Marine Vietnam Vet Recalls Iconic Woodstock Wake-Up Photo

  • Former Marine Cpl. James Corcoran, lying in the lower right of the image, went intending to work security and for the music. Friends Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly, center, ended up on the movie soundtrack cover. Burk Uzzle photo, used with permission
    Former Marine Cpl. James Corcoran, lying in the lower right of the image, went intending to work security and for the music. Friends Nick Ercoline and Bobbi Kelly, center, ended up on the movie soundtrack cover. Burk Uzzle photo, used with permission
  • Former Marine Cpl. James “Corky” Corcoran, 68, holds up posters of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, including the famous Burk Uzzle photo (left), where Corcoran can be seen in the lower right corner. James Corcoran photo, used with permission
    Former Marine Cpl. James “Corky” Corcoran, 68, holds up posters of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, including the famous Burk Uzzle photo (left), where Corcoran can be seen in the lower right corner. James Corcoran photo, used with permission

James "Corky" Corcoran had slept in worse places than the trod-over New York farmland that in the course of a day and night became one of the most populated campgrounds in history.

There were places up and around Da Nang and Chu Lai and any number of spots along South Vietnam's portion of Highway 1 -- the main Saigon-to-Hanoi road -- on "rough rider" convoys during his 13 months there as a Marine with 7th Motor Transport Battalion, Force Logistics Command.

Vietnam already was burned into the minds of Americans across the country, its images broadcast into living rooms day and night.

Where he was in August 1969 -- 46 years ago this month -- was just about to be.

It was Woodstock -- and in the "click" of a camera shutter, Corky would find himself in one of the most famous images to come out of the iconic outdoor music festival, lying under a blanket in a sea of waking rock fans, just to the right of two friends -- an embracing couple who would adorn the cover of the eventual soundtrack album.

"I never knew he was there," Corcoran said of photographer Burk Uzzle.

What Corcoran did know is that the rock festival he originally planned to attend for work was history, and all there was to do now was enjoy the music.

Like the hundreds of thousands of others who went to Woodstock, Corky -- Brooklyn-born but living in Middletown, New York, near the concert site -- went to hear the music. Unlike most, he went there for a job, too -- security to make sure no one snuck in.

"I got there and found out it was going to be a free concert, so there was no need for security anymore," said Corcoran, now 68 and living in Hobe Sound, Florida. "I think if I had not gone up to be a security guard, I still would have gone up to listen to the music."

In Vietnam, he "listened to all sorts of music," he said. "Not one specific [type]. I liked classical, I liked country -- not a lot of it," he said. And he liked rock. "The Doors, Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival -- I loved music."

He saw Richie Havens open up the Woodstock concert, one of many popular musicians who would become an international star when the concert movie and soundtrack was released the next year. He would also see Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Creedence, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and others.

"Sad to say, I didn't get to see Hendrix," Corcoran said. He and his friends left the music festival before Hendrix -- himself an Army veteran -- performed.

What he also did not experience, witness or sense at Woodstock was the kind of anti-troop attitude that many today recall was the norm back then.

"I don't remember anything disparaging" about veterans or service members, he said.

Nick Ercoline, who with girlfriend Bobbi Kelly and some other friends went to Woodstock with Corcoran, said the Vietnam War may have been "a sad chapter" in the country's history, but "Corky and all those who served there should be proud of their service."

"If not for our military maybe -- just maybe -- Woodstock [would] have been looked at in a much different light," he said. "With all the protests going on at the time, whether it was civil rights, the women's movement or the Vietnam War, our military's history protected our Constitutional right to protest, and Woodstock's main message was of protest via peace and love."

And Corcoran said that while various performers -- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Country Joe and The Fish, among them -- were outspoken in their opposition to the war, he never considered Woodstock "as anti-war."

"And as for my feelings about Vietnam, I thought it was a political football," he said.

The Path to Yasgur's Farm

The group piled into Corcoran's mother's car for the drive to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, the actual site of the Woodstock festival.

They got there only after first giving up -- traffic had ground to a halt and all roads were closed off -- and setting up by a river to at least hear the music. A biker who seemed to appear out of nowhere told them of a cow path leading to the farm, so they collected their gear and beer and made their way to Yasgur's farm.

On the way, they met and took along a disoriented Californian named Herbie, who was carrying a staff with a butterfly flag.

The next morning, as they and thousands of others awoke for another day of music, photographer Burk Uzzle snapped a photo of Nick and Bobbi wrapped in a blanket and embracing. Corcoran was under a blanket to their right; the butterfly flag flew off to the left.

Corcoran would discover his historic cameo a year later after the release of the three-record set, "Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More."

Though you can see only the bottom of Corcoran's blanket on the cover, the original, wider image that was turned into a poster shows former Marine Cpl. Corcoran -- his hair closely cropped -- in profile and fully awake on the first morning after the concert began.

"Corky is a die-hard Marine and wears it proudly in your face," Nick Ercoline said on Wednesday. "We would not have gone to the Woodstock festival if it were not for him and his mother's car."

Ercoline's girlfriend, Bobbi, now his wife of more than 40 years, said: "To this day, Corky remains one of our dearest friends. We love him. He remains, after all this time, near and dear to my heart. And he always will."

She and Nick will be meeting up with Corcoran on Sept. 1 at Bethel Woods, New York, the original Woodstock site, for a concert featuring Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire.

As a Marine who served in Vietnam, Corcoran represented the "real" icon of a nation, she told Military.com. "He, along with all the other young men and women who were part of that war, enabled us the opportunity to experience Woodstock. He will always be my hero."

Over all the years, Corcoran has found one similarity between Vietnam and Woodstock.

"A lot of people say they were there, but when you start questioning them, you find out they weren't," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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