Through the Eyes of a Soldier: Rare and Moving Moments from the Vietnam War

There is no question that the United State’s involvement in Vietnam throughout the ’50s ’60s and ’70s was a hard time. Young men across America were uprooted from their homes and brought overseas to fight a war that many did not agree with or fully understand.

Throughout their time away from home, it was important for the troops to find joy and solace in the little things that we often take for granted today. Some were able to capture these candid moments beyond the battlefield, and their photos now offer a unique and rarely seen perspective of the war in Vietnam.

Keeping the Trenches in Tune

Along with their rifles, some soldiers found it of equal importance to carry their guitars along with them everywhere they went. Soldiers in combat used music as a way to pass the time and as a distraction for fellow fighters.

The struggles of the Vietnam war inspired many popular songs that we still listen to today. Some artists that wrote Vietnam inspired songs include The Animals, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, and so many more

A Morale Operation

Charlie Haughey, a photographer, tasked with shooting photography for the Army newspapers, is seen here posing with a group of Vietnamese school children. Charlie was drafted into the US Army when he was 24. He was told that his mission was a “morale operation,” meaning he was meant to capture non-combat photos intended to uplift the spirits of the soldiers.

After the war, Haughey took home over 2000 negatives that he had not developed until 2012. Over 40 years later, Charlie was finally able to see his photos and share them with the world.

Helping Civilians

Sergent Hugh L. Maple holds a Vietnamese child as they watch the oncoming helicopter preparing to land on November 10, 1967. You can almost see the aw in the little girl’s face as the pair wait together in the chow line.

Soldiers from the headquarters of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division provided food and medical attention to local villagers near Thuan Giao. For many soldiers, helping these young children is what kept them motivated throughout the war.

Hope for the Troops

Actress Carroll Baker walks arm in arm with comedian Bob Hope as they get cheered on by sailors aboard the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier. On December 27, 1965, Bob Hope and his troupe put on a show for over 2,500 sailors on the carrier.

Hope visited Vietnam each Christmas from 1964 to 1972 and dedicated as much time and money as he could to support the troops. He took it as his responsibility to lift their spirits through fun and entertaining performances.

Digging for Gold in Nam

It’s moments like these that remind us just how young the soldiers in Vietnam really were. Men between the ages of 18 and 25 years were considered eligible for the military draft. During the war, around two-thirds of American troops were volunteers with the remainder selected through the draft.

After receiving criticism of evident inequities, due to many wealthy families finding ways to dodge the draft, in 1969 the Selective Service System conducted two lottery drawings. The lottery was based on birth dates and drawn by hand. The draft was later abolished in 1973.

Keeping Soldiers Informed

“Stars and Stripes” is an American military newspaper created during the Civil War and is still authorized to produce independent daily news and information for the U.S. military. As you can imagine, they play a significant role during war times.

Throughout the Vietnam era, correspondents of the newspaper shared in the hardships of war alongside the deployed soldiers. They interacted freely with the troops and were free to publish uncensored reports about their experiences and all that they witnessed overseas.

Thankful for Turkey

Terry Wedmore, a member of the Air Cavalry Division in 1967 takes a bite of Thanksgiving turkey as he celebrates his holiday in the field. During the war, the military tried to provide as many soldiers as they could with a traditional turkey dinner in celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The meals were often time prepared at a base and then flown by helicopter to soldiers serving in remote places. Often times, the meal had to be served a few days before or after the actual holiday.

A Very Merry Christmas

Actress Raquel Welch dances with soldiers during Bob Hope’s 1967 USO Christmas show at the 9th Infantry Division’s base camp. Welch was an icon of the ’60s and ’70s and was even ranked as one of the “100 Sexiest Stars in Film History” by “Empire Magazine.”

We can imagine that these soldiers were ecstatic to share the stage with such a ‘bedazzled’ star. Other celebrities like Joey Heatherton, Ann Margaret, Connie Stevens, Jill Saint John, and Nancy Sinatra would join Bob Hope for his performances.

Music for the Soul

Soldiers take the edge off with a refreshing beer and good music. Check out that reel-to-reel tape decks! Vietnam GI’s purchased hundreds of thousands of these tape decks during wartime. Music was a huge part of what kept these soldiers motivated. Veterans, Doug Bradley, and Craig Werner were even inspired to write a book titled “We Gotta Get out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.”

In the book, the authors talk about the impact specific songs had on the soldiers during and after the war. Werner explains, “There are always songs of longing, missing family. But Vietnam was different because music was so central to the soldiers’ generation.” He goes on to explain what he hopes readers take away from the book; “the fact that music can play and has played a crucial role in the story of survival and healing.”

