View Full Version : A Night of Terror, a Haunted Face
01-13-03, 07:48 AM
First of three articles
By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 1998; Page A1
This journey, quest, mystery, miracle – whatever you want to call it – began 31 years ago late on the afternoon of May 16, 1967, in a modest village church in a country that used to be called South Vietnam.
It was a butcher shop in that church. In the fading light, the moans of wounded Marines mingled with the explosions of incoming mortar rounds. Men were dying in one another's arms. Bodies lay on the floor. Shrapnel sprayed the cement walls outside like handfuls of nails hurled by a giant. A few hundred yards away, Marine units struggled in mortal combat with North Vietnamese Army regulars. One 200-man company had 15 killed and 60 wounded in a few hours. Medevac choppers couldn't get in. Wounded and dead were taken to the church.
Inside, crouched in a corner – ragged, sweaty, scared – a news photographer aimed his Leica at a wounded Marine sitting on the steps near the altar. Their eyes locked.
He seemed to be sitting alone. He was just staring at me. I thought, what a moment to capture on film. I remember earlier being worried about the light coming in through the church windows, it was so bad. I shot at a 15th of a second at f-2.8, wide open. I was up on my knees shooting him, and I only got that one frame, and then everything hit the fan again and we dove for the floor.
Night fell – a long, sinister lull punctuated by shouts and confusion at times when the Marines in the church thought they were about to be overrun. Men yelled, "They're coming in! Cover the back door!" Toward dawn – the customary time for massed enemy assaults – a gunnery sergeant handed the civilian photographer a .45 pistol and two magazines of ammunition. "Here," he said grimly. "You're probably going to need this."
We were in a house of God, and we were going to die. But there was a feeling in that church that if they couldn't survive, they were going to make it count. One guy who was seriously wounded said, "Give me my rifle." I handed it to him and he said, "I'm going to fight until I can't fight any more." He was hanging across a pew, he couldn't even walk. He died.
The feared attack didn't come. At dawn, the handful of survivors who could still walk took the wounded to a tree line near a clearing. They lay in hiding, protected from the blaze of the tropical sun, until medevac choppers finally began arriving one at a time, under fire. The choppers didn't land, but moved slowly at grass-top level. Each time one came in, pairs of able-bodied men carrying casualties dashed from the tree line, hefted the wounded aboard and sprinted back as enemy mortar bursts walked after the departing choppers.
This continued for seven hours.
The photographer and the Marine whose picture he'd taken by the altar teamed up to carry the wounded, facing the gantlet of death together half a dozen times. They bonded, as men do in battle, yet scarcely spoke. Together, they took one of the last choppers out. Landing safely at the large airbase in Da Nang, they said good-bye and went their separate ways.
They never saw one another again.
As happens from time to time, the picture of that Marine – which moved over the United Press International photo wire a few days later – became famous. It caught the eye of editors and appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, including this one. It won contests. Later, it began showing up in books about the war.
There was something about the look on the Marine's face. Something. You can't quite put your finger on it. There's a vulnerability, a kind of startled intimacy that makes you feel – just for a moment – that you're looking into the soul of that man, into the human heart of battle. Even now, decades later, the picture seems timeless – perfectly emblematic of the warrior's weariness, alertness, determination, bravery.
The photographer, busy with other assignments, soon forgot the Marine's name. Years later, in the States, he hung the photograph on his apartment wall. "I dusted that picture for 17 years," the photographer's wife recalls, "and I'd talk to him, I'd talk to the Marine in the picture. I'd say, 'I hope you made it. I wonder where you're living. How many kids do you have? I'll bet you're in California!' He was like a member of the family."
Then one day in 1988, the photographer picked up the phone in his office and heard a strange yet hauntingly familiar voice. A man with a slightly clipped Southern accent and a direct manner was on the line.
"I'm Robert Sutter from Atlanta," he said. "Did you take a picture of my brother, Richard, in Vietnam in 1967?"
"Peace Church" became a refuge, a hospital – and a dying place – for U.S. Marines on May 16, 1967, the day Frank Johnston took this picture.
(By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
Wounded U.S Marines took shelter in the church after coming under heavy fire near the so-called Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
(By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
The wounded and dead are evacuated from the church, located just south of the key Marine outpost at Con Thien in an area nicknamed "Leatherneck Square."
(By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
01-13-03, 07:52 AM
Richard Furlong Sutter was 21 years old when Frank Johnston made his photograph that afternoon at Nha Tho An Hoa, just south of the so-called Demilitarized Zone then dividing North and South Vietnam. The third of six children of an Atlanta insurance broker and his homemaker wife, he'd grown up comfortably middle class and Catholic, a kid brimming with charm and so much mischief – he once drove the family car over a cliff – that his father finally sent him to a military prep school for some ironing-out.
Nobody was surprised when Richard announced he'd dropped out of college to join the Corps. It was early 1966, the war was escalating, and the Marines offered a time-honored path to maturity. Indeed, it seemed to work for Richard. By June of 1967 – a month after the picture in the church – he was able to write his parents that though he was happy to be coming home "soon," the very idea now struck him as slightly "funny, for I'll have no idea of what to say."
Then, eloquently: "I left home at the age of 20 and I will return there close to the age of 22, but feeling quite a bit older in many respects. I wish I had never left, but I feel as though I have finally accomplished what I set out to do. I am now sure of one thing. I am a man."
He even managed, in a P.S., to gently ding his father: "Daddy, I may be able to teach you how to shoot that .30-.30 now. I've had a little practice this past year with .30 cal. weapons."
He spared his parents the gruesome details – "Hell isn't the word for it," he'd written – but in a letter to a childhood pal, Doug Dromey, Richard described just one of many "routine" patrols: "Our battalion was helo-lifted into the mountain jungle [searching] for a suspected 200 Vietcong. As we left the choppers ... .50 cal. machineguns opened up along with .30s. You've never imagined as much havoc. ...
"For four nights and three days it rained and we were awake 90 percent of the time. No food for five meals, or water. No ponchos for protection. ... We walked through jungle so thick a machete didn't hardly help. Our bodies took a worse beating than any man should endure. ...
"Few men were bullet casualties, but we had to walk back [through] 10 miles of waist deep water (sometimes chest deep). No choppers because of foul weather. We suffered better than 45 percent casualties in my platoon from 'immersion foot.' ... Some were so bad their feet were a mass of blood. ..
Have you ever seen a grown man cry? Probably not, well these men were crying while we were returning. It's hard to explain the pain unless you've felt it yourself ... but you learn to love a real man over here.
"These guys won't quit, Doug. We're Marines, and we're the best the USMC has ever known."
He was there 329 days.
It seems scarcely imaginable now, but Richard Sutter's tour in Vietnam began at a time – Aug. 27, 1966 – of great American innocence concerning the vast and violent enterprise on behalf of freedom in Southeast Asia that would end in ignominious defeat nine years later. As it ran its terrible course, the war would sunder the American nation in every way – squandering its wealth, impoverishing its spirit, diverting resources from cities aflame with racial unrest, bleeding and traumatizing an entire generation.
Though the war would destroy his presidency a mere eight months after Richard's combat tour ended, Lyndon Johnson was riding high on war rhetoric – Communist "naked aggression" must be stopped – when the young Atlantan had first stepped on the beach at Da Nang. There were 286,000 American troops in Vietnam then and, by the time Richard's picture was taken in the church, nearly 460,000: Though combat deaths already neared 10,000, a Harris poll published that same day – May 16, 1967 – showed 72 percent of the American people supporting the war.
"Maybe the Marine Corps is doing some good in Vietnam, but I don't think so," Richard had written as he boarded ship in San Diego with his freshly trained unit – Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines – for the voyage to Indochina. "These people have been at war too long to even think about peace."
As for LBJ, the new Marine dismissed his commander in chief as "just as bad as a Red Chinese or Russian party leader, hoping this war will keep them in the running."
He rarely mentioned politics again. As he settled into the exhausting routine of war – the ceaseless patrolling, night ambushes, "search and destroy" operations with names like Pawnee III and Chinook – his missives seem heartbreakingly normal, given the unthinkable savagery of his situation.
"I'm running late for an ambush," he scrawled in one hasty note, "so I must close."
"Mamma," he advised another time, "if anyone wants to send something tell them the best things are: 1) Kool Aid; 2) M&Ms candy (these stay fresh); 3) fruit; 4) pens-ballpoint; 5) cigarettes, and most important: 6) Love."
At first, he'd been lightheartedly dismissive of the danger. "My first night here, I was sniped at (bad shot) while on a listening post," he'd written. "I thought I'd get all shook up the first time, but it doesn't even bother me. ... These VCs are the worst shots known to mankind."
That opinion would change.
Even at war, Richard remained attentive to the swirl of family life back home. He penned loving words for sisters, graceful comments on nieces and nephews, yearning thoughts of the family's lake cottage, manful advice to his youngest sibling Robert, then 13 and struggling in school. "Athletics are one of the greatest things going," he counseled, "but so is knowledge." A number of girlfriends were mentioned.
Richard wrote with pride, too, of his promotion to corporal, which brought his monthly pay to a princely $168.60, plus $65 "hostile fire" and $13 "forward deployment" pay.
As time passed the tone of his letters shifted. They became more solemn, as if the full weight of the war was beginning to sink in.
"Thirty to 50 more days of combat and my nightmare will end," he wrote his older brother Lloyd, an Air Force officer. "I recall your writing, 'I am sorry I never had the opportunity to participate in the same sphere of the war as you.' Well, thank God you haven't and pray that you never will. ... So many new 2nd lieutenants arrive here with the attitude – 'Here is a chess game' – [but] it's not like the books or training. These same lieutenants either die young or shorten the lives of many of their men. This is a little rougher than football, and the touchdown is a man's life."
That was Richard's first letter home after his picture was taken in the church, yet he didn't mention the ordeal.
Maybe because he wasn't supposed to be in that church at that time. A month earlier, he'd been reassigned to Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. On the afternoon of the photo, official records show, his platoon was in relative safety at a base camp 65 miles to the south.
A battle-weary Marine and a Vietnamese woman and child crouch outside a bunker near Danang under enemy fire in September 1967. (By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
Cradling a buddy in his arms, a Marine calls for a medic during intensive fighting on Hill 881-North on May 14, 1967. The Marines took possession of the hill and two others nearby
A Marine escorts a suspected Viet Cong during a search-and- destroy operation southwest of Danang on June 21, 1967.
(By Frank Johnston,
01-13-03, 07:55 AM
On battle maps, the church lies at grid coordinates YD 126683 – less than five miles south of the DMZ, and just two south of the key Marine outpost at Con Thien in an area then known as "Leatherneck Square."
That May of 1967, it was a crossroads of war. Con Thien was besieged. The day the picture was taken, thousands of Marines were pouring in for an assault the next morning into the "Z" itself, the first such American effort to clean out what had become an enemy haven.
You can read about it in old newspapers and magazines. "Now the central battleground of the Vietnam war," The Post called the area. Time reported "fire ... so heavy that rescue and supply choppers were driven off," with casualties seeking refuge in the church at Nha Tho An Hoa.
Nestled by a grove of banana trees in rolling, thickly vegetated terrain, the Catholic church was about the size of a country parish you'd come across on a Sunday drive, though in considerable disrepair. Its name – though this didn't seem to be mentioned in the battle dispatches – was readily translatable from Vietnamese.
"I lay in that church for quite a while," recalls a man who was there that same night, Richard K. Jewett, 52. "I was 20 years old. I had a gunshot wound in the back, I'd stood up at the wrong time." His voice is quivering with emotion over the phone from Vermont, where he's now in the Army. "All I remember is watching the roof. They had one of those interlacing [wooden] roofs. All I could think was, if a mortar round hit it I'd be dead. So I scootched myself under one of the pews. I thought, 'If the roof collapses, I'm going to be [safe] under here.' "
Keith C. Kowalewski, 49, a sheet metal worker from Illinois: "Gee, you know, it was kind of gloomy in there. All you could do was just lay down and hope you'd get out. ... We'd got ambushed, [and] I remember one machine gunner had quite a few dead stacked up in front of him, he'd melted some barrels firing his gun.
