Bloomington man draws on experience as combat artist to illustrate reality of Vietnam War

Les Fordahl's home in Bloomington looks more like an art gallery.

"Relaxed. Puts me in a place like someone reading a good book and zoning out from the world," said Fordahl.

Most of the paintings that hang on the walls are the retired postal worker's interpretations of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But some of his most meaningful masterpieces are examples of the art of war.  

"It's just amazing the number of scenes or places you can paint. just document history," said Fordahl.

History is something Fordahl knows all about.

He started sketching when he was 8 years old and completed his first commissioned painting as a teenager.

When he joined the Army Security Agency in 1967, he would draw at night to relax after training.

Some of his superiors noticed his artistic abilities and enlisted him to paint a couple of murals, which led to him becoming an Army draftsman and eventually a combat artist in Vietnam.

"I was just following orders. I enjoyed the fact I could do what I liked to do," said Fordahl.

For 13 months, Fordahl was part of a four man team of artists who traveled from the Delta to the DMZ, capturing everything from patrol boats to the daily lives of G.I.s.

Fordahl spent most of his time on military bases, taking pictures or drawing sketches of anything that caught his eye, with plans to turn them into paintings when he had the time.

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Art by Les Fordahl

"They had the artillery pieces and I sketched the whole firebase. I did the landing strip for the choppers. The underground bunkers when I sketched the hill. I sketched the tunnels you sleep in. I have one picture with a skull on the front of a truck. It had three black ace of spades painted on the front two sides of the skull with a necklace hanging down. They told me that they put that on the front of the truck so they didn't get shot at by snipers because they were afraid that if they hit the skull, there would be a curse on them," said Fordahl.

Fordahl's group was one of 9 teams of combat artists who were tasked with providing a visual narrative of the conflict for civilians and soldiers alike.

The goal was to provide another window into the war that couldn't be captured by camera alone.

"Before cameras, there were only map makers and artists and draftsmen. Everything was done by hand. So the military has merely continued on the tradition to document that history,"  said Fordahl.

By the time Fordahl left southeast Asia, he had finished 131 sketches and 5 paintings, most of which are now in the Library Of Congress as part of the Veterans History Project.

Two of his other paintings hang in the Vietnam Veterans National Museum of Art.

"I feel good. It's something unique. I didn't know until I got back that it was worth all the pain and suffering. I feel good about documenting the history of it. I love history," said Fordahl.

Fordahl still paints and sketches a couple of hours each day and volunteers for various causes like raising money for a veterans memorial in Bloomington.

But expressing the essence and spirit of war has left a lasting impression on him and he hopes his body of work will help illustrate a turbulent time in history for generations to come.

"I'm very proud of it. It's a unique position. It's like being part of a select group who can say we were there and we did it. We've contributed something before we leave this earth."