(Originally published August 9, 2012)
When a young man asked me a couple of weeks ago if I’d be interested in interviewing his grandfather, he gave me a piece of paper with a one-paragraph biography. It started, “Gary Bipes, born July 28th, 1942, was a Vietnam combat photographer from 1966 to 1967…”
That’s when I stopped reading, handed the paper back to him and said, “I’d love to.” Anyone who went into combat armed mostly with a camera probably has had an interesting life. I wasn’t wrong.
“Our weapon was our camera and you were in the middle of the fighting,” Bipes, 70, of Hector, Minnesota told me. It wasn’t a job for just anyone, though. “Most wanted to get wounded right away and get out.”
Combat photographers for the Army, he says, weren’t particularly well liked by other soldiers. “They knew if there was a photographer along, there was going to be some bad stuff. We were like a bad omen. ‘Don’t film me when I’m being shot,’ they’d say.”
“We got artillery dropped on us by accident once,” he said. “I took pictures of a guy who was hit by white phosphorous and he jumped into water and I took a picture of him. They said, ‘if you do that again, you’re going to be a KIA.’ If you’re out there and it’s your buddy, you don’t want me getting glory out of the film.”
He was nominated for a Bronze Star for helping soldiers cross a creek during some fighting. “Some of the guys couldn’t swim and they were scared to death. I told the captain, ‘I’m an old swimmer and I’ll help them across,'” he said.
Through all the combat, he escaped serious injury. “I lost a camera once and I was crying and someone said, “did you get hurt?’ and I said, ‘no, but I lost the lieutenant’s camera.'”
“I was well known in Army Times, New York Times, Stars and Stripes… I was very proud,” he says, well known enough that he was offered a chance to shoot combat photographs for Life magazine. But he wanted more; he wanted to go home.
The day he was drafted, he says, he wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to his wife. And while he was in Vietnam, his daughter was born.
OFF TO THE CIA
When he returned to the States, he worked for the CIA, shooting pictures of something he can’t talk about, and worrying that he’d take pictures of something he shouldn’t be taking pictures of.
When he returned to Minnesota, having learned how to fly when he was 15 and having learned how to fly helicopters thanks to the GI Bill, he was coaxed into flying a helicopter for a crop-spraying firm.
How he got the job remains to this day, a lesson on the value of the willingness to work.
“They had two candidates for the job,” he said. “Me and this one guy who was a Huey helicopter pilot in the Army and I thought, ‘ I’ll never get the position.’ They asked me, ‘what if we need to you drive a truck?’ I said, ‘I’ll drive a truck.’ They asked, ‘what if we need you to flag for us?’ I said, ‘I’ll flag.’ The other pilot said, ‘I’m a pilot;I don’t do ground work.'”
Bipes got the job and crashed the helicopter on his first day. “They said, ‘you gotta get lower.'” He was flying a foot off the ground when the boom hit a knoll and crashed. He escaped and when his partner saw him crying, he told Bipes, “‘get back in there and go,’ and so I did.” For 24 years.
THE MOSQUITOES VS. GARY BIPES
Vietnam didn’t get Bipes. The CIA didn’t get Bipes. And a knoll in a farmer’s field in Glencoe didn’t get Bipes. Mosquitoes almost did.
His wife and daughter helped run his Hector hardware store while he flew helicopter spraying missions for Metropolitan Mosquito Control whenever it rained more than two inches.
On June 10, 1994, it almost killed him while spraying a swamp near the Medina Ballroom.
“You go into a swamp (spray), climb over wires, and go over to the next one,” he said.
“I remember the guys loading the bags, and I remember taking off, and I have no memory of it,” he told me, breaking into tears, something he says he still does with some regularity when thinking about the accident. “The lady that saw me said I went up over the power lines and I dived right into them. It was a big blue ball of fire. ‘We thought you exploded,’ she said.”
He was in the hospital for 30 days. A doctor was going to amputate a leg until he found out he was a pilot. He says he easily could be paralyzed today.
“It was on TV at home before Mosquito Control found out,” he said. “My daughter was turning the channel so grandmother could watch the soap operas. They saw the helicopter wreckage, and they knew I was flying the orange helicopter. She said, ‘oh my God, that’s dad.'”
THE FIRST LOVE
He insists that airplanes are his first love and says his wife understands, though he tears up when talking about the wedding anniversary — the 50th — they celebrated at the big Oshkosh air show two weeks ago.
“When we were dating,” he says, “we went to Flying Cloud (airport) and sat at the end of the runway and watched planes.”
He still flies almost every day, he says, and is still traumatized by the crash.
“You don’t know what went wrong,” he said. “You’re living with ‘what did I do wrong?’ You live with that all the time. I’m getting better after 18 years. It’s really a challenge.”