Famed Photo Leads Marine to the Past
By Phil McCombs
It begins with two brave, frightened men, one behind a camera and one before the lens. They are in a darkling, hazy church in Vietnam and they are waiting to die.
Frank Johnston's photograph of an exhausted Marine in a besieged church in 1967 became one of the iconic images of the war. The picture went out over the United Press International wire with a simple, universal, caption: "An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa during a heavy North Vietnamese mortar attack."
There's an almost eerie quality to the photo. You can't quite pin down the look on that face. Like Mathew Brady's pictures of Civil War soldiers, you wonder who he was, what he's thinking and feeling, where he came from and what became of him. But he moves you because he's every scared, noble, doomed man in the whole wretched war. Who was he? Two Marines, unbeknown to each other, were certain they knew.
Over the years the photo was published in newspapers, magazines and books, and seen by millions of people. One who saw it was Rob Sutter of Atlanta, Ga., who contacted Johnston in 1988 and told the photographer that the man in the church was his brother, Richard Sutter, a Marine who died near Khe Sanh on July 21, 1967. Inspired and haunted by the picture and the loss it somehow portrayed, Rob Sutter poured himself into a search for the details and meaning of his brother's life. Ultimately that journey took him to Vietnam.
The story of that search was told in July in a three-part series in The Washington Post, "Peace Church, Vietnam: An American Journey." It recounted Rob's quest for the meaning of his brother's life and death, and drew from extensive interviews and records gathered over several months that showed the Marine in the photo could have been Richard, though there was no documented proof of this.
So he gave up his search, made much of the life that was given back to him after that night in the church, built a family and a business, made many friends and passed hundreds of hours breathing deep the fresh air from his boat crossing the blue waters of Narragansett Bay. He spoke little of Vietnam until, once again, the picture became famous.
After the Post series, the photograph was picked up and used in an advertisement for a television documentary. That led Tripp to Johnston, now a Post photographer, and set in motion another story this one, about the photograph itself, its mystery, and also about another Marine, his family and their struggle to come to terms with the painful legacy of Vietnam.
A Startling Likeness
He'd always known about the picture, always knew it was him.
"I want to confirm your suspicions about that picture in the paper," Mike Tripp wrote to his wife Ella on June 6, 1967. "Yes, it's me. It was taken the day after we were shot down. The helicopters could still not get in to us because of the mortars, so we fought our way out to the church which was about 250 meters from where we were."
"I saw the picture almost immediately," Ella recalls. "My mother called from Arkansas and said the picture was in the Arkansas Gazette. 'It looks just like Michael.' It was kind of eating me up, so I took it to the hospital where Mike's mother worked, and she starts screaming. She knew it was him.
"I knew it was him, too, but I didn't want to know it was him."
She pauses, collecting herself.
"When he left for Vietnam he had chubby cheeks, and in the picture there's this skinny little face. I know it's his eyes, his lips. But I hoped it wasn't him, because I knew he wasn't supposed to be on the ground."
As a crew chief, he supervised what went on in the cargo bay: the loading and unloading of supplies, combat troops and casualties or "medevacs," as they were called. And, with another enlisted Marine, he manned the pair of M-60 machine guns that were the vulnerable bird's only means of defense.
On the evening of May 14, 1967, Yankee Zulu-77 was dispatched on an emergency medevac mission near the church at An Hoa, where elements of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines the "Walking Dead" were engaged in what the official 1/9 Command Chronology describes as a "running battle" involving "numerous casualties from enemy mortars firing on the lead elements and at the medevac landing zone. . . . One helicopter had been downed in the LZ."
Yankee Zulu-77 had been "shot down attempting to lift from the zone, but no injuries were reported," according to the more detailed HMM-363 Command Chronology. "The aircraft received strike damage and, due to the heavy enemy concentration, no attempt has been made to retrieve it." The crew survived, though if any of the other three men remain alive today Mike has yet to get in touch with them.
The bird was down at grid coordinates YD 112675, a few hundred meters northwest of the church. It was a tough night for everyone, and Mike as a member of the high-flying air wing wasn't accustomed to spending much time on the ground with the "grunts," or infantry.
"You don't understand," he jokes with Rob, flashing a grin, "I wasn't supposed to be there! We always went home to Dong Ha and slept in tents at night."
It was this twist of fate the fact that Tripp was where he would not normally be expected that planted the seed of the mystery that would come to surround the photograph.
"You couldn't have traced me to that church from talking to the grunts who were there in a thousand years," Mike says. "They didn't know us."
In pursuing the story of Richard Sutter and his kid brother Rob, The Post studied command chronologies and other detailed military reports of the era, obtained the identifications of many Marines who fought in and around the church at An Hoa, and eventually located a dozen men who described the fighting in considerable detail.
None of those men remembered Richard Sutter, but The Post located other Marines from his units including his former commanders some of whom remembered him well, and all of whom agreed that he could have been in the church the same night as Frank Johnston, because he had a motive for being there: His old unit, from which he'd just been transferred and where he had many friends, was operating near the church. Many said it would have been just like Richard to have shown up for a day or so just to be with them unusual in the military, but certainly not unheard of in Vietnam.
It is a certainty, though, that Mike Tripp was in Nha Tho An Hoa which translates as "Peace Church." Military records place his downed helicopter a few hundred meters from the church, and Marines who were there vividly recall the shootdown and the action in which the crew joined the embattled grunts at the church.
Tripp remembers the banana grove in which they found themselves, and the details of the little church. He was there he has a medal to prove it.
And there is another reason to conclude that he is the face in that picture.
"Same face you saw 31 years ago?" Mike says when he met Frank for the first time since that night at An Hoa. It's a statement, really, and Mike's grinning as he leads the way into his immaculate living room with its glowing fireplace and cases full of sailing books.
"Yeah, it is," Frank says softly. "It is."
The Rest of the Story
The picture was the starting point for The Post's series in July. The Marine with the thousand-yard stare gazed so disturbingly from the paper's front page on July 19, and his face reappeared on each page of the series.
"During the preparation of the remarkable series of stories that we published about the Sutter family, we worried that the Marine in Frank Johnston's photograph might not be Richard Sutter," said Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie. "We could never place him inside the church with certainty and we told our readers that it possibly was not him.
"Yet we published the series anyway, with that disclaimer, because of the role the celebrated Peace Church photograph nevertheless had played in the way one typical American family had coped over the years with the difficult legacy of the Vietnam War.
"McCombs's careful reporting never turned up Mike Tripp in Peace Church because he, like Richard Sutter, was not supposed to have been there," Downie continued. "No one McCombs interviewed knew Tripp because he was not part of one their units; he had literally fallen from the sky."
Mike Tripp and his family suffered and served in their own way.
"I flew for a long time," he says of his two combat tours, "and I was very fortunate. I got shot down more than once, but how the hell I ever survived the church shoot-down, I'll never know. It was a charnel house in there."
Mike spent that first night and much of the next day dug into a tight perimeter around the downed helicopter with Delta Company 1/9 as the Marines held off determined North Vietnamese assaults. Late the next afternoon, Bravo Company broke through to them, and gradually the dead and wounded were gathered back to the church.
It was the second night May 15, 1967 when Frank took Mike's picture, as best they can figure it now. Frank had originally thought it was the night of the 16th, but with the passage of years, memory has dimmed; even at the time, everyone was so frightened and tired it was difficult to know what was happening.
Indisputable, however, was Mike's "courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger," as the citation for his Navy Commendation Medal says. The citation describes what happened as Yankee Zulu-77 spun out of control toward the ground, its rudder destroyed by enemy fire:
"Corporal Tripp unhesitatingly blocked the doorway with his own body . . . in order to prevent the casualties from being thrown from the aircraft [and], after the helicopter had come to rest in the landing zone, immediately moved the wounded to a position of relative safety. He then removed weapons, ammunition and medical supplies and distributed them to the ground forces whose supply of ammunition was dangerously low.
"Disregarding his own safety, Corporal Tripp ran through the hostile fire, fearlessly climbed on top of the disabled aircraft and, with the assistance of his gunner, folded the rotor blades to clear the small landing zone for subsequent medical evacuation aircraft."
Mike fires up another Marlboro and as heroes tend to do makes light of the episode.
"It was just after a horrific firefight and this sergeant says, 'We've got to get the blades off the bird.' I said, 'Let's understand this, the top of the bird is the highest point around here, and you want me to go up there?' He said, 'That's affirmative.'"
Mike is talking out of the side of his mouth, mimicking the tough sergeant and laughing.
A moment later, he's fighting back tears.
"That whole incident seared me so bad," he says. "I quit flying a few months after that."
He shakes his head.
'My Own Bird, at Last'
Michael Windsor Tripp, 51, is by all accounts a solid and widely respected citizen who's lived in the Providence area all his life. He has loyal friends, attends church regularly, and is a member of various boards, charitable and professional organizations, and the Barrington Yacht Club. His private CPA firm has been quite successful so much so that Frank's visit is the occasion for a day on Narragansett Bay aboard Mike's Phoenix-33 Sportfisherman, powered by twin 500-HP engines and appropriately named "POWER TRIPP."
"I was a real blue-collar kid," he sums up simply. "A tenement kid."
The son of a nurse and a father who was married to another woman Mike never knew his dad and didn't find this out until he was a teenager he delivered newspapers, got scholarships to Catholic schools, and joined the wrestling team where he excelled. He's a short guy, and when the picture was taken in Vietnam he was down to 117 pounds.
Like Richard Sutter ("I feel like I know that kid," Mike says), he also had a wild streak. He had a tendency to get into car wrecks and minor trouble, and he joined the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday. Like so many of the young and restless, he was going against the pleadings of his mother, his teachers, the nuns and his wrestling coach in shunning college as he sought a way to somehow claim himself.
The Corps did it. Specifically, Yankee Zulu-77 did it "My own bird, at last!" He felt a great sense of pride and ownership in the loud, ugly bird with its savage grace. He was permanently assigned to it in Vietnam, and responsible for maintaining it mechanically and otherwise. Flying high above the fray of war, he felt like a god "invincible," as he puts it, at least until the shoot-down at An Hoa and his two hellish nights there.
Mike's pride and new sense of personal sovereignty went like this: He always carried 3,000 rounds of ammunition per machine gun, instead of the recommended 500. "It made the bird heavy, but there were times when it came in handy." An Hoa was one.
After the war, with a wife and baby daughter, Mike finished out his Marine Corps commitment (he spent some months assisting with military funerals for the war dead) and then began struggling to make a living. He managed to get through college, where he studied business, and over the years held a number of accounting positions including one with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. before opening his own firm. Not exactly a company kind of guy, he flowered once he was on his own.
"Permanence is what I wanted," he says. "A sense of permanence. I needed it. When I was a kid, we lived in 17 different houses. Now I've learned that happiness doesn't come from going to a better place, or anything outside you. It comes from inside."
But he never talked much about Vietnam, and neither did his wife.
After the "Peace Church" series ran, a colorized version of the picture turned up in Newsweek, USA Today and elsewhere in a major advertising blitz for a series about to appear on The Learning Channel, "Vietnam: The Soldiers' Story." Mike's story isn't part of that series, which also is unrelated to The Post series, but one of Mike's friends spotted the Newsweek ad and called him.
Mike then called TLC's publicist and left a message saying, "I'm the Marine in the picture and I'd like a copy."
The publicist called back and said, "Are you the gentleman who believes he's in the picture?"
"No," Mike said, "I am the guy in the picture."
There was a pause. "Uh, well then the photographer will want to talk with you."
"The photographer's dead."
"No he isn't," the publicist said. "I just talked to him."
Reunion in Rhode Island
For two people who hadn't seen one another in 31 years, they hit it off splendidly from the moment they reunited in Rhode Island the weekend before last.
"Welcome home," Mike greets him at the door of the house in suburban Barrington where he's lived for a quarter century with Ella, and where they raised Sandra, now 32 and married, and Wendy, 26.
"You too, Marine," replies Frank Johnston, who'd been in the Corps before becoming a combat photographer.
The reunion between warrior and photographer is special but also typical as men and women who served in Vietnam, and their families, struggle to come to terms with what happened in America's most divisive conflict since the Civil War. Connecting with one another through veterans' organizations, the Internet, or even newspaper articles like the "Peace Church" series, they're seeking to heal old wounds and find some peace out of past turmoil.
"We're all ghosts from the past talking to each other," Frank says in amazement. "We're all part of the 'Walking Dead,' because we thought one another was dead. I mean, in my wildest dreams I couldn't have come up with this."
At first he'd been shocked after all, a decade of believing the picture was of Richard Sutter was being shattered but as he got to know Mike, he began to enjoy an unfolding series of surprising connections that brought him in touch with a man he'd long thought dead.
Nor could Mike have imagined that he'd become an emblem of the Vietnam War through a single haunting photograph.
"What I always wanted to know," Mike blurts, "was what happened to the medevacs I had when we were shot down." Suddenly, he sobs something, Ella confides, that he hasn't done, at least not where Vietnam is concerned.
"This is a Godsend, finding you," she'll tell Frank later that weekend, after Frank and Mike have discussed their An Hoa experiences in painful detail. "It's hard for him to go back there emotionally. It's been 31 years, but we haven't talked seriously about it. He keeps it buried so deep. It's sitting there all the time, inside him."
At one point, as Ella is talking about the photograph, she breaks down weeping and Mike goes over to comfort her.
"Being at home with the baby and having him over there was tough," she recalls. "I went through every day kind of in a state of shock. You lived with the fact every day and night that you might get a phone call. But I knew how strongly he felt about going, and the good he felt it would do. I was very proud, and very young. A part of me knew I might never see him again, but as long as I got my daily letters I was okay. It was like talking to him."
Actually, she knew that bad news the worst news wouldn't come in a phone call. If Mike were killed, a military staff car would pull up in front of the house and a Marine officer and a priest would tell her in person.
"One day I was in the kitchen Sandy was in her high chair eating and I looked out the bay window, and I saw a gray military vehicle pull up, and a priest and an officer got out, and they're coming along the sidewalk."
Mike, Sandy and Wendy all listen silently, their eyes glued on Ella, who's sitting on the floor by the fireplace.
"I remember wiping the baby's mouth, and fixing my hair. 'You've got to be a good wife,' I told myself. 'You've got to be strong.' Then I went to the front door and stood behind it and waited for them to knock."
But they didn't knock. They went to the house across the street.
"I was weeping, I just said a prayer, 'Thank you, God.' And then you just sort of go back to being a wife."
Most of the evening is spent listening to Mike and Frank reliving events at An Hoa. "I've seen more come out this weekend," Ella will say later, "than I've seen in 31 years."
The Tripps are concerned about the Sutters Rob and his brother Lloyd and two sisters, Ellen and Hannah and Mike and Frank decide to fly to Atlanta and see Rob, a man suddenly deprived of the long-cherished image of his brother Richard.
"Rob needs to see Mike in person," Frank says. "It will be good for all of us."
A Meeting in Georgia
This journey, quest, mystery, miracle whatever you want to call it continued last week on the back deck of Rob Sutter's home north of Atlanta. Rob and Mike sit on the railings under a tall Georgia pine, talking intently.
Frank, listens. From time to time he quietly steps back to make a photo.
You can't meet Mike, or see photographs of him when he was a 20-year-old corporal flying for the Marine Corps, without instantly recognizing him as the guy in Frank's famous picture. Rob doesn't question it.
"This is a little unsettling, thinking one thing all these years and now being told another," he admits. "It's a tough one to let go of. But hell, I can't lose Richard but once."
Rob had idolized his older brother, and for years felt guilty about not writing him often enough in Vietnam where, like so many young men of that era, Richard was coming of age far from home and with shocking suddenness.
But by the end of their day together, it's "Robbie" and "Tripper." Rob has opened the Sutter family photo albums, and it's "Wow!" and "Lookit that!" and "It's scary how much we look alike."
Indeed, it's easy to see how the Sutters could have mistaken Frank's photo for one of Richard. "The mouth, the eyes they're the same," Rob says.
He leads the way to his basement home office, where the photograph hangs on the wall over his desk.
"Oh, God," Mike whispers.
Later, Rob also a Marine, though he just missed serving in Vietnam introduces Mike to his 14-year-old son, Preston, whom everyone in the family says looks just like Richard.
"This is your Uncle Richard, in the photograph," Rob says.
"I'm glad you're alive," Preston says, shaking Mike's hand. "I'm glad you made it through that. It must have been hell."
Charles ("Travelin' T") Townsend, of Davis, Calif. and formerly of Delta 1/9 remembers the shoot-down of Yankee Zulu-77 as "kind of a blessing in disguise, because we were all scattered out. Everything was confusion, and we all went to the chopper. We set our perimeter up around that chopper. We got the whole company together there, the wounded and dead and everybody.
"It was close to the church, on a little rise where the chopper went down. A dirt road was coming through there and the chopper was 10 or 15 yards from the road. . . . We saw some of the NVA, they were all shooting at the chopper, and that took their attention away from us. I remember the chopper just spiraling down. It was above the treeline when it got hit, and there were hedgerows and old dry irrigation ditches and we were down in them, and the NVA was down in them with us.
"We got the pilot out, the crew got out okay. When we got to the chopper it was just sitting on the ground, pretty much in one piece. It hadn't exploded. . . . The chopper saved most of the company, I think. The way they had us pinned down in those ditches, we wouldn't have been able to get together and support each other if that hadn't happened."
Frank ("Irish") Healey, Delta 1/9:
"We made our way back to the chopper, and I dug in right near it. We got the wounded and dead out of the chopper, including the crew, who had survived. . . . I don't remember who they were, and I didn't care. I was worried about getting our guys out of the chopper, and digging my hole. We were getting some pretty heavy automatic weapons fire, and we had to secure the area."
Roger Good of Fort Myers, Fla., who was also with Delta 1/9:
"There's humor in it all. A guy [from the chopper] comes along with a flashlight and says, 'You got my gun?' So we were crawling around out there in front of the lines looking for his damn machine gun."
Mike laughs, too, when told of Good's recollection. He doesn't know him, but remembers the incident.
But An Hoa was a turning point for him, he adds somberly.
"It really was a defining moment. The whole landscape of my life changed. Before that, a lot of the war was a lark, a quest for me. People died, and got hurt, but not me.
"After An Hoa, I just functioned. . . . I was afraid all the time of being shot down."
Then one day, he says, "I lost it." They'd gone in to pick up a medevac near the church, and Mike could see the remains of Yankee Zulu-77 on the ground.
Suddenly there was firing and, he says, he opened up indiscriminately with his machine gun only to hear a Marine grunt shouting, "Whoa! Whoa!" over the radio net.
"It had got to the point where I was going to hurt somebody," he admits.
Flight status was voluntary unlike grunt duty and Mike went to the flight surgeon and had himself grounded.
"I took the humiliation of not flying, because that's better than hurting somebody. It was very humiliating to admit to yourself, [but] I was going to have to live with the internal shame of it because, if not, I was going to have something worse to live with.
"It was a hard thing for a 20-year-old, but I got a whole new bottom line."
He pauses, then adds softly:
"I was a good Marine. I just wish it had never happened."
Portrait of a Marine
Rob and Mike face one another across the table at a Chinese restaurant in Georgia. Frank, with some delight, has just opened a fortune cookie that says, "There is a true and sincere friendship between you."
"I'm glad you're alive," Rob says.
Then he admits: "The physical photo is you, but the spiritual photo well, I know it's you, but I still see Richard there."
"As far as I'm concerned," Mike says, "the caption should be returned to the original: 'An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa.' Yeah, I was there, but in a way it's an icon of all of us who were there. That's not Mike Tripp's afternoon in Vietnam. There's no ownership, which is the way it should be.
"That's any Marine."
As they say good-bye, Rob turns to Mike and asks, "You have any brothers and sisters?"
"Nope, I'm the only one."
"Well, if you ever need a brother, you got one."
Chronology | Resources | Peace Church
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company