Marines Vietnam film archives

Marines Vietnam film archives at USC

For researchers, documentarians, military veterans — or just about anyone who wants to get an up-close, real-life glimpse at what the major wars of the United States looked like on a day to day basis — the United States Marine Corps film repository in the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collection (MIRC) could be the next best thing to being there, and it will soon be as close as your computer.

On May 25, the university officially cut the ribbon on MIRC’s Lt. Col. James H. Davis Film Vault and the John S. Davis Scanning Center, which together will allow USC to both store and digitize 18,000 films — totaling some 1,800 hours — documenting Marine Corps operations from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as peacetime training and public relations activities. Over the next two years, this archive will gradually become permanently available on the Internet.

The process of making this transition began well over a year ago. The Marine Corps film archive, stored in a cold vault at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, was in bad need of repair and looking for a new home.

“Some of [the films] are getting very brittle, curled, and that sort of thing,” film historian Tom Baughn said at the time, “and there’s no way we could convert them to a digitized image on our crude equipment, and not ruin them.”

Enter USC, which took on the restoration project more or less on faith — promising not only to build a vault but to purchase two new high-tech scanners to digitize the fragile, decades-old 16 mm and 35 mm reels of film.

“Without any financial support and no place to put them, we just said yes, because we believe in this and we wanted to give something back to the Marines,” said Dean of University Libraries Tom McNally. “My belief about fund-raising is you tell your story often enough, they’ll reach the right ears, and in fact that happened.”

The particular angels for the project were USC philanthropists Richard and Novelle Smith, who provided a gift for the vault in honor of Novelle Smith’s cousins, Lt. Col. James Davis and John S. Davis.

Richard Smith said Thursday that the late Lt. Col. Davis had a 21-year career in the Marines, followed by similarly extended careers with the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Department — where he helped lead the recovery during Hurricane Hugo — and the CIA.

Footage of Marines at Khe Sanh

Footage of Marines at Khe Sanh, January 1968

Smith said his mother had always been a major supporter of the USC library system, and that this funding opportunity was a perfect way to honor his wife’s relatives.

“She and I thought this would be something that was right up our alley,” he said.

McNally said scanning the Marine Corps archive will be a top priority and will gradually take place over the next two years with two new scanners running full-tilt. This will involve cleaning the film, scanning it and creating metadata to identify the date, location and participants in every reel. A financial commitment from another donor will help cover labor costs.

The Marine Corps footage covers an enormous variety of military life, whether it’s raw footage of young recruits crossing the Soyang-gang River during the Korean conflict or building barricades at Khe Sanh during Vietnam.

Robert Averill, president of the Parris Island Historical and Museum Society, said there is footage of recruits getting dropped off at the train station in Yemassee, South Carolina, before making the trip to Parris Island. A film enthusiast could get a glimpse of “Full Metal Jacket, minus the craziness.”

“The quality is amazing,” he said.

Part of the mission of the project is to alert veterans from the wars of the 20th century to the existence of the project. Thousands of aging veterans will be able to access the archive through the Internet and see films only they could uniquely understand. Metadata may even allow them to see their younger selves.

“We showed some footage to a group of Vietnam veterans,” McNally said, “and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They see things in it we never would.”

Filmmakers are also looking to explore the archive’s resources.

“I’ve been on the phone with several that are excited that there’s a relatively untapped, large cache of Marine Corps history that really hasn’t been seen,” said MIRC Curator Greg Wilsbacher, “and if you’re a documentary filmmaker one of the tricks is finding footage that people really haven’t used a lot.”

With the success of the Marine Corps project, McNally said in years to come USC could conceivably house the historic footage of other military branches — but not now.

“I know some day that the Army and the Air Force are going to come calling, but this is a gigantic project, so we’re not even thinking about that.”

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