As an Air Force man during the Vietnam War, Roger Arnold didn’t spend much time on the ground.
When he did accompany ground troops, he did a lot of shooting. But he did it with a camera.
Arnold had originally wanted to be a cook when he enlisted in 1954, just after the end of the Korean War. But he was assigned instead to be a photographer.
Arnold joined up just after graduating high school. He said he couldn’t get a civilian job because employers kept asking if he’d done his military service yet.
He said one of the most interesting assignments of his career began in 1960, when he was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. While there, he served as a command photographer taking pictures of all the dignitaries coming in — among them soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy and future president Lyndon Johnson.
“You got to go to all the functions that all the big shots were at and say you were a lowly airman but you were there taking pictures,” he said.
After that, in 1963, he went to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, from where he was sent all over the country to take pictures because his base had the camera equipment that other bases lacked.
Then, in 1965, Arnold became a combat photographer during the Vietnam War.
Survival training in Panama before his deployment was one of the toughest challenges he had yet faced. The trainees were dropped into the jungle and had to fend for themselves.
“You eat things that you said you wouldn’t eat and you probably wouldn’t eat again,” he said.
If they were lucky, they’d find dates and bananas. If not, they ate snakes. Or they chopped down a palm tree and ate the heart out of its trunk, a meal Arnold was not at all fond of.
“It tastes like cooked celery. I don’t like cooked celery,” he said.
Most of the year he spent in Vietnam, he took his pictures from the air.
He took pictures of Agent Orange being sprayed onto the jungle below.
“All you see is a cloud coming out the back of the aircraft,” he said.
He took pictures of the explosions from napalm being dropped out of planes.
And then he was assigned to accompany ground troops with the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division.
“It was scary,” he said. “They’re shooting at you and you’re shooting back with film, you know. I carried a .38 but that .38 wasn’t much for shooting at them,” he said.
He’s still disturbed by what he saw, and didn’t want to give specifics.
“A few things that happened I don’t feel good about talking about yet. And that’s been 50 years,” he said.
Many of those pictures were distributed to the media, which wasn’t allowed to send reporters out with the troops early in the war, Arnold said. He doesn’t know for sure where they all went. They’d just be labeled Air Force photographer, no photo credit given to the person who took the shot. He recognized a couple of his photos at an Air Force museum and some in the Stars and Stripes military publication.
Many of the pictures he took while in the Air Force, though, were classified and he never saw them again.
After returning from Vietnam, he became a military training instructor, and then went into photo processing. He processed film from reconnaissance planes like the U-2.
Arnold retired from the Air Force in 1975 and spent a few years in Saudi Arabia, teaching photography for Northrop Aircraft Corporation, later moving to California and studying for a degree in restaurant management.
While in San Jose in 1985, he met his wife Ana Maria at a square dance. Within six months time, the couple married, moved to Roseburg and bought a coffee shop they would run together for the next 18 years.
It was called Cafe Espresso for many years and later The Daily Grind. Ana Maria Arnold was the chef, and Roger Arnold managed the books and made the coffee.
Arnold has been active in the Vietnam Veterans of America and other local veterans groups, and for many years was one of the organizers of the annual Veterans Day Parade, until he suffered a stroke two years ago.
He said he loved serving in the military and would do it again if he could.
“If they needed me, I’d go back. I definitely would go back and serve my country again if I was able to,” he said.