The faces shown on the next pages are the faces of American men killed -in the words of the official announcement of their deaths- "in connection with the conflict in Vietnam." The names, 242 of them, were released by the Pentagon during the week of May 28 through June 3, a span of no special significance except that it includes Memorial Day. The numbers of the dead are average for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.
It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead. We cannot tell with any precision what they thought of the political currents which drew them across the world. From the letters of some, it is possible to tell they felt strongly that they should be in Vietnam, that they had great sympathy for the Vietnamese people and were appalled at their enormous suffering. Some had voluntarily extended their tours of combat duty; some were desperate to come home. Their families provided most of these photographs, and many expressed their own feelings that their sons and husbands died in a necessary cause. Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war- 36,000 -though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes.
On the back of a picture he sent home shortly before his death near Saigon, Sgt. William Anderson, 18, of Templeton, Pa., jotted a wry note: "Plain of Reeds, May 12, 1969. Here's a
picture of a 2-star general awarding me my Silver Star. I didn't do anything. They just had
some extra ones." His family has a few other recent photographs of the boy, including one showing him this past February helping to put a beam into place on his town's new church.
His was the first military funeral held there.
Such fragments on film, in letters, in clippings and in recollection comprise the legacies of virtually every man shown in these pages. To study the smallest portion of them, even without reference to their names, is to glimpse the scope of a much broader tragedy. Writing his family just before the time he was scheduled to return to the U.S., a California man said, "I could be standing on the doorstep on the 8th [of June]. . . . As you can see from my shakey printing, the strain of getting 'short' is getting to me, so I'll close now." The ironies and sad coincidences of time hang everywhere. One Pfc. from the 101st Airborne was killed on his 21st birthday. A waiting bride had just bought her own wedding ring. A mother got flowers ordered by her son and then learned he had died the day before they arrived. A Texan had just signed up for a second two-year tour of duty when he was killed, and his ROTC instructor back home remembered with great affection that the boy, a flag-bearer, had stumbled a lot. In the state of Oregon a soldier was buried in a grave shared by the body of his brother, who had died in Vietnam two
years earlier. A lieutenant was killed serving the battalion his father had commanded two
years ago. A man from Colorado noted in his last letter that the Marines preferred captured
North Vietnamese mortars to their own because they were lighter and much more accurate. At four that afternoon he was killed by enemy mortar fire.
Premonitions gripped many of the men. One wrote, "I have given my life as have many others for a cause in which I firmly believe." Another, writing from Hamburger Hill, said, "You
may not be able to read this. I am writing it in a hurry. I see death coming up the hill." One
more, who had come home on leave from Vietnam in January and had told his father he did not want to go back and was considering going AWOL, wrote last month, "Everyone's dying, they're all ripped apart. Dad, there's no one left." "I wish now I had told him to jump, "the boy's father recalled. "I wish I had, but I couldn't."
Such despair was not everywhere. A lieutenant, a Notre Dame graduate, wrote home in some mild annoyance that he had not been given command of a company ("I would have jumped at the chance but there are too many Capts. floating around") and then reported with a certain pleasure that he was looking forward to his new assignment, which was leader of a reconnaissance platoon. In an entirely cheerful letter to his mother a young man from Georgia wrote, "I guess by now you are having some nice weather. Do you have tomatoes in the garden? 'A' Co. found an NVA farm two
days ago with bananas, tomatoes and corn. This is real good land here. You can see why
the North wants it."
There is a catalogue of fact for every face. One boy had customized his 13-year old car and planned to buy a ranch. Another man, a combat veteran of the Korean War, leaves seven children. A third had been an organist in his church and wanted to be a singer. One had been sending his pay home to contribute to his brother's college expenses. The mother of one of the dead, whose son was the third of four to serve in the Army, insists with deep pride, "We are a patriotic family willing to pay that price." An aunt who had raised her nephew said of him, "He was really and truly a conscientious objector. He told me it was a terrible thought going into the Army and winding up in Vietnam and shooting people who hadn't done anything to him. . . . Such a waste. Such a shame."
Every photograph, every face carries its own simple and powerful message. The inscription
on one boy's picture to his girl reads:
To Miss Shirley Nash
We shall let no Love come between Love.
Only peace and happiness from Heaven Above.
"I SEE DEATH COMING UP THE HILL"
The following text appeared in the June 27th, 1969 issue of LIFE magazine and was accompanied with the names and pictures of the troops killed during the week May 28th-June 3rd 1969. We now know that the Army routinely reported KIA's as "missing in action" at the time of thier deaths. It is assumed this was done to give time for notification of next of kin and to control the release of casualty figures to the public. Two troopers from the 3rd platoon of A 1/501 were pictured in this article but they were killed on May 25th during Operation Lamar Plain. There are also references to the battle for Hamburger Hill which ended May 20th. All things considered, it is safe to assume that most of the casualties listed in this article actually died sometime during the third week of May, seven to ten days prior to the release of thier names by the Army.
From the 3rd platoon, A 1/501, KIA on May 25th 1969