Declassified Photos That Reveal The Chilling Truth Of The Vietnam War
By | December 2, 2022
U.S. Huey Helicopters Taking Off for Air Assault Mission
Few conflicts have left a mark on the American national consciousness and collective cultural memory like the Vietnam War. The war in American society will never be forgotten and was a transformative event in American history. Fought between the Communist North Vietnam and the American backed state of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975, with direct American ground involvement occurring between 1965 and 1973, Vietnam was one of the seminal moments of the 20th century.
Although the direct consequence of the conflict was North Vietnam unifying the country and establishing a communist regime, the war had several more indirect but more consequential outcomes. The relationship between the American public and the American government was irreversibly changed, as many Americans came to distrust their leaders over the alleged lies told about the course of the war. The United States’ image around the world was similarly altered, as many countries came to see the United States negatively for its methods of waging war against the North Vietnamese. These changes in perception were greatly influenced by photographs of the conflict, which laid bare the horrors of the war.
This picture shows Huey helicopters taking off prior to an aerial assault operation. Due to the terrain of the jungle in Vietnam, which made advancing for U.S. troops by foot or by ground vehicle very difficult, helicopters in conjunction with air support from the Air Force were often used to attack North Vietnamese positions. Such units transported by helicopter were known as Air Cavalry. Air assault attacks, once commenced, consisted of Air Force bombers clearing the way for helicopters by bombing the North Vietnamese positions. While this was going on, the Hueys would drop troops off at a relatively safe distance from the enemy stronghold and the Air Force would continue to provide cover along with attack helicopters while the man advanced from a good position to do so on foot.
Australian Officer helps fix American M79
An officer from the Royal Australian Navy helps to repair an American M79 grenade launcher. Although the United States sent the bulk of foreign forces to aid in South Vietnam’s fight against North Vietnam, they were not the only country to do so. New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia all provided support to the U.S. and the South. Their reason for doing so was the same as the United States: they were staunchly anti-Communist and feared the consequences of North Vietnam's victory and potential communist expansion thereafter. Australia sent the second largest contingent and fought alongside U.S. forces in many battles. Their expertise in jungle warfare was highly valuable and of great assistance to the U.S. and South Vietnam.
U.S. Soldier rescues Vietnamese children during battle
An American soldier risks being shot to aid two young Vietnamese children. The hideous and brutal nature of the fighting in Vietnam, which was ultimately a civil war between the communist North Vietnam and the U.S. backed Republic in South Vietnam, meant that tragically civilians were often in the line of fire and middle of the fighting. The underdeveloped nature of both the North and South Vietnamese economies during the war and the strain on resources meant that there was little attention paid to aiding civilians or trying to evacuate them.
U.S. Soldiers examine captured North Vietnamese rifle
Two U.S. soldiers show captured Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle to the camera. The Mosin-Nagant was a Russian rifled provided in large numbers by the Soviet Union to North Vietnamese forces. Although the Soviet Union did not send troops to support their ally, North Vietnam, they provided extensive amounts of material support in the form of weapons and other equipment. The weapons they did provide were often surplus supplies from World War II, such as this rifle shown, which the Soviets had massive stockpiles of and little need for themselves.
South Vietnamese Child Soldiers Share a Cigarette
This photo of two very young North Vietnamese child soldiers sharing a cigarette on the front lines. Due to a desperate need for soldiers to fill the ranks as the fight against the South and the United States became more and more costly, North Vietnam deployed children as troops. Their speed, small size, and ability to act as non-soldiers made them valuable scouts and guerillas for North Vietnam and the Vietcong, who relied on such tactics against the materially superior U.S. and Southern armies.
American Commando uses Bow and Arrow
This American Commando is shown using a bow and arrow with a flaming arrow attached to try and expose Vietcong positions hidden beneath and behind the jungle vegetation. The Vietcong was highly adept at utilizing the terrain of the jungle to hide from and later ambush U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. As a response, American troops often utilized fire, from flamethrowers to napalm to even flaming arrows as shown here to try and burn through the jungle vegetation, after which they could infiltrate the Vietcong positions.
