Le Minh Thai, Vietnam photographer who took portraits of US troops, dies

Le Minh Thai, a photojournalist who covered the Vietnam War for The Associated Press and Time Life, has died. He was 93.

Thai died Oct. 10 at a nursing home in Encinitas, where he had been living for the past seven years, his daughter, Quynh Thai, told The Associated Press.

The eldest son of a merchant family in Vietnam's ancient port city of Hoi An, Thai went on to become a member of the Saigon press corps. He worked for The Associated Press in the 1950s and later for Time Life, covering his country's civil war, his daughter said.

He had strong contacts both in the government and the military brass of South Vietnam and was well-known for helping foreign journalists navigate their way through his homeland, the family said. The Vietnamese national was a favored photographer of the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, who in 1967 requested Thai for his official portrait.

He covered the simmering tensions in Saigon as the war escalated, including demonstrations by Buddhist monks and students. In 1963, he helped Time magazine open a bureau in Saigon, his family said.

U.S. service members would frequent his photography studio in old Saigon to get their portraits taken to send home to family, and he would invite GIs to dine at his home and join his family on outings, his daughter Quynh Thai said.

Former Time correspondent Bill Marmon said Thai was the first person he met in Vietnam. He called Thai a "protector and valued counselor" during his time there. He remembers Thai driving with him from Saigon, Vietnam, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which was a bold move.

"I know that many other correspondents share this debt," he said in an email to Thai's family upon news of his death.

Former Time correspondent Zalin Grant called Thai "extraordinarily brave" while cheerfully helping reporters.

Early in his career, Thai covered events for the French weekly, Paris Match. He was at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and attended the subsequent Geneva Peace Accords, which ended French colonial rule in Vietnam, according to his family.

Thai and his family went to the United States on April 23, 1975, after months of working behind the scenes to help evacuate the Time Life staff, his family said. He settled in Los Angeles, where he continued working for Time and ran a side business photographing thousands of Vietnamese refugees.

He left Time in 1984 but continued taking photographs in his retirement, his family said.

As a teenager, Thai left Vietnam to attend Kunming Military Academy in southern China. He joined the Chinese nationalist movement, the Kuomintang government, as an intelligence officer, helping to identify Japanese sympathizers during the second Sino-Japanese war, his family said.

Thai took a bullet in the side, which he carried with him until his death. He retired from the Chinese nationalist cause after the French re-established control of Vietnam following World War II. The Chinese communist soldiers later drove the Kuomintang government to Taiwan.

Thai worked for a while as a teacher in Hoi An, and then moved to Laos with his wife to open a school. He went on to work as a photographer for the Laotian royal family before returning to Vietnam in 1953.

He is survived by his wife, Ying, who lives in Carlsbad, California, six children and six grandchildren.