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Specialist 5 Verland A. Gilbertson

Stills Photographer

C Company, 121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division

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     On August 27, 1927, Verland Ansel Gilbertson was born to Ansel and Gladys Gilbertson in Wausau, Wisconsin. A navy veteran of the First World War, his father Ansel provided for the family working as a salesman and, in his free time, enjoyed hunting and fishing with the young Verland. By the early 1940s, the family moved to Pasadena, California, where Verland furthered his education at Pasadena Junior College. Here he picked up photography, which he soon fell in love with. By the time WWII broke out, Verland felt an obligation to serve his country but was too young. Doing what he could, he joined his school’s ROTC and prepared to go overseas in 1945, however, he did not turn eighteen until both Germany and Japan had surrendered. He served briefly during the occupation, then returned to the States to study photography at John Muir College. 

     It wasn’t long until he found himself in a different war as Verland was called up to fight in the first days of the Korean War, going overseas with the 3rd Infantry Division. As a rifleman, Verland saw a lot of the early combat of the war during the UN offensive, first landing at Wonsan. He also landed alongside the 1st Marine Division at Hungnam where he and the rest of the 3rd Division defended the port as the rest of the X Corps withdrew. After this, the division slowly made its way past Seoul until a major offensive from the Soviet-backed People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) pushed them just outside of the city. The division was placed in reserve towards the beginning of 1951 and then used in establishing the defense of the central part of Korea, around Seoul and the infamous “Iron Triangle”. This triangle of cities, consisting of Pyongyang, Cheorwon, and Kimhwa, acted as a PVA stronghold of sorts and provided a solid pocket for the army to attack from. In June the 3rd Division was able to take one of these cities, Cheorwon, then slowly moved through Kimhwa. As the armistice negotiations took effect shortly after, much of the fighting for Gilbertson’s unit turned into holding defensive positions. In October the division was once again placed in reserve and he was discharged after only seeing the war for a little over a year. 


     Returning to California, Gilbertson took this opportunity to study photography further and briefly did some work in radio plays. However, he once again felt drawn to the service and reenlisted in the Signal Corps as a photographer. Gilbertson received advanced training in New Jersey to hone his skills with a camera and was finally able to turn his passion into a job. Tragically, at the turn of the new year in December 1954, his father was killed in a car accident. Always close to his father, his passing had a large impact on Verland. To take his mind off things Verland volunteered for an assignment with radiation and atomic bomb testing in Nevada. In a unique task here, he engineered a method to judge how much radiation soldiers absorbed during the Desert Rock atomic maneuvers. With a clever use of film, the amount of radiation would be judged based on how dark certain ‘film badges’ were upon being developed. Here he also photographed a few atomic bomb tests, even moving close to ground zero to take pictures of the aftermath of the explosions.

     Nearly 10 years later SP4 Gilbertson found himself overseas once again, this time with US troops touching down in Vietnam in 1965. Initially he sat behind a desk with Advisory Team 9 in Saigon through 1966. Dealing with ordinance logistics and training the Republic of Vietnam’s military, Gilbertson quickly found the work to be very stale and monotonous. He put in a request to transfer to a combat photographer position, longing to be alongside his fellow GIs in the field and take pictures from the frontlines. To his excitement, the request was granted in 1967 and he was reassigned to the 121st Signal Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division. Over the next few months, Gilbertson accompanied different elements of the 1st ID on “search and destroy” missions, which consisted of dropping troops in the countryside, seeking out Viet Cong (VC), destroying what they could, and then withdrawing. During these he anxiously followed GI as they made their way through the dense jungle, trying to secure whatever ground they could. As the year progressed, most of these missions were around Bến Cát and the Saigon River, just outside of Saigon. Additionally, during this time he photographed at least 25 missions from a helicopter, for which he was awarded an Air Medal.

     In early October, Gilbertson received orders to follow the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Infantry Regiment “Black Lions” when they were sent to Chon Thanh village during Operation Shenandoah II. The operation sought to launch an offensive to secure Highway 13, which stretched from the Cambodian border to Saigon, to supply and build up forces from the bordering country. In the area, other elements of the 1st ID had been launching and defending attacks against the VC’s 271st Regiment which was starving from a lack of food brought on by the US Army’s search and destroy missions. After a few weeks, the GIs whittled down some of the Viet Cong forces and began calling the operation a success. The celebration was delayed when the division became aware of increased activity along the Ong Thanh Stream. Along the stream, Gilbertson and the 2nd Battalion quickly set up defensive positions.


