An Army grunt's astonishing 1970 photos capture a hellish Vietnam firefight
In April 1970, 22-year-old James Speed Hensinger, an enlisted man in the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, was stationed at a compound in Phu Tai, west of the coastal city of Qui Nhon, Vietnam.
Over the course of several nights, a lone Viet Cong fighter had repeatedly crept in among the rocks on a mountain overlooking the base and sprayed the camp with automatic AK-47 fire, perforating the sheet-metal roofs of the Americans' hooches, killing one man and vexing the rest.
The soldiers were told that an overwhelming response would be prepared for the next time the "sniper" decided to strike.
Hensinger, sensing an opportunity, stuffed his Nikon camera, 50mm f/1.4 lens, and Ektachrome film (with a speed of ISO 64, usually used only in bright daylight) into the pocket of his fatigues. He timed his appearance for guard duty to make sure that he would be assigned to the watch tower with the widest view of the mountain and base.
When the first shots rang out, he rested his camera on a sandbag and pointed it toward the action. Using a cable release, he captured a series of long exposures, 15 to 60 seconds long, as the Army unleashed a hellish barrage.
An M42 "Duster" tank swept the mountain with twin 40mm anti-aircraft autocannons, while soldiers in guard towers opened up with a .50-caliber machine gun and M60 machine guns.
The rocky hillside was illuminated by hand-launched flares, high-explosive rounds and tracer rounds (which were loaded into the ammo belts one for every four normal bullets — meaning the visible streaks in the images represent only a fifth of the rounds being poured out).
At daybreak, patrols went up the mountain, searching among the massive boulders for a sign of their target. They found a small blood trail one morning, but the sniper had vanished.
During his tour of duty, Hensinger mailed dozens of rolls of film home, but asked his parents not to have them developed without him there — he had lied about his situation in Vietnam and didn't want them worrying about his safety.
Hensinger now lives outside Denver, Colorado, and still enjoys shooting pictures.