"A mortar exploded in a tree and got me in the back, all the way down to the ankle. It was okay, though, I wasn't a goner or anything like that. They walked us over to the church [and] I was kind of limping around in there. ... I was just praying to get out."
Though they were there at the same time as Richard, these men were with a different outfit – 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, "The Walking Dead."
How Richard came to be in the church may never be fully known. There are no official records spelling out his whereabouts that night, and no name or details were included in the photo caption. However, if you go to the Marine Corps archives and comb through the faded "Command Chronologies" and "After Action Reports" – clinical documents that don't mention individual enlisted men – a likelihood suggests itself.
According to the reports and other records, at about noon on the day the photo was taken, Richard's old unit – Echo 2/26 – marched north past the church on its way to participate in the invasion of the DMZ.
It got hit hard.
"That was one of the hellishest firefights I've ever been in in my life," says John D. Giordano, 54, a forklift operator in Jacksonville who was in Echo 2/26. "They pinned us down. I looked at my watch, and I remember it was exactly noon on the 16th, and this went on right up till 4. We had fire coming in all afternoon. They just tore us up bad. It's shameful to say, but there was nothing we could do. It was four hours of pure hell."
Giordano was wounded the next day – "The first round came in, got me in the right arm; the second round I did not hear, that's the one that almost took my face off" – and he wasn't in the church with Richard. He had, however, known the Atlantan from a distance – they were in different platoons of Echo – and remembers him fondly.
"He was a real tough Marine," Giordano recalls, "really gung-ho about everything."
He can't remember if Richard was with them May 16. It's difficult at best to match official reports with the memories of the men, now that they're middle-aged. For that matter, it would have been hard at the time. War is messy. The records show that Echo suffered two killed and eight to 10 wounded in a mortar attack that afternoon, but that Foxtrot – which was quite close – was the company involved in an intense firefight. It was attacked at 1 p.m. on the 16th, about 3,000 yards northeast of the church. Casualties were shockingly high – "15 USMC KIA, 60 USMC WIA."
"All the guys I was with got wiped out, I'm the only one left," Richard had told the photographer.
And: "I've got to get back to my reassigned unit."
Had he slipped away from easy duty with his new unit (though it would soon be in heavy action) to take a walk in the sun with his old buddies from Echo 2/26?
It's possible. These were his closest friends, men he'd trained with in the States and bonded with during eight months of combat only to be transferred in a routine administrative action.
"Troops are great," laughs Andrew D. DeBona, 61, who commanded Mike 3/26 when Richard was in it and who's now retired and trout fishing in Montana. "I would have no idea how he got there, except if he wanted to he could have, because he probably had enough initiative to go do it."
"It's not beyond the realm of possibility," says Chandler C. Crangle, 56, Richard's rifle platoon commander in Mike, who retired as a colonel last year to become a Pentagon consultant. He speculates that 1st Platoon could have been on "Rough Rider" duty that day – a switch in plans not reflected in official records – escorting a convoy north.
"Being the smart young [corporal] he was," Crangle believes, "he could have jumped on a truck to Cam Lo"-four miles south of the church – "when nobody was looking, or he might have asked and I'd have said, 'Sure, just be back tomorrow.' "
It's also remotely possible that the picture is not of Richard at all, but of some other Marine – though this seems hardly likely, given that the photographer, the family and photographic specialists who have compared the picture with others of Richard are convinced that it is indeed him.
Frank D. Fulford, 55, a retired judge in Atlanta, knew Richard well – as his platoon commander in Echo 2/26 the first half-year the young enlisted man was in Vietnam, then as company commander.
"I can picture his tan," Fulford recalls. "He was tanner than the others, he tanned real easily. I remember his build, too, he had a good upper body for a young jarhead, and he ran around with his shirt off a lot. He had a good disposition about him, if he were out of uniform you'd never know he was a Marine. He was a friendly individual."
Fulford doesn't remember if Richard was with them as they walked past the church that day. Echo was on point-in the forward position – for the battalion, the situation was perilous, and the skipper had his hands full:
"After we took the mortaring on the 16th, I remember vividly a fellow sitting on a tank, smoking a cigarette very calmly, and ... both his legs were missing from the knee down. ... On another vehicle, another [wounded] fellow was reclining, waiting to be medevaced, the mortars started back up again. [One explosion] took the top of his head off, and his brain matter was spread all over."
It doesn't surprise Fulford that Richard was in the area. "His personality was such that he never shunned volunteering," he says, "and being away from the people whom he had the camaraderie with in the unit would have been hard for him."
Then, his voice low and controlled as if holding his emotion in check: "I definitely remember him, I remember him smiling. He never had to be called down for not having equipment in shape, or not being ready. He was not a slackard in any sense of the word.
"He was just somebody you would want to be your friend, a very gregarious and engaging personality who had to grow up before his time and, sadly, had to sacrifice his life."
Inside Peace Church on May 16, 1967.
(By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
Marines treat a buddy in Peace Church.
(By Frank Johnston, Courtesy UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
Richard Sutter, left, and buddies outside a bunker in Vietnam.
(Courtesy of the Sutter family)
01-13-03, 08:00 AM
Richard was walking point – or near it – the morning he died, two months later, in a firefight outside the Khe Sanh Combat Base in rugged mountain terrain near the Laotian border 25 miles southwest of the church.
Khe Sanh – the name still has a fearsome ring.
The 77-day siege that would begin there early in 1968 – six months after Richard was killed – lives in memory as the American Dien Bien Phu, the mountain stronghold lost by the French in 1954 as their colonial rule trickled to a bloody end. The Americans managed to hold Khe Sanh, but the punishing siege – along with the massive enemy Tet Offensive Jan. 31 – helped turn the nation against the war and bring about LBJ's decision not to seek reelection.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary Communist commander, sought to lure the Americans into the mountains to "bleed them without mercy" – a prescient counterpoint to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's strategy of breaking the enemy's will with high "body counts." Lt. Gen. Lew Walt, the Marine commander in Vietnam, had long resisted the bait, believing his troops should concentrate on patrolling the heavily populated coastal lowlands. That's how Richard spent most of his combat tour.
In the end, Giap had his way. Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, thought he could take the war to the mountains and smash the NVA before it ever reached the lowlands, using massive artillery and air support not available to the French in 1954. He was both right and wrong. The Americans won most of the battles, and lost the war. In the end, it was the American body count that would matter.
By the spring of 1967, just before Richard's picture was taken in the church, Giap was already increasing the NVA presence around Khe Sanh and, in late April, fierce fighting had broken out near the combat base – the "hill fights" that turned out to be among the bloodiest of the entire war. Frank Johnston had photographed them.
Mike 3/26, with the rest of Richard's 1,184-man battalion, moved to Khe Sanh in June. By the time of his last patrol, the area was quiet. There was a countrywide "lull" in the war, according to news reports – only 175 American combat deaths the previous week.
It was so calm, Crangle recalls, that one day as Richard's 1st Platoon was coming in off patrol, "One of the guys put a flower in his rifle barrel. Then the whole platoon did, so the whole platoon came wandering back into Khe Sanh and everybody's got a ******* flower stuck out of their M-16."
It wouldn't last.
On July 21, Richard died almost instantly, shot through the left side of the forehead by what a report termed "extremely accurate sniper fire." Four others were killed, and 18 wounded. The enemy that day was not the Viet Cong guerrillas Richard had denigrated when he'd first arrived in Vietnam – "the worst shots known to mankind" – but seasoned NVA professionals, Giap's best.
"The company was on a search and destroy operation when they came under heavy enemy automatic weapons fire," DeBona wrote Richard's parents a few days later. "In the fight that ensued your son was critically wounded. A corpsman rushed to his side and administered first aid but Richard failed to respond and died of his wound at 10:05 a.m. It may comfort you to know the last rites of the church were given. ... Richard's cheerful disposition, uprightness and devotion to duty won for him the respect of all who knew him."
In 1990, when Robert Sutter was seeking further information about his brother's fate, DeBona wrote him in more detail: "Mike Company was used as a screen[ing] patrol force. We'd usually work out from the combat base and conduct six- to seven-day patrols looking for the NVA or any sign of them. On 21 July, we were in our fourth or fifth day.
"The plan was to have two platoons, 1st and 3rd ... conduct a large semi-circle sweep operation. The terrain was largely elephant grass that varied in length from waist to shoulder height. The area we were sweeping towards was somewhat wooded. ... The 2nd Platoon, along with the section of 81 mm mortars, remained in our night defensive position [as] the reaction force if we made contact. ...
"The 1st Platoon (Lt. Crangle) was the point and 3rd Platoon ... was slightly to the right. ... As we neared the woodline, Lt. Crangle's radio operator reported that 1st Platoon had found signs of fresh enemy defensive positions in the elephant grass. Shortly thereafter Crangle [radioed] that the point of his platoon 'smelled' the enemy."
Richard had only seconds to live.
Crangle, not far behind the Atlantan, recalls the point radioing that they'd found flattened elephant grass slowly rising. "I said, 'Oh man. ... Keep your eyes open. Keep moving.' We hadn't gone more than another 20 steps when all hell broke loose. Rounds were zipping everywhere. ... The really nasty twelve-sevens – [.51-caliber machine guns] normally used for anti-aircraft – when those things are coming at you it sounds like the biggest bullwhip, and they were snapping all around."
The man in front of Crangle took a bullet through a CS grenade on his belt "and suddenly there's this tremendous flash and plume of white smoke. ... He's screaming and thrashing around because this thing is burning him [and] there's mass confusion. ... I got three or four lungfuls of CS gas [and] I'm flopping around like the proverbial dead fish [and was] reported KIA."
But Crangle recovered, rallying his Marines in an effort to reach Richard and the others in front of them.
"I had an M-16 in each hand. I said, 'C'mon, we've got to go find those missing guys.' We went booming back up there and we found all of them. ... Sutter, bluntly put, was deader than a doornail. All five of them were within 10 or 15 feet of one another. ... It was like a shooting gallery for the bad guys."
DeBona, too, remembers it vividly.
"What you always ask yourself is, 'What could you have done different?' Because, you know, these were my kids."
He sobs gently into the phone – this Montana fisherman who'd won the Navy Cross for "extraordinary heroism" near Nha Tho An Hoa just seven weeks after Richard's death.
"There's nothing they wouldn't do for you. They're the best America had to offer. And I would like to think that Richard didn't die in vain. As far as the Marine Corps goes, he didn't. ... You don't die for an ideal. You die for your fellow Marines."
After Robert Sutter phoned Frank Johnston in 1988, he wrote him a letter describing "the range of feelings that resurfaced" after their talk.
"On my part, there was a great degree of hero worship for Richard, and for many years. ... I chased his shadow, wanting to follow in his path. ... At age 25, as a junior captain in the Marines, it dawned on me that there was no shadow left to chase. ... Yet I have often wanted to know what kind of Marine Richard was. Your description today of a brave young man was in keeping with what I would have imagined."
Johnston sent him a large print of the photo in the church, inscribed "To the Sutter Family." The two became friends, sharing stories of the gallant Marine they'd both known. They visited one another's families, spent long hours discussing the war.
Late last year, Robert wrote a cousin explaining his quest for the meaning of Richard's life and death:
"I have researched and studied the war intensely. I have many friends who fought there and were wounded, physically and mentally. I didn't serve there, and yet for 30 years I have carried some deep mental wounds of my own.
"Wounds of the soul."
leatherneck consoles his wounded buddy as they await an evacuation helicopter.
(By Frank Johnston,
Marines carry a wounded comrade toward a helicopter evacuation point at Hill 881-North.
(By Frank Johnston,
Will continue with the story later.............
01-14-03, 07:17 AM
Here is the ...................
