The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

Photographer Robert Ellison, 23, captured this image of the Marines dragging the body of 2nd Lt. Donald Jacques, 20, out of the underbrush near Khe Sanh on Feb. 25, 1968. (Robert Ellison/Black Star)

The young Marine lieutenant is dead, and his desperate men grimace as they drag him by the wrists from the jungle, where they have just been ambushed near the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh.

One of them looks down at a bloody piece of cloth near the wounds in the officer’s stomach. A fourth Marine, helmet-less, is emerging from the bush just to the rear.

Everything seems to be motion.

The grim portrait of combat was captured on film by freelance photographer, Robert J. Ellison, 23, on Feb. 25, 1968, as Marines hauled the body of 2nd Lt. Donald Jacques, 20, of Rochester, N.Y., away from the scene of the fighting.

Jacques had just graduated with class 5-67 from the Marines’ Basic School for officers in Quantico, Va., six months earlier, as one of the school’s youngest graduates in years. He had become a platoon commander in Vietnam, like most of his classmates, and was serving during the deadliest year of the war, 1968.

Survivors from his class are meeting this week outside Washington to mark 50 years since they finished at the school in August 1967.

Fifty years after Vietnam’s bloodiest battles, ‘the lucky ones’ are gathering for what could be a final reunion

Jacques was one of 39 men from the class who were killed in Vietnam.

“The days go by quickly, but the nights are long around here,” he had written his family the night before his death, according to historian Gregg Jones.

The next morning Jacques and his 40-man platoon were on patrol outside the Khe Sanh combat base when they were lured into an enemy ambush. Twenty-four of them were killed, and Jacques’s body was the only one that was immediately recovered.

Ellison, whose father had been killed fighting in World War II, had been at Khe Sanh taking pictures for Newsweek magazine at the time. He came upon Jacques’s men with the body of their lieutenant that morning and took a classic, and little known, picture of the anguish of the Vietnam War.

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Ellison took other dramatic pictures of the fighting at Khe Sanh, and then flew to what was then Saigon to send his photos to Newsweek, according to Jones. The magazine was so impressed with Ellison’s photos that it planned to run them three weeks later.

After filing his pictures, Ellison decided to head back to Khe Sanh. On March 6, he bartered his way aboard a flight from Da Nang to Khe Sanh that was to bring in more Marines and equipment. The plane, carrying more than 40 people, was hit by anti-aircraft fire as it approached Khe Sanh and crashed, killing all on board.

Ellison’s photos, including the portrait of Jacques and his men, ran on March 18 in a cover story called “The Agony of Khe Sanh.”

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