Peace Church, Vietnam
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  • The Post 1967

    Retracing Steps

    The next day, in the rolling hills south of the old DMZ, the men locate the ruins of Peace Church in a small banana grove. It was leveled by artillery fire, according to the local people, in 1968.

    There are no other structures around – only trees, rice paddies, open country. In the hot afternoon stillness, a genuine sense of serenity seems to have fallen over the spot. As the Marines approach, the Vietnamese emerge silently out of the trees as if from nowhere – as they always had.

    "Hello!" greets a smiling child.

    Frank, with cameras dangling from his shoulders and Rob and Pony close behind, steps gingerly into the rubble. Pausing, the photographer gazes around at the chunks of cement wall, fragments of smashed terra cotta flooring.

    "This is it," he whispers. "There's nothing here. God, they blew this beautiful church away."

    Frank and Richard were here together May 16, 1967, in the midst of a terrible battle. North Vietnamese mortar rounds exploded outside as wounded Marines huddled inside for protection. It was a place of chaos then, where fearful young men bravely faced death and, in so doing, redeemed in some deeply human way the hideousness of war.

    "I don't want to die," a badly wounded Marine had told Frank as he comforted him. "You're not, old buddy," the photographer had assured him. The man died in his arms.

    "You couldn't walk six feet without getting shelled or shot at," Frank recalls. "Now it's so peaceful – the way it should be, really."

        Robert Sutter and Frank Johnston at Peace Church
    Robert Sutter, left, and Frank Johnston return to the spot where Johnston photographed Sutter's brother, Richard, 31 years ago at Peace Church, Vietnam. The church now lies in ruins.
    (By Phil McCombs – The Washington Post)
    In the fading evening light of that terrible day, Frank had photographed Richard sitting on the steps near the altar. The next morning, under fire, they'd buddied up to help evacuate the wounded – then said goodbye.

    Two months later, Richard was killed near Khe Sanh. Twenty years later, Rob had called to ask if Frank had taken that picture of his brother.

    Now, Frank leads Rob through the ruins to the spot where the altar had been.

    They stand for a few moments, in silence. Growing from a clump of grass at their feet is a single yellow flower.

    "This is where I photographed Richard," Frank says softly.

    "Rob, this is where Richard and I were."

    Editor's note: Please see the Epilogue about the former Marine who comes forward and claims he is the soldier in Frank Johnston's photograph.

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