Second of three articles
By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 1998; Page A1
ATLANTA – Rob Sutter was nearly 14 when his brother Richard was killed in Vietnam in 1967. The funeral was held the day after his birthday, and Rob came home to find a letter in the mailbox from his dead brother.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY," Richard had scrawled on stationery embossed with the U.S. Marine Corps emblem and a small military map of Southeast Asia. "Judy [a girlfriend] told me she saw you awhile back and that you were just like me – how lucky can a guy be?
"... Well, the real purpose of this letter is to wish you a very happy 14th birthday. I know I'm early, but I don't know when I'll have another chance to write."
Two days later – July 21, 1967 – Cpl. Richard F. Sutter was shot through the head in a battle with North Vietnamese troops near Khe Sanh. He died instantly, leaving his parents, five brothers and sisters and innumerable friends back in Atlanta to deal with their grief.
For Rob, the pain and anger would only grow.
"Remember you're in my daily thoughts and prayers," Richard had closed that last letter. "Oh yeah! Save a few good-looking blondes for me."
It was still early in a war that would deeply divide and change the nation. Enthusiasm for the fight against communism was strong, and most of the 700 mourners at Richard's funeral in the Cathedral of Christ the King hadn't known him – they were there to support the family of a 21-year-old Marine who'd sacrificed his life in his country's effort to preserve freedom in South Vietnam.
This was a bitter, angry time in America – the '60s of song and fable, of My Lai and Woodstock, political assassinations, troops blocking citizens at the gates of the Pentagon. The day Richard died, Time's cover featured a Newark cabby under a banner that read "Anatomy of a Race Riot." Carl Sandburg's death was reported two days later, and his great antiwar poem "Grass" appeared on the front page of this newspaper:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass: I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun ...
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
"I opened that letter," recalls Rob, now a successful businessman of 44. "I don't know if I cried then, but I'll tell you this: Since then I haven't. ... I haven't released in tears about anything.
"It's been gnawing in my gut."
Richard Sutter as a boy.
From left to right, brothers Richard, David and Robert Sutter outside the Atlanta home where they grew up.
Photos of U.S. antiwar protestors in the Hanoi War Museum.
(By Frank Johnston, The Washington Post)
01-14-03, 07:20 AM
The immensity of the family's pain, the raw sudden shock of that death, its fantastic battlefield violence, and the vast emptiness where once stood – Richard! – exuberant talkative charismatic utterly fearless broad-shouldered handsome car-crashing troublemaking Richard with his confident smile ...
It took 10 days for the body to reach Atlanta.
"HIS REMAINS WILL BE PREPARED, ENCASED AND SHIPPED AT NO EXPENSE TO YOU," the telegram had informed Dan and Nita Sutter, "ACCOMPANIED BY AN ESCORT EITHER TO A FUNERAL HOME OR TO A NATIONAL CEMETERY SELECTED BY YOU. IN ADDITION YOU WILL BE REIMBURSED AN AMOUNT NOT TO EXCEED $300 TOWARD FUNERAL AND INTERMENT EXPENSES IF INTERMENT IS IN A PRIVATE CEMETERY, $150 IF REMAINS ARE CONSIGNED TO A FUNERAL HOME PRIOR TO INTERMENT IN A NATIONAL CEMETERY, OR $75 IF REMAINS ARE CONSIGNED DIRECTLY TO A NATIONAL CEMETERY."
Later, there was a letter from the White House assuring the Sutters they were "in the prayers of Mrs. Johnson and myself at this time of sadness"; another from Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, promising "to do our utmost to bring eventual victory so that your son's sacrifice will not have been in vain"; and a check from the treasurer of the United States for the money recovered from Richard's personal belongings.
It was for 90 cents. Dan Sutter never cashed it.
Eventually a letter found on Richard's corpse at Khe Sanh made its way back to Atlanta, too. Wrinkled and dirty, it was from his sister and closest pal, Ellen: "Won't be long now for you! Do you leave the 21st of July still?"
The stamp was canceled with a single word punched across George Washington's face:
"P E A C E"
As was customary, news of the death was to be personally delivered to the parents by military officers. They went first to Christ the King, where a priest volunteered to precede them to the family home on Stovall Boulevard to find Nita, then to Dan's insurance office to bring him home.
Ellen Kappel, now 54, remembers she was with her children (Richard was their godfather) when her sister Hannah called and said, "Richard has been killed, and we're sending someone over to pick you up."
"They took me home, and as we came up the street where I'd grown up, and turned into the drive – where Mr. Pittman, the next-door neighbor, had almost killed Richard one day when Richard was on his bike. ..."
"There were a jillion cars parked there," prompts Rob, who's been listening intently, filling gaps in his memory of the personalities and events that still grip him. "I came home from [summer] school and all these people were there. ..."
"Everything began to hit me," his sister continues, tears welling as she retells the story three decades later. "It just hit me, I could see us as children, playing in our yard. I fainted."
Dan and Nita didn't cry at the funeral. They declined to look at Richard in the casket, and asked their children not to, either. Rob obeyed, but Ellen recalls seeing the "whole body. He was in his military uniform. His head looked fine, he had a very short haircut."
"We were raised to be stoic," Rob explains.
Richard had been the rebel – an immense, glamorous and protecting figure on the landscape of Rob's young life: At the family place on the lake, he'd always made sure his little brother wasn't left behind when the big guys went boating; and when he'd crashed the car one time, Rob remembers, Richard's first thought was to see that his little brother was safe.
Then, he'd joined the Marines.
"He was escaping" a tense household ruled by a domineering father and remote mother, explains Ellen, a psychotherapist. "It was a little nerve-racking in Dodge."
It was in Khe Sanh, too, as Richard would learn – too late.
"He was due home, we were planning a big old keg party," recalls Beverly Amos, 51, who worked summers with Richard at a drugstore soda fountain. "We were all young and innocent and there was this awful war going on, but no one thought it would be your friend who got killed: 'Not Richard! He's tough and strange and interesting – like James Dean – and he's gotta come home!' "
"Richard was the best friend I ever had," Doug Dromey, 52, recently wrote Rob, who had contacted him in his continuing search for information about his brother's life and death. "We had a lot of wild and crazy times together chasing ladies and tipping some of North Georgia's best mountain dew.
"To this day, it is still hard for me to realize that Richard has passed on. I can only imagine what you as his brother must have felt."
What Rob felt – and continued to feel – worries his only remaining brother, Lloyd, 58, an attorney. (David, another brother, was killed by a drunk driver in 1981.)
"Rob was 13 and I was almost 30 when Richard died," Lloyd says. "I was old enough to cope. He wasn't.
"Everybody descended on our family, and you can't imagine how bad it was to wait 10 days for the body. My folks' friends came by, and my friends in their thirties, [but Rob was] an early teenager, and death's not in their basket ... so his friends didn't come."
At the same time, antiwar protesters were phoning the house to tell Dan and Nita they deserved what they got for sending their son to Vietnam.
"Rob was a 13-year-old having to deal with violent death in a house where the whole split in America is raging – the antiwar people on the outside, the friends on the inside – with the [antiwar] telephone calls coming in like hot rounds ... vicious calls. It was awful.
"And there's a 13-year-old standing there in grief.
"And nobody notices."
Letters home from Richard in Vietnam, his dog tags and medals, including a Purple Heart, presented to the Sutter family after his death.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
Richard with his sister and closest pal, Ellen. A letter from Ellen was found on Richard's corpse at Khe Sanh.
01-14-03, 07:24 AM
In his letters home, Richard had often mentioned his youngest brother and asked him to write. Rob – busy with his own life – had written only twice. After Richard died, it began to haunt him.
"I started feeling guilt by the time I was 15. You start realizing the person is not there, and they're not coming back. It ate at me through college, and it was compounded when Daddy died the week after I graduated from Officer Candidate School."
Rob, too, had become a Marine.
Dan and Nita weren't happy with the decision, but by then it was the summer of 1973 and too late for him to go to Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords, signed that January, ended direct U.S. involvement in the war. Rob served in Japan and South Korea, then in the reserves until 1985.
Like his father, he went into insurance – Richard had planned to join Dan's firm, too – though with a special twist: Drawing on military tactics, Rob's "On Target" sales consultancy teaches that "taking an account from an entrenched competitor is no different than taking a hill from a determined enemy."
Today, Robert J. Sutter is the picture of upper-middle-class American success – tall with dark hair and a mustache, a charming accent and a cheerful, forthright manner. He has a lovely wife, three delightful children, a large home in the exurbs, a summer place.
And a knot in his soul.
"Hero worship," he'd written a friend, led him to "chase [Richard's] shadow, wanting to follow in his path. ... At age 25, as a junior captain in the Marines, it dawned on me that there was no shadow left to chase ... yet I have often wanted to know what kind of Marine Richard was."
One day, before he'd left the reserves, Rob was in a bookstore leafing through J. Robert Moskin's "The U.S. Marine Corps Story" when he saw a picture of an exhausted Marine sitting in a church just south of the Demilitarized Zone in Vietnam.
"At first I paid it only cursory attention and turned the page," he wrote a cousin last year. Then "it felt as though someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Turn back a page and look again.' I did, and realized the Marine in the photo was my brother Richard."
"Marines find momentary refuge in church at An Hoa during enemy mortar attack in 1967," the caption said; it identified the photographer as Frank Johnston.
Rob showed the picture to Ellen. "Do you think this is Richard?" he asked.
"I hope it's not him," she replied. But deep down, "I knew it was. It's a break-your-heart picture."
Rob's quest intensified after he'd left the Marines and felt more comfortable quizzing senior officers about Richard's service. He tracked down the photographer, too, and Johnston told him how he'd taken the picture of Richard at Nha Tho An Hoa ("Peace Church") decades earlier. They became friends.
On business trips to Washington, Rob began stopping by the Marine Corps archives in the Navy Yard to dig through the old mimeographed "Command Chronologies" and "After Action Reports" of the Vietnam era, piecing together an idea of what Richard's combat tour had been like.
Once when he was making photocopies in the archives, Rob noticed a book on the shelf – "Lima-6: A Marine Company Commander in Vietnam," by Richard D. Camp. Camp had been in 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, and Rob realized he'd served with his brother. At the time of his death, Richard Sutter had been a corporal in Mike Company.
Looking through the book, Rob saw that a man named Carl E. Mundy Jr. had been Richard's battalion executive officer at Khe Sanh. Mundy, he knew, was still on active duty as a major general.
Rob called Mundy's aide and "asked if I might interview the general to learn more about Khe Sanh at that time frame. I thought I would get about 15 minutes of his time, but instead we talked for nearly two hours."
In "Lima-6," Camp recalls how Mundy – "one of those perfectly squared-away Marines" who somehow maintained sartorial spiffiness even in the muddy turmoil of Khe Sanh – had showed up one day with jagged holes in his freshly laundered fatigues. He'd hung them in his tent, and they'd been shredded by shrapnel in a rocket attack that night.
Richard, Rob realized, had been wounded in the same attack. ("Dear Mamma and Daddy," he'd written, "If you get a notice that I've been wounded in action, don't give it a second thought. Last night I received minor shrapnel wounds in the left hand.")
A few years after Rob met him, Mundy became the 30th Commandant of the Marine Corps.
He'd provided Rob with an address for Andrew D. DeBona, Richard's last company commander, and DeBona sent Rob a detailed letter – based on notes he'd kept at the time – describing his brother's last patrol. When they eventually met for lunch, Rob learned that Mike Company – with an authorized strength of 220 – had suffered 264 wounded and 36 killed in the 10 months DeBona commanded it. It was understandable that he hadn't known Richard personally.
Rob also discovered another name – Frank D. Fulford Jr. – who'd been Richard's commander before DeBona, but he hadn't been able to locate Fulford. The archives had a tape Fulford made in 1967, an "After Action Debriefing" describing parts of the battle around Peace Church the day Richard's picture was taken there.
As Rob listened to it, "I was struck by his accent. I went to the kitchen, opened the Atlanta phone book and looked up the name."
Fulford was practically a neighbor.
