February 1, 1973.
A photograph is published on the front page of the Bay Times.
A photograph taken in 1968.
Five years had done nothing to lessen the photograph’s weight and impact.
Neither have the subsequent five decades.
Many local readers of the Bay Times had probably seen the photo before. It was famous. It had appeared in other papers and magazines, and had even been televised on the nightly news with Huntley and Brinkley.
When first released, during some of the darkest days of the war in Vietnam, there was something in that photo that seemed to touch the collective American soul. There was something in it that was haunting. There was something that seemed to say everything anyone needed to know about what was happening in that far-off land.
What many of those local readers probably didn’t know until that chilly February day in’73 was that the famous picture, featured on that week’s cover of the Bay Times, included a soldier, holding his arms in the air, “silhouetted against the Vietnam jungle while guiding in a helicopter,” who was one of their own, an Eastern Shoreman, a Kent Islander, born and bred.
“It’s a combat photograph taken during a tough time at the war,” retired Colonel Thomas Sewell, that soldier, told me a couple days ago, “It was right after the Tet offensive, and at the height of the war in many respects.”
The A Shau valley was a primary link in the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply line that was used to feed weapons and replenishments to the Vietcong fighting Western and South Vietnamese forces. American units were often tasked with patrolling the valley with a goal to shut down the enemy’s flow of supplies.
“We had a mission,” says Col. Sewell, who was at the time a first lieutenant platoon leader with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, “to advance west toward the fire support base Bastogne between the A Shau valley and the city of Hue. It was April, around Easter time.”
Sewell was attached to Alpha Company. Following along was Associated Press photographer, Art Greenspon.
In 2013, Mr. Greenspon told Time magazine, ““The biggest news story in the mid-Sixties was Vietnam. The truth was over there in Vietnam.”
After five months in-country without seeing much action, Greenspon found his way to the 101st and 173rd Airborne Divisions who were, according to the Time interview, “acting as a blocking force to the southwest of Hue. They were flying in ammo on a regular basis, and I was welcome to hitch a ride. But they warned me the weather was very bad, so they couldn’t guarantee I could get out when I wanted. That was fine with me.
From Time:“I found the CO and he briefed me. Alpha company, where I had landed, had been experiencing intermittent contact for several days. Charlie Company, on the other hand, had been in nearly constant contact for nearly two days. It was getting dark and Alpha Company planned to move down through the valley of elephant grass and then up the opposite hill to link up with Charlie Company. The company first sergeant wasn’t shy about telling his superiors he thought the whole idea of moving through elephant grass full of NVA in total darkness was both suicidal and dumb.
“We moved out at first light, in total fog. We went into the elephant grass, which made the visibility worse.”
Col. Sewell told me that when the company was moving out that morning, “We saw copper wire on the ground which indicated there was North Vietnamese army in the area. What happened was really just a chance meeting between our platoon and the NVA.”
The photographer Greenspon, who, like most of the combatants, was in his twenties in 1968, told Time: “Suddenly, chaos everywhere. Somebody pushed me to the ground from behind and held me down. I tried to crawl inside my helmet which was my usual first reaction to close-in combat. The bullets were whizzing through the grass, and I squeezed off maybe eight shots. Nobody near me dared fire. We couldn’t see more than three feet in any direction. The NVA fire lasted a minute or two. And then nothing. We were in it now, but nobody knew how bad it was going to be.
“Battalion told us to be ready for a lift out of some of the wounded the following morning if the weather was better. By the next morning the wounded were being moved to the new LZ. I was making pictures. ”
Col. Sewell says, “After the ambush, the company commander told us to start clearing out an area of the jungle so they could medevac. The picture was taken as a helicopter was hovering above. They were preparing to lift out the wounded.”
Greenspon in Time: “As the first medevac chopper hovered overhead I saw (First Lieutenant Sewell) with his arms in the air. I saw the medic shouldering the wounded and then I saw the kid on his back in the grass. I have got to get all this in one picture, I thought. My heart was pounding. I got three frames off, and the moment was gone.”
When the picture hit stateside, it was everywhere.
Today we’d say “It went viral.”
The famous New York Times combat photographer David Douglas Duncan called the picture a masterpiece and “The” photograph of the Vietnam War. Duncan wrote: “The paratrooper anchored upon the soldier – head thrown back, arms reaching toward heaven…and help…silhouetted against the dust of battle, deep in the Vietnam forest. He represents all soldiers in every war.
“…Finally, in the foreground, the fallen, grimacing wounded trooper makes the photograph almost unbelievable and lifts it into the realm of great art – comparable to the classic canvases of Delacroix and Gericault.”
Col. Sewell: “The picture caused a real stir. But of course we didn’t know anything about it. It was my mother who saw the picture, and though she didn’t know I was in it, she did know I was part of Company A in the 101st Airborne Division. She sent me a copy and the first time I saw it, I was still in Vietnam.
“Though there were many casualties, we never lost any of the wounded in the picture. We continued the mission,” Sewell says. “What was important to us was not the camera, but the lives of our fellow soldiers and seeing the mission through.”
One week after that famous photo was taken, Greenspon was wounded when a spent shell struck him between the eyes after passing through a Life cameraman’s hand. Greenspon returned to the U.S., worked as a photographer for the The New York Times, and later transitioned to a successful career in finance.
His fateful war photograph taken that April morning in 1968 endures.
There’s little doubt it inspired one of the most striking images in Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam film, Platoon.
Colonel Sewell retired from the U.S. Army in 1996. His service to our country includes his time in Vietnam, as well as holding leadership positions in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Desert Shield/Storm. He was chief of staff of US Army Japan/IX Corps 9th TAACOM Japan. His awards and decorations include the Silver Star, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star.
A past president of the101st Airborne Division Association, Sewell currently serves as president of the Screaming Eagle Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing monetary assistance to the soldiers and families of the 101st Airborne Division, awarding scholarships to family members and heirs, and carrying out various charitable and educational operations to benefit the division and their families. “To maintain the camaraderie and preserve the memory of those who served; perpetuating the Screaming Eagle Heritage and tradition for future generations, while supporting our veterans and the current eagles as the Division continues its Ongoing Rendezvous with Destiny.”
To donate and to learn more about the Screaming Eagle Foundation, please visit: http://www.screamingeaglefoundation.org/
Copy Right Info:This image is handled by Associated Press Photos, the photo agency for the Associated Press (AP) news network. This image, Vietnam – No 13, can be purchased from their website at apimages.com – Vietnam – No 13