Life-Long Friendships

Troopers of the 101st Air Division enjoy some grilled steak and beer at a cookout in Camp Eagle in central Vietnam.

Breaks like these were an important way to keep up the group morale and to kick back with brothers in arms.

Dreaming of a Home Cooked Meal

Soldiers huddle together to share a meal. We imagine the men pictured here are discussing which American meal they miss the most and what they plan to eat as soon as they get home.

Many foods that we eat today were actually originally invented for soldiers. Energy bars, canned goods, and even the cheese used in favorite snacks like goldfish crackers were all specifically manufactured to make military rations taste better and last longer.

A Helpful Companion

American Marines with their adorable pet dog in Hue, Vietnam 1968. What better to cheer people up than having such a precious face waiting at the base.

Playing and caring for this cute puppy was probably an excellent distraction for the soldiers. Dogs during the Vietnam war did not only serve as a much-needed comfort for the troops but also acted as soldiers themselves. Check out the next picture of a canine in training.

Soldiers Best Friend

Over 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War. The dogs were used for everything from base security, to detecting ambushes. The vast majority of the dogs were German Shepherds who were trained as scout dogs and as mine and tunnel dogs.

The Vietnam war dogs were imperative and are believed to have saved the lives of 10,000 US soldiers. Although at the time these dogs did not get the honor and respect that they deserved, they did help inspire a law passed by Congress in 2000 which allowed for the retirement and adoption of all military dogs.

Finding a Grooming Routine

A young soldier finds time to clean up and shave. Although long hair was fashionable during the ’60s and ’70s, soldiers in Vietnam were expected to keep their hair short and beards tended to.

Soldiers on Naval ships, however, could get away with letting their facial hair grow. By the late 1960s, the military decided to relax the Navy’s grooming standards to boost recruitment and retention. They even had beard-growing contests while at sea.

Sharing Is Caring

Pictured here is an officer and a little Vietnamese girl with her new toy. Soldiers oftentimes helped hand out donated clothes, soap, and toys to Vietnamese families.

Many Vietnamese civilians were affected during the war. Soldiers did what they could to try and help the kids through hardship.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

Many might remember the scene in “Forrest Gump” where Gump begins playing ping-pong as a way to cheer up troops during the Vietnam War and is later sent to China to compete. This is actually more accurate than you would think. Following the Cold War, President Nixon had made it a top priority to restore ties with China.

This goal came to fruition in 1971 during the World Table Tennis Championships when a ping-pong match between U.S player Glenn Cowan and Chinese opponent, Zhuang Zedong kick-started the diplomatic ties between their home countries.

Batter up!

Members of an infantry division play a pick-up game of baseball at Dau Tieng base camp in 1967. Some soldiers who served in Vietnam actually went on to play in the major leagues.

Big name athletes include Al Bumbry, a former Major League Baseball outfielder who played for the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres and Garry Maddox, a former center fielder who played for the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies.

Letters from Home

Private First Class John. J Schult reads a letter from home with a glowing smile on his face. Soldiers could not wait to receive these letters from their loved ones.

This is what connected them to their life back home and what offered them a reminder of who they were fighting for. Some soldiers even had newly born children waiting for them back home whom they could not wait to meet for the first time.

A Heartwarming Reunion

May 1975, elders from North and South Vietnam embrace. They made it through the war and were finally able to reunite and pick up the pieces of their lives. What an emotional moment of pure joy.

After the war in Vietnam came to an end, the government and Vietnamese citizens needed to focus on reunifying and rebuilding a new country. With the North Vietnamese in power, some opted to leave the country and start a new life elsewhere.

Give Peace a Chance

A soldier wearing a very visible peace sign necklace finds time for a quick afternoon nap. Although fighting in the war, many soldiers felt strongly that the U.S. should withdraw from Vietnam.

For many of the young soldiers, this was their first time away from home and their first time traveling to a foreign country. No trip abroad will ever compare after this.

Flower Power

Many were opposed to U.S involvement in the Vietnam War. The movement against the war gained national prominence by 1965 and anti-war marches across the country began to attract a rising amount of support.

In 1967 protesters marched on the Pentagon and were confronted by military police. Through an epic moment of flower power, protesters confronted the rifles by putting flowers in their barrels. This march may not have stopped the war but they certainly made their message clear.

