BANGOR, Maine — The Vietnam War photos were kept in a box on a shelf in a closet, stored away just like the memories the helicopter crew chief holding the camera has kept inside for more than four decades.
“He’s always been quiet about the war,” Cathy Flagg said of her husband of 46 years, retired Sgt. 1st Class Philip Flagg, a helicopter mechanic and platoon leader who joined the Maine Army National Guard after his tour of duty in Vietnam. The Flaggs live in Bangor.
The war veteran opened up with stories Friday as he explained the images he captured on film during his time flying in helicopters over the Central Highlands of South Vietnam for C Company, 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion.
“He’s told things [tonight] he’s never told me before,” his wife said after the first of four slide show presentations done as part of the Downtown Bangor Art Walk.
The images — shown to the public for the first time — picture Vietnamese children playing, women in shops selling their wares, boys and men walking or standing on the street, water buffalos, aerial images of villages and densely forested jungles with smoke billowing toward the sky, and, of course, the men he served with in the war, some of whom never came home.
A crash that killed his helicopter crew’s door gunner, Pvt. 1st Class Willie B. Cary, the day before he was to be done flying, is one memory that surfaced again and again as Cary’s photo — or pictures of the aircraft, which crashed on July 24, 1966 — surfaced in the slide show of 160 images.
“That was his last flight,” said Flagg, who served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1967.
When the helicopter went down, Flagg was able to help everyone aboard to safety except for the 21-year-old Cary, who was caught in the inferno that engulfed the craft. He couldn’t get to him, but he could hear his calls for help.
Flagg, who wore his dress uniform Friday, twisted a ring on his finger repeatedly as he told his stories.
The deadly crash that took his friend’s life also resulted in the destruction of hundreds of other pictures Flagg shot during the first of his two years in harm’s way.
“He lost all his slides and his camera,” said Jodi Renshaw, owner and photographer at Studio 36, who encouraged Flagg to display his images during the art walk.
The two met about three years ago when Flagg hired her to photograph his dog, and they have since become friends. The subject of his wartime photos came up one day when Renshaw mentioned how much she liked the helicopter images displayed in his office.
The next thing she knew, “he handed me five CDs, or computer disks, full of the images of Vietnam,” Renshaw said. “I was overwhelmed. His wife said he hadn’t shown them to anyone.”
Renshaw said she didn’t know what to expect when she first looked at the images but was pleasantly surprised.
“I was just in shock at some of what I saw. It was so beautiful,” she said. “It was something I didn’t expect to see out of shots in Vietnam.”
The beautiful landscapes and candid shots of the Vietnamese people are not the images people commonly associate with the Vietnam War, Renshaw said.
“I just thought the whole lot of them needed to be shown,” she said.
Along with the memories of friends he lost, Flagg told stories of digging foxholes, his company being told to stop shooting the elephants for meat because they belonged to the villages, wide swings in temperature and fish that came out of the ground when the rice paddies flooded each year.
There were also a few jokes about his commanders.
Flagg said he would like to return to Southeast Asia to hike in the area where he served.
“Vietnam was a beautiful country,” he said.
Cathy Flagg said she is grateful to Renshaw for encouraging her husband to show his photos and tell his stories.
“When they returned from Vietnam they were never recognized for their service,” his wife said. “Tonight, he is being recognized.”