Vietnam War photo: the power of a caption

The New York Times recently reviewed my book, BOOTS ON THE GROUND: AMERICA'S WAR IN VIETNAM, and used this photograph to accompany the review. I'm thrilled they chose this photo, taken in 1966. It's a deceptive image, which is part of what makes it so powerful. At first glance, it looks humorous. Here's a marine in Vietnam, stopping to take a drink from his canteen. You see his rifle, his pack, his shovel, a square of fabric in his hand as if he has just wiped the sweat out of his eyes. It's the sign that you take in with that first glance that makes for the humor: Oakland, Calif. 11,000 mi. You can also feel an... incongruity, looking at the marine and the sign.

When the photo was originally published, the marine's name was not included, nor was the photographer. But it became an iconic photograph of the war's impact on California and was often reproduced. Decades after it was taken, the marine's sister saw it in an exhibition on California and the Vietnam era. Her brother, Claiborne L. Shaw.

A few months after this photo had been taken, he was killed.

Because we now know his name, I could honor him by putting his name in the caption. I could also find the location of his name on the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington DC, and add it to the caption: Panel 10E, Row 11.

There is a full story of his service and of his sister discovering his photograph on the Virtual Vietnam Veteran's memorial.

Here's the full caption: Marine Claiborne L. Shaw takes a break next to a sign showing the distance to Oakland, California, 1966. Shortly after this photo was taken Shaw was killed. He is honored on the Wall, Panel 10E, Row 11.