March 17, 1969. That’s the day that Spec. 5 David A. Russell didn’t come back.
First Lt. Don Fedynak arrived the next day. Or, as he says, a day too late.
“I never met him, but I still felt responsible for his death because he was on my watch,” says Don, who had come to Can Tho, a city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, to command the Vietnam War camera crew Russell was in. “I had to go with another photographer to identify his body. I have been haunted by what happened to him ever since.”
For a long time, Don didn’t allow himself to get too close to the facts. But as the decades have elapsed, he has put together more of the details.
Russell, who had made a name for himself saving a Vietnamese family during the 1968 battle of Bien Hoa, was climbing Nui Coto Mountain with troops when a firefight broke out.
In the thick of battle, Russell never put down his movie camera. Standing ram-rod straight as bullets rained down, he was shot straight through the chest.
“People told me he was a crazy kid, a risk taker,” Don says. “It was 10 years before it even hit me that he died on St. Patrick’s Day. For me, in Vietnam, it was just another day at work. Vietnam veterans didn’t get any homecoming parades; I still get rather emotional when I watch the St. Pat’s parade.”
Don, who is 76, has been thinking about Russell a lot lately because he is writing a fictional memoir of his war days.
Memory’s a tricky thing, and Don can’t be sure of what he knew/didn’t know at the time so he thought it best of create characters.
The character he’s named Russo tells Russell’s story.
He had no qualms about changing Russell’s name because “as cameramen, we were anonymous to the troops. Nobody knew our names.”
Although cameramen saw battle, it was, Don says, from a different perspective.
“The war’s cameramen were like free-range chickens who were sent all over the country,” he says. “We didn’t stay in the field. When we were out of film, we were out of business. Unlike the soldiers, we had the luxury of going back to base and sleeping in warm beds.”
The cameramen – Don lugged a behemoth Bell and Howell Filmo movie camera for official business and a 35mm Minolta SR-T 101 for personal shots – accompanied soldiers in combat.
“We also visited morgues and documented doctors treating civilians,” he says. “There were military dogs, so we even filmed their veterinarians.”
The color slides he took for himself focused on his own unit and civilian life. He still has the Minolta. It’s somewhere in his basement.
That Don was even in the war was of his own making. Unlike a lot of other young men, Don wanted to serve his country in the protest-provoking war.
“I was having second thoughts about the war,” he says. “I felt it was unjust, but I also felt that so were a lot of other wars.”
Don, who grew up in a five-story walkup on the Upper East Side of Manhattan surrounded by cousins and within earshot of grandparents, had decided to make art his career.
It was a logical choice. His father, after all, was a commercial artist who worked in the Graybar Building.
“When he had to work on Saturdays, I sometimes went with him,” he says. “I used to play with the airbrush.”
In high school, Don dabbled in art. He studied advertising at Pratt Institute, where he joined the ROTC.
After two years, he transferred to the School of Visual Arts, where he met Sandy, who 11 years later became his wife.
A course in animation sparked his interest in film.
“I wasn’t in school to avoid the draft,” he says. “After graduation, I was waiting for a draft notice. When it didn’t come, I went to the draft board to ask for one.”
He reported for duty in the Army in 1967, where he trained for the infantry and entered Officer Candidate School.
“Most of the people I knew went into the military,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss that because I thought it could be one of the last great adventures of my life before I settled down.”
His photography background landed him in the Army Pictorial Center in Astoria. Assigned to the director’s branch, he traveled around the country making training and informational films.
On Jan. 20, 1969, Don was sent to Long Binh, Vietnam, where he was with the 221st Signal Corps, the Army’s largest photo unit.
He was headed to Can Tho when Russell was gunned down.
Don, who has Good Conduct, National Defense Service and Vietnam Service Medals as well as a Bronze Star, was never wounded.
“I carried a .45-caliber sidearm pistol, but the only thing I ever shot was pictures,” he says.
When Don’s year in country was up, he decided to return to civilian life.
He spent his career as a film editor, working for CBS, NBC, ABC, Channel 13 and even Major League Baseball.
In 2002, he retired, devoting his free time to veterans’ causes.
A past president of the Queens Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, he was featured in the documentary Unseen Warriors: Army Combat Cameramen in the Vietnam War.
Often, Don does research at the National Archives, where his Army photos and films are stored.
“I’m busier now than I ever was when I was working,” he says, adding that it’s common for him to work until 2 or 3 in the morning.
When he’s not writing about his war experiences, he’s helping Sandy, a cartoonist, with her business.
“I’m her production guy,” he says.
As far as Russell’s story, Don says writing it down is helping ease his mind.
“I’m still trying to get more details,” he says. “Even after all these years, I can’t seem to shake it out of my mind.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.
Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling