At the age of twenty-two, photographer Herbert Lotz was designing window displays for department stores. Then he was notified that he had been drafted and would be sent to Vietnam. “I was a photography student at the Art Institute of Chicago, and you had to carry 12 credit hours to not be drafted,” Lotz told Pasatiempo. “But my family couldn’t afford to send me to college, so I was working my way through school working for Niedermaier Display. I was designing their products. They would send me to do work in New York. It was very exciting. But with work, I let my credit hours drop to eleven. They nabbed me instantly.”

The Niedermaiers found an Army Reserve post in Florida that would have allowed Lotz to avoid the war in Vietnam, but he feared incurring a lifelong moral debt to his employers. And there were other options. “I could have come out, you know. I was a gay kid. But I didn’t think it was an excuse, because I had friends and parents who were very accepting of me.”

After a few months of basic training, he found himself running a teletype machine, transmitting encoded messages as an unattached member of the 25th Infantry. On his first day in Vietnam, his unit came under heavy fire in an Army camp in Cu Chi. This was at the height of the Tet Offensive. “I very quickly realized we were under attack. We were getting a lot of rockets and mortars coming into the camp.” 

Lotz’s radio work was conducted inside a camper shell on the bed of a two-ton truck, six feet off the ground. That much clearance meant that shells and mortars could land underneath his position. “I had some soldiers come with a crane and pull the camper off and put it on the ground. Then I built a bunker around it out of ammo boxes filled with dirt. That was my first introduction to building with adobe,” Lotz laughed.

Nearly a half-century later, Lotz’s memories of the camp in Cu Chi are still very much with him. During his tour of duty, he took hundreds of photos on a Nikkormat camera. Instead of the disturbing imagery often associated with war photography, Lotz’s photos are warmly composed, intimate portraits of soldiers at rest and at play. On Friday, April 7, the New Mexico History Museum opens an exhibit of Lotz’s photography called Sleeping During the Day: Vietnam 1968. The photographer’s wartime image archive was acquired by the museum in 2008.

“These are photos shot during the day, when there was very little activity. All the war activity took place during the night. Men just let me see who they were in conversation,” Lotz said. “When you live in a company of men like that, you have to trust each other entirely. The military teaches you how to depend on each other. It’s an intimacy that’s not involved sexually. It’s about being open and honest with one another. Direct.”

In black-and-white prints, Lotz’s photos show soldiers trying to find laughs and repose. We see them smoking cigarettes, posed against trucks, enjoying a Bob Hope USO show, and laughing under the filtered light of wooden army barracks. Also included are several portraits of Vietnamese women cooking, singing, and entertaining. Lotz says those images were taken at a resort town on Vietnam’s southern coast, a region American soldiers sought out for R&R, as it was safe from Viet Cong activity. Most of the photos were taken in the barracks, the one safe space soldiers had to let their guard down.

“There’s a photo of a young man sleeping. His name was Ron. He was a kid from northern Minnesota. He was straight; there was a photo of him with a towel wrapped around his waist and a picture of his girlfriend on his wall. They eventually married,” Lotz said. The image is striking for its contrast of innocence and experience. He might as well be in a north woods cabin, but he is in a foreign country, with a war taking place outside the room.

The photos have a more haunting aspect as well — they are time capsules of what is most likely the last time these men would be around others who understood them. Vietnam vets were sometimes ridiculed upon their return to the U.S. Much of the counterculture saw them as killers, while conservatives and other veterans looked down upon them as part of a failing war effort.

“As a young man in that era, you are trying to pretend you are not a vet. When I came back, I immediately took off my uniform, because I did not want anyone to know that I was a vet,” Lotz said. He noted that today’s military practice of PTSD debriefings did not exist back then. “Within 24 hours you leave Vietnam, this place that you’re blowing up, and you get on a big jetliner, and there you are in San Francisco, alone.”

He was adrift in America. His boyfriend in Chicago had moved in with another lover and barred Lotz from returning to their apartment. Nor could Lotz relate to his family. “Watching the Vietnam War, they assumed I would be killed. They grieved me. When I returned home, they didn’t know me, and I did not know them. It took us years to reconcile.” He started drinking heavily and ended up living in a flophouse on the west side of Chicago. “In my head, I wanted to go back to a time before I went to Vietnam, so I thought back to my time in infantry training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona,” Lotz said. “A friend told me Santa Fe had at least one gay bar, and I would find arts and sophistication.”

In Santa Fe he felt at home, a feeling he had lacked for years. He built an adobe wall around his house and found space and time to begin healing his traumas. In the 1990s, with the aid of a veterans’ PTSD group in Albuquerque, he began to look at the film and contact sheets that had been gathering dust in his collection.

After decades of trying to forget the war and focus on commercial portraiture, he was struck not only by the memories but by the quality of photographs he had taken at the dawn of his career. He began to exhibit his work in small shows in Tucson and at the University of New Mexico.

The exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum will pair his images with letters to family and friends that he composed while in Vietnam. While he’s proud of his work, he is aware that viewers and vets may see a side of the war that is quite acute in its intimacy. “I hope I don’t anger any vets with the feeling that these photos expose them,” Lotz said. “A lot of Vietnam War photography is about the battlefield. Rather than the idea of being a warrior, these photos speak to the loss of innocence.” ◀