Mayday Protests

The Mayday protests occurred in Washington D.C. from May 1 to May 3, 1971, with the goal of shutting down the government and ending U.S involvement in Vietnam. With the slogan, “If the government will not stop the war, we will stop the government,” The protesters aimed to keep government officials from getting to work.

Protesters, referred to as the Mayday Tribe consisted of more than 35,000 people, many of whom were young citizens and university students. Police arrested 12,000 of these demonstrators but released most without charges. The march did not achieve its goal but did receive a lot of public attention.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Due to technological advancements of that time, photojournalists were able to easily capture images of the war that they would then send back overseas. This hugely influenced public perception of the U.S involvement in Vietnam.

This quick way of relaying news brought a lot of support to movements opposing the war. The videos and photos documenting what soldiers fighting abroad were going through significantly shaped opinions of America’s involvement.

The Man in Charge

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson appointed William Westmoreland as commander of the U.S. Military Assitance Command in Vietnam. Westmoreland was already a distinguished veteran at the time as he served both in World War II and the Korean War. He was responsible for a considerable amount of U.S military strategy throughout his four years serving in Vietnam.

Westmoreland contributed greatly to the increase of American troops from 16,000 to more than 500,000 and received a lot of criticism for his aggressive strategies during the war. He was later sent home to become Army Chief of Staff in 1968 and retired from the military in 1972.

Soldiers Going Pro

Soldiers clear their head with a fun pick up game of basketball. The troops serving in Vietnam often looked to sports to pass the time or distract them from the war.

Many veterans actually went on to become professional athletes after returning home. Some notable names include four-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier and Hall of Fame quarterback and Heisman Award winner Roger Staubach.

Army Angels

It’s important to mention the brave women of the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam. More than 5,000 Army nurses served in the war, and all did so voluntarily. Many felt it was their patriotic duty and wanted to be there for their fellow Americans.

One veteran explained her reason for volunteering saying “We aren’t angels, We are simply members of the nursing profession who have seen the need in Vietnam and are here to do our part.”  

Time out for Christmas Truce

Although far away from home, soldiers in Vietnam still celebrated Christmas time. Each year, from 1965 until 1972, the United States, South Vietnamese, and the North Vietnamese government announced a Christmas truce that lasted 24 to 48 hours.

During the truce, the soldiers would gather together as a family, share food and care packages from home and trade stories of Christmas from their childhood. For many, it was their first time away from home for the holidays.

Oh Christmas Tree!

The soldiers even went so far as to set up artificial Christmas trees.  The army radio stations would play traditional Christmas songs like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and Nat King Cole’s “ A Christmas Song.”

The stations avoided Songs like Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to prevent lowering morale for the already homesick soldiers. The military did try to make the day special for the young soldiers. One way was by providing an extravagant Christmas day meal. Another was through Bob Hope’s Christmas tour.

Let Me Entertain You

Singer-actress Ann-Marget entertains US troops during Bob Hope’s Christmas show in 1966. Margaret later detailed that she would receive letters from soldiers begging her to come to visit them. She made the trip a month later and took the stage for hundreds of troops.  

Ann felt it was important for the troops to feel the support from their community back home. “Every single day, they were out there, men and women. I think about them every single day. See, I am not a doctor. I am not a dentist. I mean, I can’t do that over there. But I can entertain.”

Always After Me Lucky Charms…

Many soldiers became superstitious while overseas and carried with them good luck charms. They would hold on to objects that gave them hope and to them represented protection and survival.

Some soldiers carried pictures or belongings of their loved ones back home while others wore religious medallions or chains. Many brought the “Ace of Spades” playing cards with them on the battlefield. They would scatter the cards in hopes to spook away enemy soldiers.

Mail Call!

Receiving letters from home was one of the most exciting parts of a soldiers life. Mail was always a high military priority since it was the only link to life back home. As you can imagine, messages aren’t as instant as they are today, especially when communicating overseas.

The soldiers had to wait for the supply helicopter or truck to arrive in order to receive their mail. The frequency of this would vary depending on the war and the weather. During the monsoon season, the soldiers had to wait quite a while for the supply vehicles to arrive.

Inequality on the Front Lines

Throughout America’s history, African American citizens served in the military proudly and with distinction. Despite the inequality still faced back home, in 1948 Truman issued an executive order mandating desegregation of the armed forces. Of course, there were necessary improvements to be made for many years following.

During the Vietnam era, there still existed a division that affected African Americans in the military. The hurdles that they faced did, however, pave the way for improvements and reform for future generations. Both during and after the war, the Department of Defense did make positive strides in its equal opportunity system.