When they met, he filled Rob in on many details of Richard's life in Vietnam, recalling what a "gregarious and engaging personality" he'd been; it also turned out that Rob's nephew was in an Army ROTC unit commanded by Fulford's son.
"Twists of fate" were at work, Rob felt, "or the guiding hands of angels."
On Veterans Day 1992, the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association dedicated a plaque in Richard's honor at the Underground Atlanta mall on Peachtree Street.
"It was an extremely moving ceremony," Rob wrote his cousin, "punctuated by one of the best speeches I have ever heard."
In the oration, retired Marine Col. Anthony V. Latorre declared that Richard "looked death in the eye and did not blink. [He] stood his ground and won the battle against evil on this earth: the evil that makes quitters out of ordinarily good people.
"Richard Sutter was a true hero."
The Sutter family at Atlanta Underground, where a plaque was dedicated in Richard's memory on Veterans Day 1988. (Family Photo)
01-14-03, 07:28 AM
Rob's next step seemed ordained.
Late last year, he told his family and friends that he was going to Vietnam – a unified communist nation governed by Hanoi since the collapse of the South in April 1975 – with a group of Marines who'd fought there, some of them in Richard's battalion.
He wanted to stand on the ground near Khe Sanh where his brother died, and visit the little country church at An Hoa where – on May 16, 1967 – Johnston had taken that picture of Richard, an image so haunting and emblematic of the war that it's still widely reproduced.
Johnston was going on the trip, too.
As he and a reporter arrived in Atlanta to interview the Sutters beforehand, Rob – sporting an Aussie bush hat and piloting a forest green Chevy Tahoe – greeted him warmly. Their friendship, which seemed to offer the younger man a direct and visceral connection with his brother's life, had deepened since 1988, when Rob had first called to learn about the photograph.
What was it like for his brother in that church?
It had been Hell on Earth, Johnston had told him. In photographing 47 combat operations during the war, he'd never spent a worse night than the one with Richard in the besieged parish church: Wounded Marines were dying in pews and on the floor around them as the North Vietnamese Army pressed the attack outside. Richard, Johnston assured Rob, had been a "brave and gallant Marine."
White-haired and affable at 57, Johnston had been a Marine himself before joining United Press International in Vietnam, where, of the six UPI photographers he'd known, only he and one other survived.
"You're talking about 31 years of baggage," he told Rob. "It's something you carry within you that builds up over the ******* years, and you don't realize what effect it has on you until you're faced with the reality that you're going to go back."
Now, as he drives the photographer and reporter from one family interview to the next, Rob sticks a cassette in the tape deck and Richard's voice fills the vehicle. It's a "tape letter" from Vietnam, Christmas 1966. Richard sounds weary, his voice a deep, slow monotone:
"Robert, I understand that in school you're doing real well as far as activities and athletics, and the presidential election really was great. I was very, very much impressed. ... I'd like to hear from you occasionally if you get a chance. I know you're busy. I really didn't write too many people when I was your age, either, but I didn't know too many people over here then."
"That's the only thing I regret," Rob says.
As he guides the newsmen, a prickly side of his personality emerges: "I don't want the story to be a morose tragedy," he orders the reporter. "It's not. ... If you're looking for hand-wringing and weeping – no! ... We seek not grieving, but understanding."
He sounds angry.
"I just want the tone to be: 'We're happy he's in our family. He never left our family.' ... It's not a damn crying shame!
"If so, there were 58,000 damn crying shames."
At Arlington Memorial Park in northeast Atlanta, where Richard is buried, a misting rain falls as Rob bends over the flat gravestone, brushing away pine needles. He doesn't linger. "I never visit cemeteries, I don't believe in them," he insists. "He's not in the ground."
The old house on Stovall Boulevard, where Rob and Richard grew up in the splendid sprawl of their big family, is a pretty colonial in a sylvan setting. Inside, Rob's cousin Kathryn Smith, 43, works in the kitchen as her 8-year-old son, Dan, plays on the floor with a toy military fort and camouflaged tank.
"It came with no men," the lad laments. "If it was really an Army base, it would have them."
Rob wanders the familiar spaces – the upstairs bedroom where the boys bunked, the back room where Grandma lived, the patio they'd sweated to complete in time for Hannah's wedding, the fireplace where Richard – looking none too cheerful – had posed for pictures the night before he left for the war.
Kathryn remembers when she was little (they'd lived nearby then) and Richard came over one day with his girlfriend. "He was so excited. He sat us all down and said he had an announcement, and we thought they were getting engaged. He said, 'I've enlisted in the Marines!' and he had this great big smile. Daddy was crestfallen, and I remember the look on the girl's face. ...
"After he went, we sent care packages – brownies and Kool-Aid. He wrote, 'Send lots of Kool-Aid and tapes.' I remember, as a family, passing the microphone around."
She's leaning on the kitchen counter. A note on the fridge says: "Get plain bagels." Rob hands her a copy of Richard's picture in the church.
"God," Kathryn breathes, gazing at it, "he looks so much older. ..."
Her son comes over to look.
"That's your cousin Richard, who grew up here," his mother says gently. "He was 7 years old in this house, too, and he used to get his mom all upset and excited, and she'd send him to bed early."
Then, very softly: "This place where he is, this is on the other side of the world, in a place called Vietnam."
Johnston, stunned by the sudden power of the scene, instinctively slips into a crouch, his Leica clicking.
"Richard was a very brave person," he tells the boy, explaining how the picture was taken under enemy mortar fire.
Rob, joining in, elaborates on mortars – how the rounds arc high, coming almost straight down on your position.
Later, at Ellen's house, she and Rob probe decades-old family dynamics, as people tend to do now that there's a popular vocabulary for this sort of thing: the "dysfunction," the facade of ice-cold gentility and resolute perfectionism with its small unspoken secrets and hidden anguish, the "rage-aholism" of their Proper Southern Mother, the fear-based, Depression-bred exactitude of their commanding father.
"I don't miss my mother," Rob admits. "I don't really miss my father. Because I didn't really have a relationship with them. I feel I was raised by wolves.
"Nice wolves, but I never felt that parental bond."
His bond had been with Richard.
Leading the way upstairs to look for mementos, Ellen predicts – Rob is out of earshot – that the Vietnam trip will affect him deeply. "I'm worried about him," she confesses. "I don't know what he's looking for. ... I hope it brings closure for him."
Going through her desk for Richard's letters, she predicts that "at some point it will hit him – the whole meaning of what he's looking for. He's on a journey ... searching for that older brother he never knew. He sees Richard as a hero.
"I see him as an unfortunate young person who got killed in Vietnam, who joined the Marines because he didn't know what to do with his life."
She enters a bedroom. There's a picture of Richard on the dresser and, beside it, a tiny pair of booties and a baby bonnet. Ellen opens a drawer and removes a white christening gown.
Carefully, she spreads it on the bed – a long, delicate garment crocheted by her great-grandmother. Over a century, it's been worn by countless members of the family.
Richard was christened in it.
So was Rob.
Robert visits his brother's grave in an Atlanta cemetery in 1998.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
Baby Richard and his mother, Nita.
Sister Ellen shows the christening gown, in the Sutter family for a century, in which Richard and Robert were baptized.
(By Frank Johnston – The Post)
01-14-03, 07:31 AM
Parking the Tahoe in the garage of his pristine suburban tract mansion, Rob greets his family. "Dad!" cries Emily, 10, "I sold 144 Girl Scout cookies!" Rob soon busies himself cooking a shrimp feast, while his wife, Laura – her father is a retired Army general – supervises. They've been married 18 years.
Preston, the 14-year-old, declares happily that when a friend told him he looks like Richard, "I was, like, 'All riiight!'" Mitchell, 12, recalls how his teacher, reading from one of Rob's letters to a relative about Richard, which Mitchell had brought in to share, "started crying halfway through."
"I'd like to go to college and go to OCS," Preston says. "I'm not thinking of a military career, though."
"Just a taste of it," Rob prompts.
"All my friends talk about what they're going to do when they grow up," Preston continues. "I say I'm going into the military to get a taste of it and they all look at me like I'm nuts. ... Kids say they're afraid of dying, but the world would be a better place because of the teamwork and leadership skills they'd learn in the military."
Rob looks at his son with pleasure.
In his basement office, he has Johnston's Nha Tho An Hoa picture on the wall along with Richard's medals, mementos of his own service – crossed ceremonial swords, his captain's bars – and framed quotes from James Webb's Vietnam novel "Fields of Fire" ("Do not stand at my grave and cry./ I am not there, I did not die") and John Stuart Mill ("A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight ... is a miserable creature").
Rob's quest, Laura explains – again, he's out of earshot – "has unfolded in a way that has opened doors and healed him ... and it feels right.
"In the beginning, he was just trying to find out what happened. ... It was an obsessive thing then, [but] now he's mellowed out. He was very angry because of his brother's death, and angry he wasn't able to go to Vietnam – for revenge or whatever. He was trained, and not invited to the party."
Then: "It's been a very long and drawn-out grieving process for him."
The big jet, lumbering southwest, enters Vietnamese airspace.
Rob, passing the time, has started a journal. "Family and friends have had some varied reactions to my taking this trip," he writes.
They range from, "This sounds like a great experience" to "Why in the hell do you want to go there?" I think their perception is that I am continuing to deal with some sort of grief that won't settle. I see it much differently.
Of all my family, I am the only one, other than Richard, who served as a Marine. The tactics we were taught were those from Vietnam. The Marines we served with were veterans of Vietnam. The dominant concern of males my age, throughout high school and college, was Vietnam. [It] defined my era. It took a great toll on our country, my family and me.
I want to stand on the ground of this little country that had such a profound effect on us all. I want to smell it, taste it and feel it.
He's not going alone, but with a large group of retired Marines who saw heavy combat in the war and from whom he hopes to learn what his brother's life and death had been like. As he listens intently, sensing their anguish and enjoying the camaraderie, he begins to realize that their experiences – taken as a whole – are the story of America's continuing struggle with Vietnam, his own personal quest writ large.
While Rob had watched the conflict from afar, these men have been here before. Some, like Richard, had gone by ship – but many had flown like this, on a commercial airliner.
There they'd sat, young trained killers in camouflage fatigues, being asked by stewardesses if they took cream and sugar. Then, minutes later, they'd stepped out into the oven-hot sunblaze.
This is not a trip about death, loss and grief. It is a trip about respect, gratitude and life. It is a "debt of honor." ... More than anything else, [it] has to do with simply being a Marine. Perhaps this is what my siblings have never been able to comprehend, for being a Marine holds a special magic. ...
The jet lets down over a familiar tan-and-green symmetry of rice paddy, dike and tree line.
Rob peers out the window. "It's like Kansas," he murmurs.
Hanoi looms into view.
From the air, as we approached, there is still very visible evidence of the heavy bombing that took place during the war. Large craters pockmark the ground near the runway. The entire left side of the runway is lined with Russian-made MiG-21 fighter planes. ... This is not your typical civilian airport.
The plane lands and Rob, with the others, hefts his carry-on and waits. The door opens.
He steps out.
Marine Corps recruit Richard Sutter (front row, at left) goes through training in the operation of the .45 automatic pistol.
(Courtesy USMC Training Depot, Parris Island, S.C.)
Richard Sutter during basic training at the Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island, S.C.
(Courtesy USMC Training Depot, Parris Island, S.C.)
Will continue tomorrow with the last piece....................
01-15-03, 07:29 AM
Last of three articles
By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 1998; Page A1
PEACE CHURCH, Vietnam – Soon after arriving in Vietnam to pay a "debt of honor" to his older brother who died in the war, Rob Sutter found himself hot, tired and somewhat amazed at the emotional intensity of this journey with American veterans back to a place where they'd risked everything and given their best.
One day, as the large group was having lunch at a charming restaurant in the old imperial city of Hue – site of ferocious fighting in the 1968 Tet Offensive – one of the men made an announcement that brought a sudden hush.