     As the sun rose on October 16, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terry Allen Jr., led a patrol from the defenses through dense forests where they found a VC bunker belonging to the 271st Regiment. After ordering an artillery strike, the two-company patrol moved into the camp shooting at any VC they could see in the area before withdrawing to create a perimeter for another artillery strike. They repeated this process several times until Allen decided to call off the attack and return to American lines in hopes of avoiding an all-day battle. Upon their return, Gilbertson followed Allen to a meeting with Brigadier General William Coleman and other 1st ID senior officers to explain the encounter and devise a plan to attack again. He photographed the conversation, where Allen decided to launch a full-frontal assault on the base. The commander of D Company, First Lieutenant Clark Welch, advised against this, suggesting they didn’t have enough troops and should instead try to get a larger force before reengaging. Insulted by the suggestion, Allen reassigned Welch’s company to the back of the assault and instead chose A Company to lead, completely disregarding his fears. The decision was made to stay for the night and move out to engage the enemy early in the morning.

     On October 17, Gilbertson moved out with A and D Companies from the 2nd Battalion in a single file line to photograph them attacking the VC camp from a different position than the previous encounter. While walking, multiple patrols were sent out ahead of the companies, with some sighting enemy troops who quickly disappeared before any rounds could be fired. Minutes later, the head of the line noticed some trees moving, followed by some clicking sounds. Then, as described by combat medic Tom Hinger, “it sounded like every weapon in the world was being fired.” The Battle of Ong Thanh began; a three-sided ambush from the entire Vietnamese regiment opened fire on the roughly 150 Americans, who immediately ducked for cover.


     In utter chaos and confusion, the 2nd Battalion shot at whatever muzzle flashes they could see in an attempt to hold off the overwhelming force. Completely disregarding the incoming fire and bodies dropping around him, Gilbertson continuously ran through the battlefield to photograph the firefight to the best of his ability. He refused to take cover as he looked through his viewfinder and clicked the shutter, grabbing whatever pictures he could while the companies around him were riddled with shot and shell. For his unwavering devotion to his documentary task, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for valor. His citation reads as follows: 


Specialist Gilbertson ignored intense enemy fire and moved throughout the battle area to obtain a comprehensive film report of the engagement. Realizing the importance of his mission, he never once took cover from enemy fire. As he maneuvered down the line to reach a more advantageous position from which to photograph the battle, he was wounded by the insurgent fire. His accomplishment of such an important mission can only be attributed to his extraordinary courage under fire.


As he moved further, the enemy fire got heavier. The ambush was nothing short of a massacre and left only about ten to twenty men uninjured.

     While he was moving down the line, the enemy fire continued to rain around him. Amongst the hundreds of rounds being fired at the Americans, Verland was struck and lost his life at the age of 40, killed in action during the brutal ambush. In an instant, his mother would never be able to hug him again—leaving her without a husband or son. She would never be able to watch him marry the girl of his dreams, which he planned to do at the end of his enlistment. His sweetheart would never be able to spend the rest of her life with him or grow old alongside him. Although the pain of loss can never fully vanish, the loved ones of Verland had some solace in the fact that they knew he died doing what he loved: photography. As his mother said about him, when doing anything, “photography came first.”

     After an extensive firefight bolstered by reinforcements, the jungle went quiet and the surviving GIs were able to escape back to US lines. The battle proved a massive disaster.  Besides the dozens of enlisted men and officers strewing the battlefield, Lieutenant Colonel Allen was also killed in the attack, a bullet through his temple. According to a 2003 article written by witnesses to the carnage, there were "bodies everywhere" and the air fouled by "the strong, rotten smell of dead bodies." The authors of the article described finding the body of Verland, that he was "out on his first photography shoot with their battalion," but left on the ground beside the men he attempted to capture on film. Others among the dead appeared to have been executed, many killed without ever seeing the face of the enemy. It was a "bloodbath" that the survivors never forgot. D Company's First Sergeant, Bud Barrow, survived the attack with ninety-two shrapnel wounds but broke down into tears upon his rescue by reinforcements. "I ain't worth a damn," he muttered through tears, "they killed all my boys."

     Back in the States, the battle was spun into a massive coverup with survivors being told to specifically never mention the word “ambush” to the press. Headlines in newspapers focused on how many VC were killed without mentioning the number of Americans and made the encounter seem like a successful defense against a Viet Cong attack. With the war being so controversial at home, many encounters like this were twisted in the press to try to show a gallant and successful war, despite the many Americans dying overseas. Regardless, around 60 families were sent letters that their sons would never come home after that day, and those who survived had to fabricate the circumstances that led to the deaths of their comrades.

     When Gilbertson’s camera was recovered it was found that a single photo from the engagement survived. Taken prior to the ambush, the picture depicted Allen and his officers planning the next morning's battle. It has since become the most recognizable photograph of the operation and arguably one of the most famous from the early years of the Vietnam War. Another one of his photos was posthumously published on the cover of one of the first volumes of “Danger Forward,” the 1st Infantry Division's news magazine that is still in production today. After the battle, Verland was sent home and buried in Covina, California. Years later in 1982, his name was permanently engraved onto black granite, on line 24 of panel 28E at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the wall, he is joined by over 58,000 of his brothers in arms, a few dozen of whom were fellow photographers, who lost their lives or went missing while serving in Vietnam.

Testimony from survivors of the ambush at Ong Thanh

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