Welcome to the Jungle

For some soldiers who grew up in colder parts of the U.S., adapting to Vietnam’s tropical climate was a bit of a challenge. The heavy heat and stifling humidity of the jungle’s summer months were especially hard.

The soldiers had to drink lots of water and take salt pills to keep from getting dehydrated. They also swam in lakes and ponds whenever they could. Rainy season however also had its challenges. Nobody wants to get stuck under a tropical rainstorm with nowhere to take cover.

Welcome Home Mitch!

Mitch Reed embraces his sister and close friend as he returned home on June 9, 1969. The soldier, twice wounded in action, landed at the Tulsa International Airport with 20 of his friends anxiously waiting for his arrival.

Reed could not believe that all those people were there for him and still appreciates it looking back. The welcome party was arranged by his family and friends. They held up banners that read “Welcome Home Mitch.”

Soldiers with Their Dogs

Pictured left is a soldier of the U.S Seventh Marines carrying a rescued puppy around in his pocket. Now that is a good luck charm we can all believe in.

Pictured right is a soldier and his dog finding comfort in one another during the Battle of Khe Sahn in 1968. Many service dogs today are specially trained to comfort veterans with post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

Musical Therapy

American soldiers stand in the trenches as they listen to a record player in Khe Sahn, South Vietnam. We already touched on the fact that music was a huge part of life for soldiers in Vietnam during and after the war. The music not only acted as a therapy but also offered them a connection to home.

Certain songs carried extra weight for the young fighters. “We Gotta Get out of This Place” by the Animals became an unofficial anthem of sorts for the war. Other songs worth mentioning were “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin and “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix.

G’day Mate!

Did you know that Australia was also involved in the Vietnam war? The war stands to this day as Australia’s largest contribution to a foreign conflict.

Throughout their involvement between 1962 to 1972, Australia had over 60,000 personnel committed to securing South Vietnam.

Feeding an Army

Corporal Arthur Wallis of Melbourne, Australia sharpens his knives as he proudly begins to prepare three hams for the Australian army’s 1970 Christmas meal in Nui Dat, South Vietnam. Wallis was one of 200 Army cooks for the Australian troops in Vietnam.

American army veteran, Mark Mathosian, who also served as an army cook wrote about his time in Vietnam saying “There was much to do and little time to do it when preparing a meal for hundreds of people rushing through a chow line.” Mathosian describes his time in the kitchen as chaotic and messy.

An Iconic Photo

Larry Wayne Chaffin of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion stands on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in June of 1965. The St. Louis native smiles up at photojournalist Horst Faas as he snaps this mesmerizing and meaningful portrait.

The message noted on his helmet strikingly contrasts with his charming smile. Many soldiers wore graffiti on their helmets, voicing their opinions of the war.

Aloha Vietnam

Journalist, Denby Fawcett takes a water break in Vietnam. Fawcett covered the war for the “Honolulu Advertiser.” At 24 years old, she requested the assignment even though she was made to pay for her own travel and expenses. “This is something I wanted to do and something I thought was important to do at the time,” said Fawcett.

She goes on to explain, “It was the largest story of our time. Like a lot of people, I wanted to know more and learn what was really going on there.” Her work eventually earned her an Associated Press Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

Paris Peace Accords

North Vietnamese Army reporter Bui Tin with a U.S Air Force sergeant in the spring of 1973, as the last US combat troops depart from Vietnam. America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam war had come to a close.

The Paris Peace Accords called for a 60-day ceasefire between North and South Vietnamese troops, allowing for the withdrawal of American soldiers and the release of all American prisoners of war.

Saigon’s Surrender

Without the support of US troops, the South Vietnamese could no longer hold off enemy forces and The Vietnam war came to an end in the spring of 1975.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces rolled into the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and called for South Vietnam to lower their arms and surrender.

An Emotional Homecoming

John Haley, an F-100 fighter pilot with the 185th Tactical Fighter Group embraces his family in Sioux City, Iowa. Haley and the rest of the fighter group spent a year in Vietnam before returning home to their loved ones.

On May 14, 1969, a crowd of family members waited at the Sioux City airport where 20 fighter-bomber planes landed safe and sound.

Finding Freedom!

Lieutenant Colonel Robert L.Stirm was held prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese for more than 5 years. On March 17, 1973, he was finally reunited with his family at Travis Air Force Base in California.

This image, titled “Burst of Joy” won photographer Slava “Sal” Veder a Pulitzer prize. For many Americans, the pure joy captured in photos such as this is what signified the long-awaited end to the war.