The Thousand Yard Stare
This U.S. Marine, waiting to be evacuated from the city of Huế in 1968, is an example of what is called a “1,000-yard stare”. The brutal nature of the fighting in Vietnam and especially in urban battles like Huế turned images like this into some of the most well-known depictions of the conflict. The psychological wounds suffered by American troops in Vietnam meant that for many who fought, they were never able to truly leave the conflict. This legacy of post traumatic stress disorder has cemented itself as one of Vietnam’s many horrific legacies.
Tunnel Rat enters Vietcong hideout
“Tunnel rats” was the term used by American troops for those soldiers who were tasked with going inside the hidden Vietcong tunnels discovered by U.S. forces. The Vietcong’s main tactic in the jungles of South Vietnam that the U.S. was helping defend was to construct enormous tunnel networks in the jungle and emerge to ambush U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Thus, this was one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks performed by American soldiers during the war, and the most necessary.
U.S. Troops prepare for aerial assault attack
Due to the difficulty of navigating the jungle in between towns and villages, as well as on the way to North Vietnamese positions, the United States used helicopter units, called Air Cavalry, in order to attack by air. The image of Hueys attacking has become one of the most enduring popular images of the conflict. Films and popular media have contributed to this enduring image greatly: films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon feature prominent scenes with aerial assaults via helicopter.
"V.C. Go Home" Helmet
This American soldier has written “V.C. Go Home” on his helmet. The “V.C.” stands for Vietcong, the guerilla warfare branch of the North Vietnamese Army. “G.I. Go Home” was a popular saying amongst North Vietnamese forces, so this American soldier decided to mock them and write it on his helmet, as soldiers often did with their helmets. Often times, officers did not want their men to vandalize their helmets and equipment in such a manner, but many soldiers did so anyway to pass the time and send a message.
American Troops look over the ruins of Huế
The Battle of Huế was one of the most brutal and intense battles in the entirety of the Vietnam War. Due to its strategic significance in the middle of Vietnam, which is vertically very long but horizontally very slim, both sides fought ferociously over the city. Controlling it would give either side a large strategic advantage, as the city was a major settlement and operating base. The U.S. troops are armed with M-16 rifles, which made their debut during the conflict.
When on the front lines, triaging by medical units meant that soldiers with minor issues, such as this soldier pictured who has leeches attached to him acquired from the jungle, were often forced to find their own short-term treatments. The jungle contained a wide variety of hostile natural elements such as leeches that the U.S. forces were often ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with, leading to situations like the one pictured. Using matches or cigarettes to get rid of leeches or ticks is a practice in war that goes back many years, and gained particular fame in World War I.
Soldier at Hill 875, Battle of Dak To
This Marine has inscribed on his helmet a record of the fact he fought at and survived the Battle of Hill 875. Hill 875 was a horrifically and ferociously fought over strategic hill during the Battle of Dak To in November of 1967. The American 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade helped South Vietnamese forces push back a major North Vietnamese offensive, which had been aimed at destroying as many South Vietnamese and U.S. units as possible and maximizing casualties to demoralize both armies. Soldiers often put messages on their helmets to reflect their experience or thoughts on the war.
Marines fighting the Battle of Huế
A colorized picture of urban combat in the city of Huế. The U.S. Army ran into great difficulties in fighting against the North Vietnamese, because American troops were trained and equipped for World War II style conventional warfare, not guerilla warfare that the Vietcong practiced. However, in bloody urban battles such as Huế, the United States was better able to utilize it’s training and equipment and had an advantage. The Americans were able to use tanks and exploit their advantage in conventional fighting against the lightly armed Vietnamese troops.
American Soldier's Helmet Decorated with Pictures of his Girlfriend
For many of the Americans who were drafted into the military and sent to fight in Vietnam, the war had little meaning to them and they intensely missed the homes they had left to fight a war they increasingly saw as futile and useless. Most of those drafted were young men, barely out of school, who yearned to simply go home and do normal things young people did. This soldier has decorated his helmet with pictures of his girlfriend back home stateside.