In an adjoining room, he said, was a woman who'd been a Red Cross "Donut Dolly" – a humble job, to be sure, working in a recreation center for U.S. troops. Many of these men could remember a time during the war when – frightened, exhausted and lonely – their spirits had been lifted by the warm smile of just such a girl.
Now, like the Marines, Judith Hansen of Hermosa Beach, Calif., was a mere tourist in a land where she and much of her generation had lost its innocence in a war that ended in defeat.
Quietly, she came and stood before them – a little bewildered and quite moved by this unexpected meeting. It was her first time back to Vietnam, she told the men. She'd spent three days in old Saigon, then come north. "I was in Da Nang working with Marines in 1967," she continued. "Now I can't find the rec center. ..."
Her voice broke, she couldn't continue.
Silently, except for the scrape of chairs, the men instinctively rose and, standing at attention, sang "The Marines' Hymn" for her at the top of their lungs. The spontaneous, disciplined eruption of feeling was the highest tribute they could pay, their most heartfelt salute.
Some were crying.
That night, Rob – a Marine who'd just missed serving in Vietnam but who was trying to understand the life of his brother and hero, Richard, who died near Khe Sanh on July 21, 1967 – wrote in his journal:
It was one of the most awesome moments of my life. Judith Hansen will never forget it, and neither will we.
Yet Rob had displayed no emotion.
In fact, he hadn't cried about anything since that moment 31 years ago when he was 13 and his family received the news of Richard's death. Now a successful Atlanta businessman of 44, Rob told friends he'd "carried some deep mental wounds" from the Vietnam era, and had spent much of his life chasing Richard's shadow, "wanting to follow in his path."
Finally, his search led him here.
As he sang for Hansen, Rob stood with Marines like Tom Esslinger, a Washington lawyer who'd commanded his brother's unit – Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines – several months after Richard's death; Carl E. Mundy Jr., Richard's battalion executive officer, who later became commandant of the Marine Corps; and Frank Johnston, who'd left active duty but, as a civilian newsman, had taken a famous photograph of Richard in the besieged country parish of Nha Tho An Hoa ("Peace Church") 25 miles from Khe Sanh.
Like most of the retired Marines – some wives and sons, U.S. Army veterans and active-duty Marines were along, too – Rob was a little vague on his reasons for being here. "Closure?" – not a word he liked. "Grieving?" – he'd done it. Yet in honoring Richard, he sought a final measure of peace with the war that had wreaked havoc in his nation, his family, his own soul.
Much of the trip – like the war itself – had a surreal quality. Rob and the others frolicked in the surf at China Beach, the storied R&R center for American troops near Da Nang; walked in a somber line past Ho Chi Minh's chilled, spotlighted corpse in a Hanoi mausoleum; played with kids at the Lewis B. Puller Jr. School, which is supported by American funds and named for the Marine who told his story in "Fortunate Son"; and shopped for their wives in bustling Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City) under new skyscrapers and a red banner bearing a huge portrait of Colonel Sanders, the chicken king.
Traveling in modern air-conditioned buses, the 36 Vietnam veterans, seven family members, journalists and others visited old battlefields in what used to be called "I Corps" – the northernmost area of military operations in the former South Vietnam.
At one point during the two-week tour, Rob listened as Mundy and others who'd served with his brother stood sweating in the tropical sun not far from Peace Church south of the old DMZ, describing the battle of "Ambush Valley" there in September 1967. Nearly two-thirds of the 1,184-man battalion – outnumbered and holding off human-wave assaults by a North Vietnamese Army regiment – was killed or wounded in three days.
It was akin to walking the battlefield at Chancellorsville with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. ... Many men displayed incredible acts of heroism. Richard was already dead by then, but this was his unit.
As he heard the men's stories, Rob learned what life and death in Vietnam had been like for his brother. As he connected with them in a series of humorous, sad, uplifting moments, he got a sense of how men come to love one another in battle – a bond that is like no other.
Pursuing his quest, Rob got a broader look at America's Vietnam saga through these glimpses of men struggling – as their country struggles – to understand and cope with what happened. In many of the stories, terrible as they are, Rob could see surprising and powerful elements of redemption, a saving grace. Each man had tried to do the right thing when his country called, going to a strange, faraway land and risking life and honor in an idealistic fight for freedom. Now, Rob saw, there was much bitterness at the political deceptions that had accompanied the crusade, at the waste and loss. Dear friends had died, horribly – and to what end?
Though this tour was not billed as a "healing" experience, the increasing popularity of such tours fits naturally into America's broad cultural effort to close the book on Vietnam: You've seen "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Coming Home;" you've read "Fields of Fire" and "Going After Cacciato"; now you can return to Khe Sanh, and walk through your memories.
"The veterans have an insatiable curiosity to go back, to find the place where they lost their youth," explained retired Col. Warren Wiedhahn of Military Historical Tours, the Alexandria agency that organized this trip. "Each guy has his moment, and you see him go off by himself."
Rob wanted to stand on the ground near Khe Sanh where Richard died.
He wanted his moment.
Visiting Marines listen to the Rev. Michel Laute, 85, in the Vietnamese city of Hue. The Americans returned to the ancient city in March, en route to a battleground where they fought 30 years ago.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
A former Marine tries to pass a Vietnamese woman carrying water up the steps of Marble Mountain in Da Nang.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
01-15-03, 07:31 AM
As I get to know the others with us, I am struck by the one trait ... possessed by them all: CHARACTER.
On Rob's bus, Tom Early sits near his old friend Dick Camp. Both were officers in Richard's battalion, both saw heavy combat. Like many on the trip, they'd been career professionals.
Now, still lean and fit in middle age, both with finely honed and somewhat sardonic senses of humor, they sit gazing out the windows at the lush countryside as a Vietnamese government tour guide talks over the speaker system.
The guide mentions the Viet Cong "hero" Nguyen Van Troi, who'd tried to assassinate Robert McNamara, "the American minister of defense."
Early, 56, who retired as a colonel and later became a graveyard administrator in Indiana, snaps his fingers.
"Too bad he missed!"
"Boy, I'll tell you," says Camp, 57, who also retired as a colonel and who is now a school system administrator in suburban Cincinnati, "we got hosed. I was trying to sort through my feelings: It's not anger, exactly, but it just makes you sick to realize they were lying to us."
"Maybe rage, Dick?" interjects Ken Sandall, a San Jose attorney who was a radioman in the battalion.
It is an arresting moment. The fierce bitterness of these men – archetypal American warriors for whom "Duty, Honor, Country" will never be mere words – springs from a deep sense of betrayal. They've been discussing H.R. McMaster's book "Dereliction of Duty." The misplaced ideals and outright lies that fueled Vietnam – not just McNamara's, who'd realized the war couldn't be won but kept on sending boys to die anyway, but also the misrepresentations of LBJ and his advisers, to say nothing of the weakness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – afflicted men like Camp and Early directly, personally.
Now, decades later, they seem far removed from the military stereotypes into which they were once fitted by anti-war protesters. It's not that they've suddenly embraced left-wing causes, or wouldn't return to battle in a moment if their country called: Camp and Early simply think, now, that what happened was appalling – that they, too, were somehow wrong – and they're honest enough to say so.
"I detested guys like George McGovern because they didn't support the party line," Camp says. "But they were right."
"We denigrated them," Early agrees. "I hate to admit that the People's Republic of Massachusetts was right."
"Who else?" Camp asks.
"The Berrigan brothers," says Early, who once – as a Marine recruiter – had protesters dump chicken blood on his paperwork.
"They were right as rain," Camp laments. He shakes his head.
"It hurts," Early says. "Why were we here? What the hell was accomplished? ... And the lies! – starting with the Gulf of Tonkin. It was like a little kid telling a lie, and he has to just keep lying.
"And at the time, you're just here worried about living for the next five minutes, and saving Marines.
"I mean, we were just put out there to die, without a plan."
Alan McLean, an Episcopal priest from Pine Bluff, Ark., visits the Hanoi War Museum on a trip with other veterans. On his third week as a young lieutenant in Vietnam, McLean stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
01-15-03, 07:33 AM
Larry ("Horney") Harnetiaux asked me to be part of an honor guard for his lieutenant, John Slater, who was killed while Horney was away on R&R; ... The lieutenant was apparently not a drinking man [but] would give the men $20 and tell them to buy some "Cokes." They would buy him a couple of Cokes and use the rest to buy beer for themselves.
Today, Horney bought his lieutenant a Coke.
Rob and Horney, in a red "Force Recon" cap, stand at attention saluting a dusty spot on the edge of an abandoned airfield south of Da Nang where Horney has buried the can of Coke.
"Taps" plays from a loudspeaker on the bus.
Also in the small formation stands retired Col. Bruce F. Meyers, still rugged at 72, a 28-year veteran who in the 1950s founded the first Marine Force Recon company and, in 1968 – after Richard Sutter's death – brought Richard's regiment to fight in the triple-canopy jungle west of this spot.
On the bus, Meyers enthralled Rob and the others with tales of those days – "leapfrogging" his battalions up ridge lines; using ammonia-sensitive "****er sniffers" mounted on helicopters to detect enemy troop concentrations; greeting newly arrived lieutenant and presidential son-in-law Chuck Robb with the plea, "For chrissakes don't get waxed or you'll end my career."
The brief ceremony over, Horney, 50, a construction worker in Illinois, wipes his eyes and lights a Marlboro. Bill Stilwagen, 48, who'd been a Marine radioman and helicopter machine gunner, squeezes his hand.
"Full circle, brother," he says.
As Rob and the others spread across the airfield in search of old sandbags, C-ration cans and other mementos, Ben "Baby-san" Dunham – a 49-year-old ex-Army Ranger with a ring in his ear, a black beret and golden hair falling to his shoulders – finds the shade of a scraggly tree with his ex-Ranger buddy William "Knot" Dickey, 48.
Having served together, they've stayed pals over the years and now operate a hardwood flooring business out of Nashville and Chicago. Knot's getup is as irreverent as Baby-san's: gray shoulder-length hair, cowboy boots, a black hat festooned with beads. He was a sniper with more than 40 confirmed kills.
Even during the war, men like Baby-san and Knot were legends, daring what few would: As Ranger LRRPs (for "long-range reconnaissance patrol"), they'd moved quietly through the jungle in four- or six-man teams, playing cat-and-mouse with death as they tried to pinpoint enemy positions.
"There isn't a LRRP who hasn't walked into an enemy base camp," Knot explains, almost nonchalantly. "Often you could walk right out, because Nguyen is so comfortable out there he wouldn't see you."
"At night we'd crawl into the thickest cover we could find," Baby-san says. "You put out your Claymores" – antipersonnel mines – "and then listen. At night the jungle comes alive."
"You can feel trouble," Knot adds.
"Nguyen wasn't bashful about looking for you with flashlights," Baby-san continues. "Usually, we'd let 'em shine and move on past. That's when your nerves are at peak, and you know what's inside you."
A Marine walks up with some 30-year-old junk.
Baby-san takes a green C-ration can, turns it over in his hand.
"Pecan Cake Roll," the stenciled label reads.
"This was my favorite," he muses. "I'd take four of these on patrol, and have one each night while I was on radio watch. We observed 'noise discipline,' and it took a long time to open the can."
It took 45 minutes.
An Unpayable Debt
We hiked about 5,000 meters [in] the heat. ... The water loss from the body is incredible, even under "no gear" conditions. It must have truly been hell with all that equipment and a hostile enemy about.
Some days were worse than others, and some you spend the rest of your life trying to come to terms with.
"We'd already had six KIA and 32 wounded during the day, and we were low on ammo," Howard A. Christy, 65, recalls. It was May 21, 1966, southwest of Da Nang. Suddenly, his battered company took small-arms fire from a hamlet.
Everyone hit the deck. Christy, in command, radioed for fire support.
"We destroyed the town with air and heavy artillery and napalm – bombs, machine gun strafing, 8-inch howitzers, 155-millimeter guns," says the retired lieutenant colonel, now a historian at Brigham Young University who has written extensively on the moral dilemmas of combat; on the trip, Rob listened with fascination as Christy gave the younger, active-duty Marines graphic lessons on the realities of war.
