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A Veteran's Voice: Tom Burch

Posted at 9:06 AM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-04 12:06:48-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — If a picture's worth a thousand words, then Tom Burch lost his voice more than 50 years ago. A combat photographer with the Marines in 1966, Burch went into the jungles of Vietnam with a camera in one hand and a pistol in the other.

And he documented thousands of moments and faces that he never got credit for.

Burch joined the marine corp reserves in 1964 shortly after his graduation from North High School.

He spent 18 months at a base in Barstow, coming home to visit and take part in events like the Marine's Toys for Tots where he took pictures for the Corp.

When he signed on for duty in Vietnam, he was a still photographer with the 3rd Marines arriving in Da Nang harbor in the early spring of 1966.

It was just two weeks later he took part in his first combat operation.

And the observation aircraft overhead had a unique way of keeping them informed of enemy movement.

Burch said even though he was documenting the war, he was still a Marine first and foremost and all his time wasn't spent taking snapshots.

Burch was in a battle with the Viet Cong when the Navy started shelling enemy positions.

The first of many close calls with perhaps his most famous moment coming in February of 1967, near a stronghold of the Viet Cong called the "Street without joy", the title of a book by author and historian Dr. Bernard Fall written following the first Indo-China war between France and Vietnamese forces.

Later, he was an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson and made several trips to Vietnam while U.S. forces were there.

Burch took a photo of Fall, just before he walked off with two other photographers. And that picture ended up in periodicals worldwide including Time Magazine without his name on it.

Not long after, Burch dodged fate once more when his company came under attack from mortar fire.

There were also plenty of moments of levity. During one patrol, his unit had air mattresses to sleep on. A small bit of comfort in the jungle depending on where you set up camp.

Burch took part in the last Honor Flight in October.

He's been to the Vietnam wall twice before with his wife but this was the first time with fellow Vietnam veterans.

While it was emotional, Tom says his job didn't allow him to get too close.

There was a moment on the flight home that tugged at his heart strings. During mail call, he was reading letters from a class of sixth graders at Sing Lum Elementary when he found a small package with the star from an American flag.

Like the kind of emotion his work evokes in others, who were there, to this day.