In June, 1969, a large black and white photograph of Army Spec. William C. Gearing Jr. of Greece, N.Y., filled the cover of Life Magazine.
Gearing, 20, had been drafted in May 1968, a year out of Greece Olympia High School, where he had played center on the varsity football team. He had parents and four younger siblings back home on Dewey Avenue.
Bill, as he was known to friends and family, looked out from the cover with his hair cut as it had been in high school, low over his forehead. But now he had the unsmiling look of a man matured by the war. His brow was furrowed and his eyes could barely been seen in the shadows of his face.
He was on the cover because he’d been killed by an enemy artillery shell on May 19, 1969, at a place called Quang Tin.
Inside the magazine, were pictures of other men who had perished in Vietnam whose names became public over one week, May 28 through June 3.
There were 217 pictures.
In its famous issue of June 27, 1969 — 50 years ago this week — Life presented Americans with the faces of their dead.
It was “a span of no special significance,” the magazine wrote, and “the numbers of the dead are average for . . . this stage of the war.”
It was a stunning illustration of the toll the war was taking, and became a classic of wartime journalism.
This was not a snapshot of a fallen soldier here and there, or a few paragraphs in the local newspaper. (Gearing got seven paragraphs inside the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.)
Here were scores and scores of faces in one grim “yearbook” of the killed in action.
Many of the pictures were precious family photos taken before military service.
They showed high school boys in coats and ties, young men in crew cuts and dark-rimmed glasses, and teenagers in graduation caps and gowns.
Thirty-three of those pictured were 19 when they were killed.
Sixteen of them were 18.
Some of the photos, like Gearing’s, appear to have been taken “in country,” with sandbags and tents or jungle in the background.
Many are formal military portraits of men probably just out of basic or recruit training, posing with the American flag.
The photo captions are spare. Name, age, branch of service, hometown. There are no details on how the men died, or lived.
But it was the collective impact of the pictures and the numbers that gave them power.
The spring of 1969 saw some of the bloodiest weeks of the Vietnam War. There had already been about 37,000 Americans killed, with another 21,000 still to go.
There had already been a constant stream of gripping photography for much of the war, said Hal Buell, retired chief of photography for the Associated Press.
“You saw all these incredible pictures coming out of Vietnam,” he said. “But this idea of showing how many people, not just numbering, not just a list of names, but a picture of each one of these people, it had an incredible impact . . . the sheer enormity of the faces.”
Did the issue have an impact on the war?
“It bumped history,” Buell said.
“When pictures turn up . . . they don’t fall into a vacuum,” he said. “They fall into a time and a place. Frequently, the picture affects the time and the time affects the picture.”
“Yes, the pictures were important,” he said. “It wasn’t any one picture. It was the daily flow of pictures. Every day these pictures came . . . It was this steady, like a jackhammer, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop. And that has an impact. No question about it.”
He noted that it must have been extremely difficult to gather all the photographs.
Often, soldiers were pictured who had been killed together.
David L. Tiffany, a decorated 19-year-old Army medic from Riverside, Calif., was killed May 28, 1969, in an ambush in Long An province.
Killed with him were Lt. Patrick M. Dixon, 23; Specs. Marvin C. Briss, 20, and Dick E. Whitney, 22; and Sgt. Earl A. Godman, 21. Pictures of all but Godman made the magazine.
Marine Corps Lt. John W. Abbott, 23, of South Bend, Ind., was killed May 25, 1969, in Quang Tri in a mortar attack. The enemy rounds struck a Marine ammo depot, which caught fire and blew up.
Killed or fatally wounded with Abbott were, among others, Cpls. Gary D. Carter, 19, Daniel L. Pucci, 22, and Jan Rauschkolb, 22; Lance Cpls. Michael A. Powell, 19, and John Winters, 18; and Pfcs. Keith A. Kahstorf, 20, and Edward T. O’Donovan, 19.
All were pictured in the magazine.
There were draftees and higher-ranking officers.
Lt. Col. Robert H. Carter, 35, commander of a battalion, was killed by sniper fire during a fierce battle in Kontum on May 27, 1969. He had helicoptered to the fight and was cut down as he tried to return to the chopper.
A graduate of The Citadel who earlier had been awarded the Silver Star for bravery, he uttered “killed in combat” to a soldier who reached him as he died.
“The next day the choppers came to pick up our” dead, a fellow officer, Lt. Dennis Larkin, recalled, according to a later account.
“When the guys were carrying Colonel Carter on the stretcher, the wind from the Huey blew the poncho liner off his body,” Larkin remembered. “His arms were out stretched and he reminded me of Christ on the cross.”
And there was Army Capt. Robert H. Sigholtz Jr., 23, of Fairfax County, Va., who was killed May 26, 1969. He fell while serving in the same battalion that his father, Col. Robert H. Sigholtz Sr., had commanded in Vietnam two years before.
The elder Sigholtz died in 2005. Both are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Vietnam veteran Jan. C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, was recovering from battle wounds that July in a convalescent center in Cam Ranh Bay. He said he remembers that copies of the magazine were around and were very sobering there, too.
“We’ve all been shot up,” he said, mostly with nonlife-threatening wounds. Scruggs, then 19, had been hit with rocket-propelled grenade fragments on May 28, 1969.
“It kind of made it clear to us — we’d all seen people die — it really made it clear to the people I was with that all of us weren’t going to make it back,” he said.
They would soon be returning to combat, he said. “That was the whole purpose of the convalescent center.”
“It had quite a psychological impact on everybody,” he said.
Imagine today if more than 200 Americans were killed in Afghanistan in a week, he said.
“Just try to imagine,” he said.