Out of the black smoking ruins that day had walked a family – a grandmother whose burned flesh hung in shreds, a distraught mother, a 10-year-old girl carrying her little brother, who had a chunk of shrapnel embedded in his brain.
They walked up to Christy, and the girl handed him the boy.
"He died in five seconds [in my arms]. She went berserk and she was pounding on me with her fists and crying. ... The mother let down her hair and got on her knees and sang a wail of death.
"I stood there. I said, 'Tell her I'm sorry. Tell her we suffered a lot today, too.' What do you tell the mother of a 5-year-old boy you just killed?"
On the trip, Christy wanted to find the girl – if she's still alive – to make amends. "I was going to give her $100, and apologize."
There wasn't time.
Navy Corpsman Lee Webber, front, of Guam, stands at attention on the runway in Khe Sanh during a ceremony for fallen comrades.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
01-15-03, 07:35 AM
We stopped in Phu Loc. Ken Sandall was carrying a picture of a 10-year-old boy who befriended him in 1968, and used to run errands for him. He showed the picture to some locals and asked if the boy was still alive.
Friendly crowds of people – including squads of children – gather cheerfully around the big American visitors at every stop. They'd often done the same during the war – though you could never be sure, then, whose side they were really on.
"The Vietnamese like us!" Esslinger, the Washington lawyer, says with a delighted grin. "As I look back now, I have no animosity toward them," adds Anthony R. Shaw Jr., a New Jersey phone company executive who'd fought at Khe Sanh.
Sandall, 52, a large, bald man with a sweet smile, holds the picture of the Vietnamese boy in his hand as the buses stop along a busy two-lane road running through Phu Loc.
"He was just a good little kid," he recalls fondly. "We'd come here for a month, we'd go out on ambushes and stuff. We were right on the other side of the bridge there, living with the people."
With the help of an interpreter, he questions the villagers. "He'd be about 40 years old now, because he was about 10 then," Sandall says. "He had a tattoo, 'Ca,' on his left forearm."
"Ah, Ca!" exclaims a man. He trots off and returns with a thin middle-aged man who seems slightly embarrassed by all the attention.
"Maybe it was you?" Sandall asks as Rob looks on. "You used to come and play with the Marines? You remember Ken?"
Nguyen Hong seems to remember, though his tattoo says "Ha."
"I'm Ken!" Sandall says, sweeping Hong into a bear hug.
"Oh, my God!" Hong exclaims.
They're both laughing.
01-15-03, 07:37 AM
Col. Meyers and his wife Jo are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary today. They have decided to have a wedding and renew their vows, [and] we are all invited. ... The service was performed by Rev. Alan McLean, an Episcopal priest who was a young lieutenant. In his third week in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs. ... We gave Jo flowers, and the hotel staff made them a wedding cake.
"Vows?" Jo quips, "I thought that was a military acronym."
"She has been there constantly," says Meyers, now an attorney in Washington state whose three decades of service in three wars made him "a legend in the Marine Corps," as Mundy puts it in toasting the couple during dinner at a Da Nang restaurant.
"He wasn't a legend to me," Jo declares, smiling. "He'd come home after being gone a year and try to take charge. No way!"
The difficulties faced by military families are legend, too. Rob, who'd left active duty mainly because he didn't like being away from his wife and children, raises his glass to toast Jo and Marine wives in general.
Sitting with Rob are Gene and Leslie Miller of Camarillo, Calif. Gene, a firefighter, eats and chats while his wife, a surgical nurse, quietly reflects on the difficulties the war had caused in their 25-year marriage.
"Vietnam underlies everything in his life," she says. "About 15 years ago, when he saw the Moving Wall" – a traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – "he kneeled down as if in a trance. It was like he couldn't hear me, it kind of frightened me. I took the kids, and we stayed in the car for two hours. ...
"And that's how he began reliving the past."
Later, she says, Gene was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, "and it's been hard. ... It's like a wound that he's had for 30 years, and he's put Band-Aids on it, but he knows it has to be lanced and drained so it can heal."
The trip, she adds, is helping.
"But it hurts. Especially going down the river where he was [stationed]. The boat owner was very nice and gracious; he had a wooden leg – from the war; it was an American helmet he used to bail the boat. ... We got off at several places Gene remembered. He looked at me and he mouthed the words, 'I was here. I stood right here.' "
The tour is good for her too, she thinks. "I told my husband the other night, 'I don't know who's gotten more out of this – me or you.' "
Then, with sudden intensity:
"Vietnam, to me, is a woman. She's a *****, almost like a mistress! Prior to coming here, I thought I'd learn something from her, [and] I've learned that this is a beautiful place, and the people are wonderful. ..."
Tears are streaming down her cheeks.
"I can understand why vets have problems being married, and it's hard for the wives, because it takes a lot of understanding and love. It really does. ... That's why I came.
"To face the mistress."
From left, Richard Camp, of Cincinnati; Roger Neilson, of Virginia Beach; William Costley, of El Dorado, Ark.; and Warren Wiedhahn, director of Military Historical Tours in Alexandria, look at battle maps in Vietnam after an absence of 30 years. (By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
01-15-03, 07:39 AM
The Marine security detachment [in Hanoi] presented Sgt. Maj. Len Koontz with a brick from Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as "The Hanoi Hilton" [where] American POWs were held. Koontz [though not a POW] was awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for valor at Khe Sanh.
You'd never peg him for a hero.
Len's kind of short, bald, low-key. On Rob's bus he's sweet with everyone, cheerful and helpful. Retired after 30 years in the Corps, he's an internet engineer in Fairfax.
"I came back to go to one spot," Len says in a hotel dining room one night. "I lost two good buddies. It's one of the promises you make one another. You hold hands and hug each other and promise you'll come back together some day. But of course, they didn't come back."
He removes his glasses, wipes his eyes.
Len, 49, grew up working class in Pennsylvania, joined the Corps out of high school. Next thing he knew, he was at Khe Sanh. "I'd found my family. I always wanted to be a Marine."
He buddied up with Zack Taylor Addington of Georgia and Henry Earl Shelton of California. "The three of us just clicked. We fell in love with one another. It was a bond nobody could touch."
They were 19.
One day, Len drank from a well where the enemy had dumped bodies. He got diarrhea, and Zack took his place on point. "We got ambushed. Zack gets shot in the leg, and he falls. 'Lenny, come get me!' But I'm getting shot at too, and I can't move because I have the runs so bad.
"They shot him again and again, and he's calling for me to come get him, and I can't move."
He pauses, struggling.
"Consequently, Zack died of course."
Soon afterward, Shelton was on point as the platoon moved up Hill 542 "and he takes a .50-caliber round in the stomach. As he's falling, he takes another one in the head. A fierce firefight takes place, and I couldn't get him out of there. He was alone, dead."
The enemy drove the Americans down the hill. "In the morning we get reinforced and go back up with two platoons. Shelton isn't there anymore. They took his body and stripped it and mutilated him and stuck him in the middle of a bomb crater so we'd draw fire trying to get him. Two .50-caliber bunkers had the crater sighted in.
"I said, 'I'm getting Shelton out of there.' "
After destroying the bunkers and pulling his friend's body down the hill, Len went back under fire to save wounded Marines. As he picked one man up, "I pulled his left leg off. Both legs were missing. His intestines were hanging out.
"He looked at me and said, 'Lenny, why?' "
That was the day Len Koontz won the Navy Cross.
He doesn't think he did anything special – "People just saw me and wrote it up, that's all. Thousands of others did the same.
"All they got was a Purple Heart, and a garden of stone."
A small village lies below Hill 542 near Khe Sanh, where Marine Cpl. Len Koontz, 19, won the Navy Cross for "extraordinary heroism."
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
01-15-03, 07:43 AM
Arriving at the site of the old airfield, people ventured out to where they had been billeted, or to the location where a good friend had been wounded or killed.
The place is serene now. It's a coffee plantation, as it has been since French colonial times.
The punishing 77-day Siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968 – along with the countrywide Tet Offensive – had helped turn America against the war and bring about Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection.
Thirty years later, the runway has fallen into disrepair – a gash of red clay lined with tufts of elephant grass, stretching across the high open plateau toward hazy mountains and the nearer hills where Koontz and Esslinger fought, where Richard died, and Zack and Shelton and many others.
Scraps of sandbags and rusty barbed wire lie about, but there's little sign of the bunkers where men once crouched under fearsome artillery barrages. In the afternoon stillness, it's hard to imagine the explosions, the screams, the chatter of automatic weapons.
Rob heads down the runway.
Later] Gen. Mundy and his son, Maj. Sam Mundy, walked me out to the area where Richard's company was positioned. This is as close as I will get to where Richard was killed.
"This would have been where Mike 3/26 was," Mundy says. They're on a trail beside a ragged tree line half a mile from the airstrip.
Rob gazes around the area where his brother's unit was encamped at the time of his death – the summer before the great siege, a summer so quiet that Mike Company was still living above ground in tents.
Mundy tells Rob about John Manzi, a Mike Company lieutenant who used to get big food parcels from home and host an Officers' Mess Night. "His dad owned an Italian restaurant in New York, so we'd come walking out here to [company commander] Andy DeBona's tent for a spaghetti dinner."
"Manzi," Rob says quietly – drawing on his years of research into Richard's life – "got killed September 7, 1967."
The general and his son strike off in a different direction, and Rob continues walking slowly down the trail with another man, Col. Horace "Pony" Baker.
"How are you doing?" Pony asks.
"Okay," Rob replies.
Birds are chirping in the trees by the trail.
"I have something I'd like to give you," Pony says. One of the locals who'd come out when the Marines arrived was selling war mementos – old medals, dog tags. Pony, 62, who'd been a casualty notification officer after returning to the States from combat in Vietnam, had bought a faded Purple Heart.
"There's no one I'd rather give this to than you."
Taking the medal, Rob breaks down – sobbing openly, unreservedly.
He falls into Pony's arms. They hug.
Johnston – who'd taken the picture of Rob's brother in Peace Church three decades earlier – has his camera up and clicking, capturing the moment. He's crying so hard he can scarcely see through the viewfinder.
"Thank you for coming out here with me," Rob says.
"My pleasure," Pony says. He's smiling.
Later in the day, as the sun began to set, our group held a memorial service for all who served and died at Khe Sanh. Gen. Mundy spoke.
"This is hallowed ground," the general says, his voice clear and gentle. "Brave men fought here, and fought for each other here."
Behind him, a wreath – symbolizing that "we were here. There were friends here whom we love very much. Love is not a term that Marines use very often. Doesn't sound too manly. But you can't be a Marine and not be in love with the other people who are around you."
Rob and Pony listen, arm-in-arm.
The general speaks of Richard, "Rob Sutter's brother – a Marine who served beside us here on this very spot, who died near this very spot.
"I don't know whether he died a hero or not. I don't know whether many of us die heroes. But he was a hero if for no other reason than simply that he was here, and simply because he came when his country asked him."
Mundy brings Rob forward as Koontz steps up smartly, bearing two Purple Hearts Richard earned for his wounds – the last one mortal.
The general presents them to Rob "with gratitude."
"On behalf of my family," Rob says simply, "and all the Marines who died here, and all the Marines who lived here ... I appreciate it.
"I'm proud to be a Marine."
To have Richard honored by the former commandant [at] the Khe Sanh Combat Base where he fought and where he died, brought me indescribable satisfaction.
For 30 years I have lived with a great deal of anger and guilt. ... In a number of Richard's letters home, he asked me to write to him. I think I wrote him only twice. [I] had little, if any, idea of what Richard was going through, or how much danger he faced each day.
I let him down.
[Now] I can, for the first time ... forgive myself. [As] I lay in my bed this evening, I could feel the anger actually draining from my body, as though a plug had been pulled from my heels. I felt the weight of a long-carried guilt lifted.
I feel at peace.
