A Night of Terror, a Haunted Face
By Phil McCombs
This journey, quest, mystery, miracle whatever you want to call it began 31 years ago late on the afternoon of May 16, 1967, in a modest village church in a country that used to be called South Vietnam.
It was a butcher shop in that church. In the fading light, the moans of wounded Marines mingled with the explosions of incoming mortar rounds. Men were dying in one another's arms. Bodies lay on the floor. Shrapnel sprayed the cement walls outside like handfuls of nails hurled by a giant. A few hundred yards away, Marine units struggled in mortal combat with North Vietnamese Army regulars. One 200-man company had 15 killed and 60 wounded in a few hours. Medevac choppers couldn't get in. Wounded and dead were taken to the church.
Inside, crouched in a corner ragged, sweaty, scared a news photographer aimed his Leica at a wounded Marine sitting on the steps near the altar. Their eyes locked.
He seemed to be sitting alone. He was just staring at me. I thought, what a moment to capture on film. I remember earlier being worried about the light coming in through the church windows, it was so bad. I shot at a 15th of a second at f-2.8, wide open. I was up on my knees shooting him, and I only got that one frame, and then everything hit the fan again and we dove for the floor.
Night fell a long, sinister lull punctuated by shouts and confusion at times when the Marines in the church thought they were about to be overrun. Men yelled, "They're coming in! Cover the back door!" Toward dawn the customary time for massed enemy assaults a gunnery sergeant handed the civilian photographer a .45 pistol and two magazines of ammunition. "Here," he said grimly. "You're probably going to need this."
We were in a house of God, and we were going to die. But there was a feeling in that church that if they couldn't survive, they were going to make it count. One guy who was seriously wounded said, "Give me my rifle." I handed it to him and he said, "I'm going to fight until I can't fight any more." He was hanging across a pew, he couldn't even walk. He died.
The feared attack didn't come. At dawn, the handful of survivors who could still walk took the wounded to a tree line near a clearing. They lay in hiding, protected from the blaze of the tropical sun, until medevac choppers finally began arriving one at a time, under fire. The choppers didn't land, but moved slowly at grass-top level. Each time one came in, pairs of able-bodied men carrying casualties dashed from the tree line, hefted the wounded aboard and sprinted back as enemy mortar bursts walked after the departing choppers.
This continued for seven hours.
The photographer and the Marine whose picture he'd taken by the altar teamed up to carry the wounded, facing the gantlet of death together half a dozen times. They bonded, as men do in battle, yet scarcely spoke. Together, they took one of the last choppers out. Landing safely at the large airbase in Da Nang, they said good-bye and went their separate ways.
They never saw one another again.
As happens from time to time, the picture of that Marine which moved over the United Press International photo wire a few days later became famous. It caught the eye of editors and appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, including this one. It won contests. Later, it began showing up in books about the war.
There was something about the look on the Marine's face. Something. You can't quite put your finger on it. There's a vulnerability, a kind of startled intimacy that makes you feel just for a moment that you're looking into the soul of that man, into the human heart of battle. Even now, decades later, the picture seems timeless perfectly emblematic of the warrior's weariness, alertness, determination, bravery.
The photographer, busy with other assignments, soon forgot the Marine's name. Years later, in the States, he hung the photograph on his apartment wall. "I dusted that picture for 17 years," the photographer's wife recalls, "and I'd talk to him, I'd talk to the Marine in the picture. I'd say, 'I hope you made it. I wonder where you're living. How many kids do you have? I'll bet you're in California!' He was like a member of the family."
Then one day in 1988, the photographer picked up the phone in his office and heard a strange yet hauntingly familiar voice. A man with a slightly clipped Southern accent and a direct manner was on the line.
"I'm Robert Sutter from Atlanta," he said. "Did you take a picture of my brother, Richard, in Vietnam in 1967?"
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