Stephen Randall saw two faces of Vietnam. On his tour of duty the Iowa native, an artist for the U.S. Army, saw farmers tending their fields.
“Farmers working the rice paddies with water buffalo seemed almost too pastoral to be context for a war,” he noted when he recorded the scene in 1968.
And then came the month of August.
“On August 29, 1968, I went with the 1st Platoon, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 199th Light Infantry Brigade on an ambush patrol south of Saigon. We were the ones who got ambushed.”
His work as a soldier was to help out in the fight. But as an artist, he had another task: To gather and remember the details of that moment.
“A lot of things happened all at once – the lieutenant called out for several men to go forward to bring back wounded and ordered covering fire. I used up my two clips of M-14 ammo – it sounded strange mixed in with the M-16s and machine gun. I started taking pictures again down the line.”
Afterward he sketched the fight as he remembered it in a drawing and later in a painting he called “Firefight.” For an artist in Vietnam, it was all in a day’s work – drawing the reality of gunfire and mortar rounds and ordinary heroism under fire as American troops did their part in a war for a country some of them scarcely had heard of before.
We asked Randall, now of Sioux Falls, to tell us more about his work as a combat artist.
Were you always interested in art, and did you study it in college? Was it a big thing for you while growing up? Tell us about your hometown.
Growing up in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, gave opportunities to take summer art classes at the Des Moines Art Center. I did enjoy those days in the Center Gardens and looked forward to taking required art courses at Iowa State University while studying for degrees in interior design and architecture.
How did you end up being a combat artist in Vietnam? Tell us about your unit.
After graduating from college in 1966, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 18th Military Police Brigade in Frankfurt, Germany. The U.S. Army Vietnam Combat Art Program was established that year, utilizing teams of soldier artists to make pictorial records and interpretations for the annals of army military history. Typically, each team consisted of five soldier artists who spent 60 days of temporary duty (TDY) in Vietnam traveling with various units, gathering information and making sketches of U.S. Army-related activities. In 1968 I was selected by competition, extended my tour of duty, and served on U.S. Army Vietnam Combat Art Team VII (CAT VII). Team VII survived and was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii to prepare finished artwork for the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) Army Art Collection that included the work of over 40 other U.S. Army soldier artists.
You say there were times when you felt scared while working with the combat arts program in Vietnam. Could you tell us about some of those incidents?
I had to keep my wits about me during the tour of duty, although at times I was definitely scared. On one occasion my platoon was ambushed and I had to fight. We suffered three casualties, including the Brigade photographer. On another I was a “ride along” on an Eagle Flight ‘smoke ship’ that was targeted by enemy ground fire at a landing zone. Keeping my wits at such times allowed me to make good use of memory, photographs and journal entries in preparing my artwork.
How do you manage to remember and retain information at such a time? Do you feel as though your senses are heightened? What about the soldiers you saw in action?
I did try to keep a good journal of dates, places, events and people with “word paintings” to go with my photos and memory of personal experiences. When you’re doing your job, I think you do pay closer attention to anything that might help – sounds, smells, and of course, the light. I had so much respect for the soldiers I went with into the field doing their jobs – door gunners, photographers, pilots, medics, ‘grunts’ and others – that pop into my thoughts even now. In the short time I was there, I did see some action with them, but I wasn’t staying and they had a whole year of it to go or more.
You’ve mentioned your faith. Did that change in Vietnam? Was it important to getting you through it?
My Christian faith didn’t change when I went to Vietnam, and it was very important to me to believe that I had a place waiting in Heaven if this life was suddenly over.
Art seems to us more like a peacetime activity … did it seem out-of-place to you to try to be doing art in the field of soldiers as they carried out their missions?
Speaking now as a “plein air” artist – one who paints in the “open air” on location – I find peace in painting impressions of beautiful landscapes, gardens or cities for others to enjoy. But growing up in the ’60s, and having studied the art history of Picasso and Harvey Dunn, I did come to appreciate abstract and realistic art impressions of historic events, whether it was a civil war in Spain (Picasso) or the killing fields of France during WWI (Dunn). It gave me a visual and emotional impression of what happened. It had historic value.
I think that documenting the events of war with art is important to give ‘insight’ and meaning. Is a picture worth a thousand words to someone? Can you take pride looking at the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware? Can you sense the reality of our Civil War in photographs? Did the Stars and Stripes publication tell it like it is in Bill Mauldin’s cartoons with Willie and Joe? Visit the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. See Harvey Dunn’s work at the South Dakota Art Museum. There are many other venues for the public to view war art if they want.
Tell us about coming home. You went on to a graduate program at Iowa State University?
When I left the Army I felt like I had missed out on important advances in the market for designers, so I went back to school on the GI Bill to finish undergraduate studies in architecture and then get my Master of Architecture degree in 1972.
How did you end up in South Dakota?
I happened to be standing in the Architecture Department hallway when the office secretary stepped out to announce that she had a caller from South Dakota that was looking for a recent graduate to interview, and was anybody interested? I didn’t hesitate and took the call, although I had to ask were Sioux Falls was. I was hired by Harold Spitznagel and Associates and moved to Sioux Falls the same week. My wife, who was a nurse at Sanford Hospital at the time and church organist, and I were married in 1974. We have two children and five grandchildren as of now, and Sioux Falls is our home.
Either as a combat artist or now as a resident of South Dakota since 1972, you must have run across the work of Harvey Dunn. What do you think of his work, in war and peace?
I only learned of Harvey Dunn’s place in history after visiting the South Dakota Art Museum show of his WWI combat art and other works side by side. His combat “sketch box” was every bit as impressive as his very large battlefield paintings, portraits and “The Prairie is My Garden.” The energy of his painting technique can be seen in all. His prairie skies are magnificent and I try to match them every time I go to the Annual Harvey Dunn Celebration Plein Air Event in DeSmet.
Tell us your thoughts about art and architecture. You obviously have done both of them, so what are the common denominators?
I believe that architecture is an art giving attractive form to everyday functions of living. Painting and drawing also give form to life’s experiences, whether rendered as realistic or abstract impressions, with similar means to architecture – form, shape, color, line and texture. And I have so much to learn yet from other arts – sculpture, music, literature and dance.