Robert Sutter walks the runway at Khe Sanh.
(By Frank Johnston – The Washington Post)
Col. Horace "Pony" Baker (ret.), of Sheffield, Ala., right, comforts Robert Sutter after a walk on the Khe Sanh plateau where the 3/26 base camp was located.
(By Frank Johnston – The Post)
Friends gather for a memorial service at Khe Sanh, 31 years after Richard Sutter's death.
(By Frank Johnston – The Post)
01-15-03, 07:45 AM
The next day, in the rolling hills south of the old DMZ, the men locate the ruins of Peace Church in a small banana grove. It was leveled by artillery fire, according to the local people, in 1968.
There are no other structures around – only trees, rice paddies, open country. In the hot afternoon stillness, a genuine sense of serenity seems to have fallen over the spot. As the Marines approach, the Vietnamese emerge silently out of the trees as if from nowhere – as they always had.
"Hello!" greets a smiling child.
Frank, with cameras dangling from his shoulders and Rob and Pony close behind, steps gingerly into the rubble. Pausing, the photographer gazes around at the chunks of cement wall, fragments of smashed terra cotta flooring.
"This is it," he whispers. "There's nothing here. God, they blew this beautiful church away."
Frank and Richard were here together May 16, 1967, in the midst of a terrible battle. North Vietnamese mortar rounds exploded outside as wounded Marines huddled inside for protection. It was a place of chaos then, where fearful young men bravely faced death and, in so doing, redeemed in some deeply human way the hideousness of war.
"I don't want to die," a badly wounded Marine had told Frank as he comforted him. "You're not, old buddy," the photographer had assured him. The man died in his arms.
"You couldn't walk six feet without getting shelled or shot at," Frank recalls. "Now it's so peaceful – the way it should be, really."
In the fading evening light of that terrible day, Frank had photographed Richard sitting on the steps near the altar. The next morning, under fire, they'd buddied up to help evacuate the wounded – then said goodbye.
Two months later, Richard was killed near Khe Sanh. Twenty years later, Rob had called to ask if Frank had taken that picture of his brother.
Now, Frank leads Rob through the ruins to the spot where the altar had been.
They stand for a few moments, in silence. Growing from a clump of grass at their feet is a single yellow flower.
"This is where I photographed Richard," Frank says softly.
"Rob, this is where Richard and I were."
Editor's note: Please see the Epilogue about the former Marine who comes forward and claims he is the soldier in Frank Johnston's photograph.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
01-15-03, 07:51 AM
By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 1998; Page A1
It begins with two brave, frightened men, one behind a camera and one before the lens. They are in a darkling, hazy church in Vietnam and they are waiting to die.
Frank Johnston's photograph of an exhausted Marine in a besieged church in 1967 became one of the iconic images of the war. The picture went out over the United Press International wire with a simple, universal, caption: "An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa during a heavy North Vietnamese mortar attack."
There's an almost eerie quality to the photo. You can't quite pin down the look on that face. Like Mathew Brady's pictures of Civil War soldiers, you wonder who he was, what he's thinking and feeling, where he came from and what became of him. But he moves you because he's every scared, noble, doomed man in the whole wretched war. Who was he? Two Marines, unbeknown to each other, were certain they knew.
Over the years the photo was published in newspapers, magazines and books, and seen by millions of people. One who saw it was Rob Sutter of Atlanta, Ga., who contacted Johnston in 1988 and told the photographer that the man in the church was his brother, Richard Sutter, a Marine who died near Khe Sanh on July 21, 1967. Inspired and haunted by the picture and the loss it somehow portrayed, Rob Sutter poured himself into a search for the details and meaning of his brother's life. Ultimately that journey took him to Vietnam.
The story of that search was told in July in a three-part series in The Washington Post, "Peace Church, Vietnam: An American Journey." It recounted Rob's quest for the meaning of his brother's life and death, and drew from extensive interviews and records gathered over several months that showed the Marine in the photo could have been Richard, though there was no documented proof of this.
Another who saw the picture – for the first time in 1967 – was Michael W. Tripp of Barrington, R.I. The Marine in the picture, he knew, was unquestionably himself. He, too, tried to contact the photographer, not very long after his return from Vietnam. But when he called the UPI, someone told him, erroneously, that Frank Johnston was dead.
So he gave up his search, made much of the life that was given back to him after that night in the church, built a family and a business, made many friends and passed hundreds of hours breathing deep the fresh air from his boat crossing the blue waters of Narragansett Bay. He spoke little of Vietnam – until, once again, the picture became famous.
After the Post series, the photograph was picked up and used in an advertisement for a television documentary. That led Tripp to Johnston, now a Post photographer, and set in motion another story – this one, about the photograph itself, its mystery, and also about another Marine, his family and their struggle to come to terms with the painful legacy of Vietnam.
A Startling Likeness
He'd always known about the picture, always knew it was him.
"I want to confirm your suspicions about that picture in the paper," Mike Tripp wrote to his wife Ella on June 6, 1967. "Yes, it's me. It was taken the day after we were shot down. The helicopters could still not get in to us because of the mortars, so we fought our way out to the church which was about 250 meters from where we were."
"I saw the picture almost immediately," Ella recalls. "My mother called from Arkansas and said the picture was in the Arkansas Gazette. 'It looks just like Michael.' It was kind of eating me up, so I took it to the hospital where Mike's mother worked, and she starts screaming. She knew it was him.
"I knew it was him, too, but I didn't want to know it was him."
She pauses, collecting herself.
"When he left for Vietnam he had chubby cheeks, and in the picture there's this skinny little face. I know it's his eyes, his lips. But I hoped it wasn't him, because I knew he wasn't supposed to be on the ground."
Mike was a corporal, proud crew chief of Yankee Zulu-77, one of the old reliable UH-34D Sikorsky piston-pounders of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363. The unit was operating in the "Leatherneck Square" area just south of the Demilitarized Zone that separated what were then North and South Vietnam.
As a crew chief, he supervised what went on in the cargo bay: the loading and unloading of supplies, combat troops and casualties – or "medevacs," as they were called. And, with another enlisted Marine, he manned the pair of M-60 machine guns that were the vulnerable bird's only means of defense.
On the evening of May 14, 1967, Yankee Zulu-77 was dispatched on an emergency medevac mission near the church at An Hoa, where elements of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines – the "Walking Dead" – were engaged in what the official 1/9 Command Chronology describes as a "running battle" involving "numerous casualties from enemy mortars firing on the lead elements and at the medevac landing zone. . . . One helicopter had been downed in the LZ."
Yankee Zulu-77 had been "shot down attempting to lift from the zone, but no injuries were reported," according to the more detailed HMM-363 Command Chronology. "The aircraft received strike damage and, due to the heavy enemy concentration, no attempt has been made to retrieve it." The crew survived, though if any of the other three men remain alive today Mike has yet to get in touch with them.
The bird was down at grid coordinates YD 112675, a few hundred meters northwest of the church. It was a tough night for everyone, and Mike – as a member of the high-flying air wing – wasn't accustomed to spending much time on the ground with the "grunts," or infantry.
"You don't understand," he jokes with Rob, flashing a grin, "I wasn't supposed to be there! We always went home to Dong Ha and slept in tents at night."
It was this twist of fate – the fact that Tripp was where he would not normally be expected – that planted the seed of the mystery that would come to surround the photograph.
"You couldn't have traced me to that church from talking to the grunts who were there in a thousand years," Mike says. "They didn't know us."
In pursuing the story of Richard Sutter and his kid brother Rob, The Post studied command chronologies and other detailed military reports of the era, obtained the identifications of many Marines who fought in and around the church at An Hoa, and eventually located a dozen men who described the fighting in considerable detail.
None of those men remembered Richard Sutter, but The Post located other Marines from his units – including his former commanders – some of whom remembered him well, and all of whom agreed that he could have been in the church the same night as Frank Johnston, because he had a motive for being there: His old unit, from which he'd just been transferred and where he had many friends, was operating near the church. Many said it would have been just like Richard to have shown up for a day or so just to be with them – unusual in the military, but certainly not unheard of in Vietnam.
Richard's family and friends were all convinced the picture was of him, and photographic specialists who compared the picture with others of Richard were convinced that it was him. As the series noted, however, it was "possible that the picture is not of Richard at all, but of some other Marine."
It is a certainty, though, that Mike Tripp was in Nha Tho An Hoa – which translates as "Peace Church." Military records place his downed helicopter a few hundred meters from the church, and Marines who were there vividly recall the shootdown and the action in which the crew joined the embattled grunts at the church.
Tripp remembers the banana grove in which they found themselves, and the details of the little church. He was there – he has a medal to prove it.
And there is another reason to conclude that he is the face in that picture.
"Same face you saw 31 years ago?" Mike says when he met Frank for the first time since that night at An Hoa. It's a statement, really, and Mike's grinning as he leads the way into his immaculate living room with its glowing fireplace and cases full of sailing books.
"Yeah, it is," Frank says softly. "It is."
For years, Richard Sutter's family thought he was the Marine in Frank Johnston's Vietnam War photo. Now, Mike Tripp, above, has come forward to set the record straight.
(By Frank Johnston – The Post)
This is the photo that started the quest for a Marine's identity.
(By Frank Johnston – Courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettman)
Mike Tripp in boot camp.
01-15-03, 07:54 AM
The picture was the starting point for The Post's series in July. The Marine with the thousand-yard stare gazed so disturbingly from the paper's front page on July 19, and his face reappeared on each page of the series.
"During the preparation of the remarkable series of stories that we published about the Sutter family, we worried that the Marine in Frank Johnston's photograph might not be Richard Sutter," said Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie. "We could never place him inside the church with certainty and we told our readers that it possibly was not him.
"Yet we published the series anyway, with that disclaimer, because of the role the celebrated Peace Church photograph nevertheless had played in the way one typical American family had coped over the years with the difficult legacy of the Vietnam War.
"McCombs's careful reporting never turned up Mike Tripp in Peace Church because he, like Richard Sutter, was not supposed to have been there," Downie continued. "No one McCombs interviewed knew Tripp because he was not part of one their units; he had literally fallen from the sky."
Mike Tripp and his family suffered and served in their own way.
"I flew for a long time," he says of his two combat tours, "and I was very fortunate. I got shot down more than once, but how the hell I ever survived the church shoot-down, I'll never know. It was a charnel house in there."
Mike spent that first night and much of the next day dug into a tight perimeter around the downed helicopter with Delta Company 1/9 as the Marines held off determined North Vietnamese assaults. Late the next afternoon, Bravo Company broke through to them, and gradually the dead and wounded were gathered back to the church.
It was the second night – May 15, 1967 – when Frank took Mike's picture, as best they can figure it now. Frank had originally thought it was the night of the 16th, but with the passage of years, memory has dimmed; even at the time, everyone was so frightened and tired it was difficult to know what was happening.
Indisputable, however, was Mike's "courage, exceptional professionalism and selfless devotion to duty in the face of extreme personal danger," as the citation for his Navy Commendation Medal says. The citation describes what happened as Yankee Zulu-77 spun out of control toward the ground, its rudder destroyed by enemy fire:
"Corporal Tripp unhesitatingly blocked the doorway with his own body . . . in order to prevent the casualties from being thrown from the aircraft [and], after the helicopter had come to rest in the landing zone, immediately moved the wounded to a position of relative safety. He then removed weapons, ammunition and medical supplies and distributed them to the ground forces whose supply of ammunition was dangerously low.
"Disregarding his own safety, Corporal Tripp ran through the hostile fire, fearlessly climbed on top of the disabled aircraft and, with the assistance of his gunner, folded the rotor blades to clear the small landing zone for subsequent medical evacuation aircraft."
Mike fires up another Marlboro and – as heroes tend to do – makes light of the episode.
"It was just after a horrific firefight and this sergeant says, 'We've got to get the blades off the bird.' I said, 'Let's understand this, the top of the bird is the highest point around here, and you want me to go up there?' He said, 'That's affirmative.'"
