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The soldiers who saw Vietnam War through their camera lens

The Vietnam War has been called the first televised war
The soldiers who photographed the Vietnam War 03:17

Vietnam has been called the first televised war. Combat scenes broadcast every night and still photos printed in America's newspapers every morning helped shape the country's perception of the conflict.

Many of those images were captured by soldiers who received little credit for the risks they took -- until now.

This is how soldiers like Bob Lafoon saw the war -- through the lens of his camera.

Lafoon was an enlisted member of the little-known Department of the Army's Special Photographic Office. Their mission: to provide an unvarnished look at the war.

Ted Acheson was one of the cameramen, and he said he was drafted as a junior in college.

"Did you think to yourself, 'Oh boy, if I could just get over there and take pictures?'" CBS News' Dean Reynolds asked.

"No," Acheson said, laughing.

Their access to the battlefield was far greater than press photographers. Many of their assignments were classified.

"We shot every conceivable subject in Vietnam. Everything," Bill San Hamel said. He was their commander.

"Was your criteria for sending people, 'This looks like it's gonna be really active?'" Reynolds asked.

"Yes," San Hamel said.

"Hot," Acheson said.

The more fighting there was, the more likely they were to send a team.

"Washington liked us to get combat footage," San Hamel said.

Among the scenes Acheson recorded was an Army assault on a Vietnamese village 45 years ago. He said he was shooting the footage while bullets were "whizzin'" by him.

"I'm out there with my camera gear. And I'm thinkin', 'What the hell am I doin' here?'" Acheson recounted.

More than 200 of them deployed over a decade. Two were killed in action. Many were wounded. Few wore helmets.

"They got in the way," Lafoon said.

"Yeah. There's no way I could put a camera up on my shoulder... standin' there tryin' not to shake. Because if you shake, it's no good," Acheson said.

What they shot was used for combat training. About a quarter of their work was made available to newspapers and networks. The rest was archived without much note for the photographers. But it's now on display at the Pritzker Military Museum in Chicago.

"I'm just wondering what you hope people will take away from this exhibit?" Reynolds asked.

"I'd love these people to understand what the photographer went through to take these pictures and what he was thinking and what he had to go through to get to the place to take the pictures," Acheson said.

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