND PINPOINT HIS LOCATION WHEN ADVISED FOR SIDEBAR STORY, BRANNAN/NX CABLES.”

What? I was dumbfounded. I had won the highest award in photography and hadn’t even known that I’d been nominated? Surely there was a mistake. Okuley sent a message to New York, asking for clarification:

“02054 EXHSG BRANNAN’S 01170 ARE YOU KIDDING? IF SO, IT ISN’T MUCH OF A JOKE. IS THERE A PULITZER AWARDED TO A UNIPRESS PHOTOG AND IS IT KENNERLY? OKULEY.”

Then the wire machine broke down and we were in the dark. For over three hours we were cut off from the world.

The wire finally sprang back to life:

“01181 OKULEYS 02054 NO KIDDING AND CAN YOU REACH KENNERLY FOR SUDDEN COMMENT NEED TO KNOW WHERE HE WAS WHEN HE GOT THE NEWS. WOOD/NX CABLES.”

The Pulitzer Prize is the premier award in the news business, something photographers and writers dream of winning but rarely do. Without my knowledge, Larry DeSantis had submitted a portfolio of pictures I’d taken in Vietnam, India, and Cambodia to the Pulitzer committee. The citation from the Pulitzer committee read: “For an outstanding example of feature photography, awarded to David Hume Kennerly of United Press International for his dramatic pictures of the Vietnam War. They also noted that, “he specializes in pictures that capture the loneliness and desolation of war.”

The portfolio included eleven pictures. The representative image, according to the Pulitzer committee, was the one I’d taken of a 101st Airborne soldier, his weapon at the ready, as he walked over the scarred landscape of blown-up hillside.

I well remember taking that shot, and it didn’t seem like a prize-winner at the time. It was, however, a real “wait for it” moment. The area was extremely dangerous. The terrain looked like a moonscape due to damage caused by heavy fighting, airstrikes, and artillery hits. There was a Vietcong bunker at the left, its occupants killed, and wood reduced to kindling-size pieces strewn everywhere.

I was directly across on another hill 100 yards away when I saw a GI making his way up the slope to the right. If he continued straight, I could frame him between some jagged trees that jutted out in the foreground. I zeroed in on that spot with a 200mm lens and prayed he wouldn’t stop. He didn’t. For just a brief moment, he walked into the clearing between the stumps, and I had my picture. It was just another day looking for the right moment and angle, and it paid off.

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