Combat Sniper-Turned-Art Photographer Jim Hendrickson on His Vagabond Life and Enigmatic Work
Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com). Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years. But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.
The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.
His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.
Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.
The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”
Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.
As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.
“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”
His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”
As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.
“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”
In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.
“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”
He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”
In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.
“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.
As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.
“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.
“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”
While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”
He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.
Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.
Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.
“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.
A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.
“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.
- How Snipers Succeed by Missing Their Targets (theqco.com)
- In the shadow of Vietnam: A close encounter with Karl Marlantes, US marine turned literary giant (independent.co.uk)
- Full Metal Jacket: history unzipped (guardian.co.uk)
- Darpa’s Super Sniper Scopes in Shooters’ Hands by 2011 (wired.com)
- Snipers targeting children in key Libyan city: UN (cbc.ca)