Here we take a look at some of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. While some convey the horror of armed conflict, others mange to capture moments of incredible compassion.
Marines at prayer
U.S. marines in full battle dress are captured praying before they advance to their combat positions. The photo was taken near the coastal city of Da Nang, which was home to a major air base. Indeed, this was the landing place for the first American combat troops sent to Vietnam back in 1965.
Rescued by airlift
Life was certainly tough for the armed combatants during the Vietnam War. But it was often even tougher for the hapless civilians caught up in the conflict. These examples, distressed as they obviously were, had the good luck of being dramatically rescued.
This shot is from 1962, before the U.S. officially became fully engaged in the war. However, American advisers were already taking an active role in supporting the South Vietnamese against the communists of North Vietnam. These South Vietnamese women had joined their country’s civil defense force.
These civilians are survivors of a truck bomb explosion outside the Metropole Hotel in Saigon in 1965. The explosion left ten dead and 175 injured. Speaking to Stars and Stripes, U.S. Air Force veteran Franklin U. Davidson, who survived the blast, recalled, “It’s a funny feeling. You’re sound asleep and you wake up fighting for your life.”
Out of the dark
It’s 1967 and Staff Sergeant Melvin Gaines emerges from a tunnel after hours of arduous searching underground. However, Gaines was killed in action not long after this picture was taken. Viet Cong troops built thousands of miles of tunnel complexes so that they could move around unseen and unheard.
Viet Cong attack
This shot shows GIs taking cover from a Viet Cong attack in a shallow trench. Indeed, it could easily have been taken during World War II. British photographer Terry Fincher captured this stark image of the everyday reality of fighting in Vietnam. Fincher would go on to complete five tours in the country during the conflict.
Baby in a basket
The Vietnamese War was a viciously fought conflict, which makes moments of rare compassion like this all the more poignant. The year is 1970, the two men are U.S. Marines and the toddler is a refugee fleeing from the conflict somewhere near Da Nang.
There were few set-piece battles during the Vietnam conflict, as a result of the Viet Cong’s preference for guerrilla tactics. Here, we see Viet Cong fighters out on patrol in marshland. They’re using the most efficient form of transport for the terrain, canoes that sit low in the water.
Female Viet Cong fighters
Reliable figures are still unavailable for the number of women who fought with the Viet Cong. However, they certainly were active in the war. Indeed, this 1967 picture shows North Vietnamese women engaging in weapons training prior to joining the Viet Cong. Ironically, they are using American guns.
Destruction in Cambodia
The 20-year Vietnam War between the communist North and the American-backed South wasn’t confined within the borders of Vietnam. There was also fighting in neighboring Cambodia. Here, we see a woman amidst the ruins of a Cambodian village, Can Tho. The settlement had been destroyed by Viet Cong artillery fire in 1974.
A little kindness
Both sides took prisoners during the war and here we see a GI giving a Viet Cong captive a drink. It’s a simple act of humanity in a war that was frequently far from humane. Moreover, the prisoners have labels that detail the circumstances of their capture.
Pup in a steel helmet
Humans have a remarkable knack for finding the familiar amongst the horrors of war. And what could be more homely than a puppy? Indeed, for these two GIs, far from home and risking their lives, this pet must have represented at least a glimmer of normality.
Prayers in a cemetery
Estimates of the number who died in the Vietnam War range from 1.45 million to 3.6 million. Indeed, such horrifying statistics are hard to comprehend. But it is much easier to relate to the individual grief of this woman. She was photographed while praying in Saigon’s Bien Hoa National Military Cemetery in 1975.
Women in the war
This photograph was originally published by the North Vietnamese authorities. It depicts smiling women who are transporting munitions for the Viet Cong. The caption for the photo read, “Young women carry the ammunition to the front in Quang Tri province, south Vietnam.” Quang Tri province was the site of especially heavy fighting during 1972.
This image captures both the desolation and the callousness of war. A young GI with a faraway look in his eyes sits in a bivouac, cradling his rifle. What’s more, casually wedged in a forked sapling, a skull stares out at us. Whose skull is it? We can never know, just one more victim of a barbaric war.
Here we see a South Vietnamese soldier carrying a wounded comrade through a bomb-blasted cemetery in Da Nang. The photograph was taken in March 1968 during the Tet Offensive, a major attack by the North Vietnamese. Indeed, this operation involved 80,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and included attacks on at least 100 towns and cities.
The South Vietnamese and their American allies had an overwhelming superiority in terms of equipment and military resources. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, had an exceptional talent for improvisation. Here we see evidence of that, with these North Vietnam militiamen sailing in a makeshift raft.
Working for victory
This 1966 shot shows young men and women from the doing their bit for the Viet Cong war effort. Indeed, the North Vietnamese army depended on people like these, motivated by nationalism and ideology, to support their military operations.
Even in the midst of a vicious war, children are still children. In this shot we see some playful kids turning an army jeep into an improvised climbing frame. Being a child during the Vietnam War was often terrifying, but the spirit of these children shines through.
If ever a reminder of the sadness and destruction of war were needed, this picture of a nun cradling an infant in 1973 provides it. The photograph was taken in an orphanage in North Vietnam, so the baby must be an orphan, a child who has lost its parents to the horrors of war.