UPI photographer Frank Johnston found himself facedown on the terra-cotta floor of a Catholic church in Nha Tho An Hoa, Vietnam, as a fierce barrage of enemy fire hit the building. It was May 15, 1967. "I looked up and saw a Marine with what they call the thousand-yard stare," Johnston recalls, "and I lifted my Leica and snapped his picture. The soldier’s gaze never left my lens." The resulting image made the frontpages of newspapers across the United States the next day. As the shelling eased, the Marine and the photographer wordlessly carried the wounded to safety, but Johnston never got the young man’s name.
Then, in 1986, Johnston was contacted by Robert Sutter, who was sure that the photograph was of his brother Richard, a young Marine later killed in combat. In 1998 Johnston and Sutter traveled to Vietnam to collaborate on a three-part series for the Washington Post about Sutter’s quest to know the brother who died when he was only 13. The Sutter family and photographic experts were convinced the picture was of Richard.
But in August 1998, shortly after the Post series ran, Johnston got a call from Michael W. Tripp of Barrington, Rhode Island. "Mike told me that he was the Marine in the picture. He described details of that day in the church. Such a feeling of relief came over me. I realized that he’s alive, he’s really alive."
But why had Tripp waited so long to step forward? He had seen the photograph even before leaving Vietnam. "My wife, Ella, sent it to me in one of her letters. It was everywhere," Tripp recalls. When he returned to the United States, Tripp says he "tried to call Johnston at UPI, but they told me he was dead." It was not until three decades later, when the Learning Channel used the photograph in a 1998 advertisement, that Tripp learned otherwise. He called to request a copy and the channel’s Kirstie McGuire said, "If you’re the guy in the picture, the photographer would want to talk to you." When Tripp told her the photographer was dead, she said, "No he’s not. I just talked to him." Soon the two men were reunited in Rhode Island. "As soon as I saw him I knew he was the guy," recalls Johnston, now 60.
Mike Tripp wasn’t even supposed to be in the church that day, and the haunting expression Johnston captured on film reflected the harrowing ordeal the Marine had just endured. The day before, the 20-year-old medevac crew chief had been manning one of the helicopter’s machine guns when the chopper was shot down. Uninjured, Tripp unloaded casualties, supplies and ammunition before being pinned down with a battalion of Marines trying to make their way toward cover in the church. "We were getting pounded by two NVA battalions, and the napalm was so close I could feel the heat," Tripp, now 54, remembers. "I had been up for 40 hours when Frank took that picture."
The photograph has become a talisman of sorts. Not only have Johnston and Tripp become close friends, but Rob Sutter had a chance to honor his brother at the place where he died. News stories about the photograph led to a reunion of the men who survived huddled together in the church. "I never thought anything good would come from such a terrible time," says Johnston, "but I’m glad I took that picture and that Mike and Rob and their families became part of my life."
—Angela M. Pleasants