Kenneth Altazan didn't think much about it at the time.

The bullets, the injuries, the death. Just about every day put him in harm's way.

In death's way.

But the 21-year-old Marine sergeant just did his job, day after horrific day.

Recently though, it all came flooding back as the now 72-year-old walked into the West Baton Rouge Museum's exhibit, "Picturing Nam: U.S. Military Photography of the Vietnam War."

"When I turned the corner and saw those pictures of the injured men, it all came back to me," he said. "That was stuff I saw every day in Vietnam."

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Altazan, who in 2015 received the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor that can be bestowed for heroism, was the crew chief on a medical evacuation helicopter and flew hundreds of missions in Vietnam. He and his crew were credited with carrying out 10 wounded and two dead servicemen from an active fire zone in a single day.

"He said, 'This was our war,'" said the museum's Kathe Hambrick of Altazan's visit. "And that says it all."

Hambrick, curator of exhibits, added to the photographs and artifacts in the National Archives traveling display with pieces from local residents, including Altazan.

But it's the photos, shot by military photographers, that tell the story of America's youth at war. There's the soldier intent on a letter from home captured in stark black and white. The saturated color of men shoulder-deep in the "Killer Swamp," holding on to a rope and balancing their equipment above the murky brown water. The seeming quiet of Mass being said on a hillside while a soldier keeps watch from above.

Just how young these combatants were is perhaps best illustrated in the exhibit's centerpiece photograph of a Marine waiting on the beach during the U.S. Marine's landing in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Aug. 3, 1965.  

"When I look at some photos in this show, I can see fear, but when I look at the young marine in that photo, I see innocence," Hambrick said. "He was so young. They all were."

The photographers, just as young as the soldiers, went into the jungles and swamps, forward bases, hospital ships, rivers and air bases. They captured the unsanitized and uncensored.

It's those shots that strike a chord with many veterans of the conflict. 

For Altazan, the photo of Marine Cpl. Fred E. Kelso, his face bloodied and a bandage on his head, is a reminder of the rescues that ultimately led to his own heroic feat. 

Altazan served two tours in a Marine helicopter squadron, whose main job was evacuating soldiers from hot battle spots. 

On May 9, 1969, Altazan and his crew were responding to a call of 10-plus Marines trapped in an area overwhelmed by enemy forces. At the second of five landings, Altazan saw one Marine carrying another. Both men fell, and Altazan ran to them in open fire, picked up one Marine and began helping them. As they moved to the helicopter, the Marine Altazan was carrying was shot, and they all collapsed, severely injuring Altazan’s knee. He stood back up, however, and pushed forward.

At the fifth landing, despite the excruciating pain in his knee, Altazan went out again under enemy fire to help two more people. Altazan pulled one unconscious man onto his shoulders, carrying him and stumbling to safety while he assisted the other. 

Altazan was awarded the Silver Star, which 46 years later was upgraded to the Navy Cross.

"We couldn't think about the danger," he said these many years later. "We couldn't let that stop us. We had a job to do, so we just did it."

Was he too young to contemplate death? Altazan doesn't think so.

"It's what we were trained to do," he said. "And we couldn't leave them out there. We just did it."

Other veterans also loaned items to the show, and the USS Kidd's Veterans Museum loaned uniforms worn by local residents.

Hambrick also enlisted the help of the Museum of Military Families in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which supplied examples of soldiers' communications to their families, including one soldier's handwritten postcard while in training at Fort Polk.

But the show's most moving communication is an audio tape made by a young soldier at Christmastime.

"Cassette tapes were made available to the soldiers so they could talk to their families," Hambrick says. "In this one, you can hear that he's trying to make it sound like everything is OK, but you can hear in his voice that it isn't."


'Picturing Nam: U.S. Military Photography of the Vietnam War'

A National Archives traveling exhibit

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through Jan. 6.

WHERE: West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen.

ADMISSION: $4; $2 for ages 62 and older, students, AAA members and active military. Free for West Baton Rouge Parish residents. 

INFORMATION: (225) 336-2422 or westbatonrougemuseum.com  


Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.