Mike is talking out of the side of his mouth, mimicking the tough sergeant and laughing.
A moment later, he's fighting back tears.
"That whole incident seared me so bad," he says. "I quit flying a few months after that."
He shakes his head.
'My Own Bird, at Last'
Michael Windsor Tripp, 51, is by all accounts a solid and widely respected citizen who's lived in the Providence area all his life. He has loyal friends, attends church regularly, and is a member of various boards, charitable and professional organizations, and the Barrington Yacht Club. His private CPA firm has been quite successful – so much so that Frank's visit is the occasion for a day on Narragansett Bay aboard Mike's Phoenix-33 Sportfisherman, powered by twin 500-HP engines and appropriately named "POWER TRIPP."
He's a driven guy, a man of enormous charm and intelligence with a beautiful wife and family. He's always been a hard-charger, but getting where he is today wasn't easy.
"I was a real blue-collar kid," he sums up simply. "A tenement kid."
The son of a nurse and a father who was married to another woman – Mike never knew his dad and didn't find this out until he was a teenager – he delivered newspapers, got scholarships to Catholic schools, and joined the wrestling team where he excelled. He's a short guy, and when the picture was taken in Vietnam he was down to 117 pounds.
Like Richard Sutter ("I feel like I know that kid," Mike says), he also had a wild streak. He had a tendency to get into car wrecks and minor trouble, and he joined the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday. Like so many of the young and restless, he was going against the pleadings of his mother, his teachers, the nuns and his wrestling coach in shunning college as he sought a way to somehow claim himself.
The Corps did it. Specifically, Yankee Zulu-77 did it – "My own bird, at last!" He felt a great sense of pride and ownership in the loud, ugly bird with its savage grace. He was permanently assigned to it in Vietnam, and responsible for maintaining it mechanically and otherwise. Flying high above the fray of war, he felt like a god – "invincible," as he puts it, at least until the shoot-down at An Hoa and his two hellish nights there.
Mike's pride and new sense of personal sovereignty went like this: He always carried 3,000 rounds of ammunition per machine gun, instead of the recommended 500. "It made the bird heavy, but there were times when it came in handy." An Hoa was one.
After the war, with a wife and baby daughter, Mike finished out his Marine Corps commitment (he spent some months assisting with military funerals for the war dead) and then began struggling to make a living. He managed to get through college, where he studied business, and over the years held a number of accounting positions – including one with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. – before opening his own firm. Not exactly a company kind of guy, he flowered once he was on his own.
"Permanence is what I wanted," he says. "A sense of permanence. I needed it. When I was a kid, we lived in 17 different houses. Now I've learned that happiness doesn't come from going to a better place, or anything outside you. It comes from inside."
But he never talked much about Vietnam, and neither did his wife.
After the "Peace Church" series ran, a colorized version of the picture turned up in Newsweek, USA Today and elsewhere in a major advertising blitz for a series about to appear on The Learning Channel, "Vietnam: The Soldiers' Story." Mike's story isn't part of that series, which also is unrelated to The Post series, but one of Mike's friends spotted the Newsweek ad and called him.
Mike then called TLC's publicist and left a message saying, "I'm the Marine in the picture and I'd like a copy."
The publicist called back and said, "Are you the gentleman who believes he's in the picture?"
"No," Mike said, "I am the guy in the picture."
There was a pause. "Uh, well then the photographer will want to talk with you."
"The photographer's dead."
"No he isn't," the publicist said. "I just talked to him."
Reunion in Rhode Island
For two people who hadn't seen one another in 31 years, they hit it off splendidly from the moment they reunited in Rhode Island the weekend before last.
"Welcome home," Mike greets him at the door of the house in suburban Barrington where he's lived for a quarter century with Ella, and where they raised Sandra, now 32 and married, and Wendy, 26.
"You too, Marine," replies Frank Johnston, who'd been in the Corps before becoming a combat photographer.
The reunion between warrior and photographer is special – but also typical as men and women who served in Vietnam, and their families, struggle to come to terms with what happened in America's most divisive conflict since the Civil War. Connecting with one another through veterans' organizations, the Internet, or even newspaper articles like the "Peace Church" series, they're seeking to heal old wounds and find some peace out of past turmoil.
"We're all ghosts from the past talking to each other," Frank says in amazement. "We're all part of the 'Walking Dead,' because we thought one another was dead. I mean, in my wildest dreams I couldn't have come up with this."
At first he'd been shocked – after all, a decade of believing the picture was of Richard Sutter was being shattered – but as he got to know Mike, he began to enjoy an unfolding series of surprising connections that brought him in touch with a man he'd long thought dead.
Nor could Mike have imagined that he'd become an emblem of the Vietnam War through a single haunting photograph.
"What I always wanted to know," Mike blurts, "was what happened to the medevacs I had when we were shot down." Suddenly, he sobs – something, Ella confides, that he hasn't done, at least not where Vietnam is concerned.
"This is a Godsend, finding you," she'll tell Frank later that weekend, after Frank and Mike have discussed their An Hoa experiences in painful detail. "It's hard for him to go back there emotionally. It's been 31 years, but we haven't talked seriously about it. He keeps it buried so deep. It's sitting there all the time, inside him."
Mike Tripp reads The Washington Post's "Peace Church" story.
(Frank Johnston – The Post)
01-15-03, 07:55 AM
At one point, as Ella is talking about the photograph, she breaks down weeping and Mike goes over to comfort her.
"Being at home with the baby and having him over there was tough," she recalls. "I went through every day kind of in a state of shock. You lived with the fact every day and night that you might get a phone call. But I knew how strongly he felt about going, and the good he felt it would do. I was very proud, and very young. A part of me knew I might never see him again, but as long as I got my daily letters I was okay. It was like talking to him."
Actually, she knew that bad news – the worst news – wouldn't come in a phone call. If Mike were killed, a military staff car would pull up in front of the house and a Marine officer and a priest would tell her in person.
"One day I was in the kitchen – Sandy was in her high chair eating – and I looked out the bay window, and I saw a gray military vehicle pull up, and a priest and an officer got out, and they're coming along the sidewalk."
Mike, Sandy and Wendy all listen silently, their eyes glued on Ella, who's sitting on the floor by the fireplace.
"I remember wiping the baby's mouth, and fixing my hair. 'You've got to be a good wife,' I told myself. 'You've got to be strong.' Then I went to the front door and stood behind it and waited for them to knock."
But they didn't knock. They went to the house across the street.
"I was weeping, I just said a prayer, 'Thank you, God.' And then you just sort of go back to being a wife."
Most of the evening is spent listening to Mike and Frank reliving events at An Hoa. "I've seen more come out this weekend," Ella will say later, "than I've seen in 31 years."
The Tripps are concerned about the Sutters – Rob and his brother Lloyd and two sisters, Ellen and Hannah – and Mike and Frank decide to fly to Atlanta and see Rob, a man suddenly deprived of the long-cherished image of his brother Richard.
"Rob needs to see Mike in person," Frank says. "It will be good for all of us."
A Meeting in Georgia
This journey, quest, mystery, miracle – whatever you want to call it – continued last week on the back deck of Rob Sutter's home north of Atlanta. Rob and Mike sit on the railings under a tall Georgia pine, talking intently.
Frank, listens. From time to time he quietly steps back to make a photo.
You can't meet Mike, or see photographs of him when he was a 20-year-old corporal flying for the Marine Corps, without instantly recognizing him as the guy in Frank's famous picture. Rob doesn't question it.
"This is a little unsettling, thinking one thing all these years and now being told another," he admits. "It's a tough one to let go of. But hell, I can't lose Richard but once."
Rob had idolized his older brother, and for years felt guilty about not writing him often enough in Vietnam where, like so many young men of that era, Richard was coming of age far from home and with shocking suddenness.
But by the end of their day together, it's "Robbie" and "Tripper." Rob has opened the Sutter family photo albums, and it's "Wow!" and "Lookit that!" and "It's scary how much we look alike."
Indeed, it's easy to see how the Sutters could have mistaken Frank's photo for one of Richard. "The mouth, the eyes – they're the same," Rob says.
He leads the way to his basement home office, where the photograph hangs on the wall over his desk.
"Oh, God," Mike whispers.
Later, Rob – also a Marine, though he just missed serving in Vietnam – introduces Mike to his 14-year-old son, Preston, whom everyone in the family says looks just like Richard.
"This is your Uncle Richard, in the photograph," Rob says.
"I'm glad you're alive," Preston says, shaking Mike's hand. "I'm glad you made it through that. It must have been hell."
Charles ("Travelin' T") Townsend, of Davis, Calif. – and formerly of Delta 1/9 – remembers the shoot-down of Yankee Zulu-77 as "kind of a blessing in disguise, because we were all scattered out. Everything was confusion, and we all went to the chopper. We set our perimeter up around that chopper. We got the whole company together there, the wounded and dead and everybody.
"It was close to the church, on a little rise where the chopper went down. A dirt road was coming through there and the chopper was 10 or 15 yards from the road. . . . We saw some of the NVA, they were all shooting at the chopper, and that took their attention away from us. I remember the chopper just spiraling down. It was above the treeline when it got hit, and there were hedgerows and old dry irrigation ditches and we were down in them, and the NVA was down in them with us.
"We got the pilot out, the crew got out okay. When we got to the chopper it was just sitting on the ground, pretty much in one piece. It hadn't exploded. . . . The chopper saved most of the company, I think. The way they had us pinned down in those ditches, we wouldn't have been able to get together and support each other if that hadn't happened."
Frank ("Irish") Healey, Delta 1/9:
"We made our way back to the chopper, and I dug in right near it. We got the wounded and dead out of the chopper, including the crew, who had survived. . . . I don't remember who they were, and I didn't care. I was worried about getting our guys out of the chopper, and digging my hole. We were getting some pretty heavy automatic weapons fire, and we had to secure the area."
Roger Good of Fort Myers, Fla., who was also with Delta 1/9:
"There's humor in it all. A guy [from the chopper] comes along with a flashlight and says, 'You got my gun?' So we were crawling around out there in front of the lines looking for his damn machine gun."
Mike laughs, too, when told of Good's recollection. He doesn't know him, but remembers the incident.
But An Hoa was a turning point for him, he adds somberly.
"It really was a defining moment. The whole landscape of my life changed. Before that, a lot of the war was a lark, a quest for me. People died, and got hurt, but not me.
"After An Hoa, I just functioned. . . . I was afraid all the time – of being shot down."
Then one day, he says, "I lost it." They'd gone in to pick up a medevac near the church, and Mike could see the remains of Yankee Zulu-77 on the ground.
Suddenly there was firing and, he says, he opened up indiscriminately with his machine gun only to hear a Marine grunt shouting, "Whoa! Whoa!" over the radio net.
"It had got to the point where I was going to hurt somebody," he admits.
Flight status was voluntary – unlike grunt duty – and Mike went to the flight surgeon and had himself grounded.
"I took the humiliation of not flying, because that's better than hurting somebody. It was very humiliating to admit to yourself, [but] I was going to have to live with the internal shame of it because, if not, I was going to have something worse to live with.
"It was a hard thing for a 20-year-old, but I got a whole new bottom line."
He pauses, then adds softly:
"I was a good Marine. I just wish it had never happened."
Portrait of a Marine
Rob and Mike face one another across the table at a Chinese restaurant in Georgia. Frank, with some delight, has just opened a fortune cookie that says, "There is a true and sincere friendship between you."
"I'm glad you're alive," Rob says.
Then he admits: "The physical photo is you, but the spiritual photo – well, I know it's you, but I still see Richard there."
"As far as I'm concerned," Mike says, "the caption should be returned to the original: 'An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa.' Yeah, I was there, but in a way it's an icon of all of us who were there. That's not Mike Tripp's afternoon in Vietnam. There's no ownership, which is the way it should be.
"That's any Marine."
As they say good-bye, Rob turns to Mike and asks, "You have any brothers and sisters?"
"Nope, I'm the only one."
"Well, if you ever need a brother, you got one."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company