One cannot delve too deeply into the combat cameraman canon without hearing the name William T. Perkins, Jr. The son of a World War II bomber pilot, Perkins grew up nursing a passion for cinema and photography. But plans to attend UCLA's film school were postponed when the suburban teen joined the Marines in 1966. Initially assigned to Barstow, California. Perkins jumped at the chance to to take the US Army's Motion Picture Photography course. The only caveat: those attending the school had to put their new skills to use in Vietnam. Bill Perkins willingly agreed and - after training - arrived in Vietnam in July of 1967. Exactly three months later, he would prove himself a new kind of hero.
Once in country, Perkins quickly earned a reputation as a gifted combat cameraman. Shooting both stills and film, the Southern Californian captured both the mayhem and the monotony of modern warfare. Reticent in the beginning, Perkins' fellow grunts accepted him as one of their own - even if he did go into battle with one eye plastered to a viewfinder. What they never fathomed was the young cameraman's commitment to them. In October of 1967, that became painfully clear. A reconnaissance mission in the Hai Lang forest, Operation MEDINA devolved into a battle of hand grenades. Perkins was in the thick of it, shooting film as he and his buddies found themselves outnumbered 3 to 1. When an enemy grenade landed near his group, the young Corporal did the unthinkable. After yelling 'Incoming!', William T. Perkins, Jr. crawled on top of the grenade and absorbed its deadly blast. Saving at least three of his friends' lives, Perkins died with a Eymo motion picture camera in his hand. To this day, he is the only combat photographer to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
On paper, Perkins' life story reads like a distant tragedy. To his high school friend Craig Ingraham however, the young man's fate seared itself into his consciousness. Haunted by the loss, Ingraham began compiling material in the mid 90's, eventually laying hands on Perkins' own combat footage, dozens of letters home and nearly two hundred slides. The resullting documentary, ABOVE AND BEYOND tells Bill Perkins' story using the very images he gave his life to record. Watching it, I found myself instantly identifying with the young Corporal - especially in scenes that showed him goofing around, striking poses as an ammo dump erupted in flames behind him. It reminded me of the many silly things I did with a camera as a younger man; though never with death all around me. If you consider yourself a student of the moving image, a history buff or just a proud American, I urge you to order and watch this soul-twisting film. For a young man who yearned to express himself behind the lens, it is - however sadly - his life's work.