As soon as he opens the box the memories come rushing back. Septuagenarian Christopher Gaynor has lived a long life since returning from Vietnam, but seeing the photos he took of his comrades for the first time in four decades takes him back to a war many have chosen to forget.
“It was completely overwhelming,” the vet told TIME. “All my buddies from 40 years previously [were] looking at me from these pictures, even the guys who weren’t with us anymore.” Even though he spent just 13 months in Vietnam, the memories he made there would last a lifetime.
Gaynor was just 21 when he arrived in the Far East. Before joining the military he dreamed of becoming a classical guitarist; joining the 84th Artillery Regiment, however, would change his life forever.
The 84th Regiment saw heavy fighting in 1967 and 1968 – the years Gaynor was active. The bravery of the men later saw the regiment awarded the Republic of Vietnam’s Gallantry Cross.
When he wasn’t manning a Howitzer 105 mm artillery gun Gaynor was busy taking pictures. While he had no photography training he carefully studied the work of war reporters. His photos remain some of the most moving and honest accounts of men at war.
Some of the photos he took on his Asahi Pentax SLR are worthy of the photojournalists he emulated. Despite being an amateur Gaynor documented the likes of artillery trucks rumbling through the Vietnamese countryside and helicopters dropping off vital supplies.
The pictures also depict young soldiers patrolling the Vietnamese jungle and countryside. Through his lens Gaynor documented first-hand the mixture of terror and boredom experienced by thousands of American troops.
Getting photos printed in a war zone wasn’t easy. Every time Gaynor wanted to develop a roll of film he took it to base camp’s Post Exchange, from where it would be sent to Kodak for processing. Kodak would then mail the pics to Vietnam.
When the vet arrived back home it became apparent that few people were ready to see his images – the anti-war movement had grown stronger and stronger, after all. So Gaynor decided to store his photos in an old mouthwash box and put it to one side.
Gaynor spent the next few years in Europe, only returning to the U.S. in 1975 when the Vietnam War had finished. But when he did arrive back home he still wasn’t ready to open up his box of memories.
Even if he wanted to Gaynor couldn’t leave the Vietnam War behind. He may have returned from Asia safe and sound, but in 2007 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was to prove a life-changing moment.
He believes it was brought on by his being exposed to Agent Orange during the conflict. The chemical defoliant mixture was used to clear sections of Vietnamese jungle and also to blow the enemy’s cover.
At the time of his diagnosis Gaynor was sponsoring a Boy Scouts troop. One of the scouts learned of the vet’s photos and thought they would come in handy for a project, so Gaynor was persuaded to retrieve them from the mouthwash box for the first time.
If Gaynor had any doubts about bringing old memories back to life they vanished as soon as he opened the lid. “I looked at them and they all came alive again,” he recalled to TIME.
It was the downtime scenes that brought back the strongest memories. One image of a comrade relaxing was particularly evocative. It had the caption, “Zzzzzz. My buddy and fellow Team Chief Sgt. Mel German catches a few before we join the convoy out to the next field position.”
Not all memories, however, are pleasant. One photo shows Dick Jackson, a friend and comrade of Gaynor, shaving. In 1968 the 20-year-old was killed in action.
When the Boy Scout project was finished Gaynor decided that his remarkable photos should no longer be stored away. It was time, he decided, to embrace his past – and to keep the memories of his deceased comrades alive.
Since 2007 the vet has played an active role in The American Legion, while he’s also made contact with the relatives of some of his comrades who didn’t make it back from Vietnam. Gaynor even acted as a consultant for In Country, a Vietnam War reenactment movie.
His photographs have since been published in a book, A Soldier Boy Hears the Distant Guns. The 200-page publication also includes the letters Gaynor wrote during his time on the battlefield.
Gaynor hopes that his published photos will help fellow veterans confront their own wartime memories and make peace with their pasts. For everyone else his images serve as powerful reminders that the Vietnam War was as much about ordinary human beings as conflicting ideologies.