Marines Patrolling the Jungle, Colorized
U.S. Soldier with a Homemade sawed-off Carbine
Infantry Fighting Vehicle Stuck in the Mud
U.S. Soldier makes his way through a burning Vietnamese village
The main job of American troops in Vietnam was to root out Vietcong forces embedded in countryside villages around South Vietnam, where they often hid and operated out of. The central American tactic in doing so was to use overwhelming amounts of firepower, via airstrikes and artillery strikes, to destroy enemy positions before ground troops went in. The fact most Vietnamese villages were made of wood meant that explosives like napalm would often destroy these enemy positions, such as the village pictured. This resulted in frequently high rates of civilian casualties, which fueled discontent with the war.
U.S. Soldier lays down machine gun fire while air strikes land
U.S. Solder takes shelter in a church during a mortar attack
Secret Picture of Vietcong troops advancing through the jungle taken by U.S. Commando
U.S. Soldier helps elderly Vietnamese Woman
Dreams of Better Times
This photograph by Toshio Sakai entitled "Dreams of Better Times" of an American soldier sleeping on sandbags in the middle of a monsoon won the 1968 Pulitzer Price for Feature Photography. It dramatically evokes the sentiment and psychology of many of the American servicemen sent to Vietnam: uncomfortable, tired, and yearning for home. Photographs such as this were widely circulated around the world and their quite melancholy tone contributed to the loss of faith in the war amongst the American public as the conflict dragged on thought the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s.
Wounded Soldier Receives Medical Aid after Stepping on Land Mine
MPs help wounded comrade in Saigon
This picture is of two military policemen helping a wounded comrade get to safety from the Tet Offensive in 1968. The Tet Offensive was a massive, country wide surprise offensive launched by the Vietcong in early 1968. Whereas previously, the Vietcong had not engaged in extensive attacks on urban areas, they decided to strike during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year when most South Vietnamese soldiers were on leave directly into major cities in South Vietnam. The offensive shocked both the US and South Vietnam and even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.
Soldier marks down his deployment time
This picture shows an American G.I. marking down how much time is left in his deployment on his helmet. As the war escalated over the course of the mid 1960’s, and more and more troops were needed to fight in Vietnam, an ever-increasing number of young American men were drafted for a year to fight. For many, Vietnam proved to be very different than it was portrayed prior to their arrival, and they simply wanted to get their deployments over with and return home.
MedEvac Helicopter Arrives to transport wounded G.I.'s out of combat
When a soldier was injured in combat, there was often little to be done except very basic first aid until MedEvac, short for medical evacuation, helicopters arrived. The medical equipment needed for serious wounds simply could not be taken to the front lines. This picture, which is of stunningly high quality, shows American soldiers evacuating wounded men from the jungle so their more serious wounds can be treated by Army surgeons in hospitals safely away from any combat or threat from the Vietcong.
Soldier with an XM2 "People Sniffer"
Downed U.S.A.F Pilot captured by the North Vietnamese
M.P.'s defend the U.S. Embassy during the Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive in 1968 took the United States and South Vietnam completely by surprise, and they were shocked by the boldness of the North Vietnamese attack. Such was the initial success of the offensive that Vietcong guerillas embedded within Saigon were able to mount an attack directly at the U.S. embassy, which reflected just how poorly the war was going for the South. Images of the American embassy itself under attack helped dispel the notion for the American public that the war was going well.
Brown water boats in the Mekong Delta
Daily life in Saigon, 1967
Navy SEAL in action, somewhere in the South Vietnamese countryside
Photojournalist Don McCullin with American Troops
Tunnel Rat Emerges with Puppy
American Soldier burns through the Jungle with a flamethrower
Originally developed in the First World War for attacks on trenches, the flamethrower was an invaluable weapon for American troops in the jungles of Vietnam. They were highly effective at destroying the vegetation that made it difficult for troops to navigate the jungle and obfuscated hidden Vietcong outposts and tunnels. However, they were not without drawbacks: flamethrowers were large and cumbersome to carry, and soldiers armed with them were at the top of the list of Vietcong targets due to their deadly effectiveness.
MIKE Force Soldiers Celebrate Christmas
One of the biggest priorities for the United States in Vietnam was training and aiding the South Vietnamese in counterinsurgency and anti-guerilla warfare tactics. The pictured soldiers were part of the MIKE Force, or Mobile Strike Force Command. They were used in conjunction with South Vietnamese troops as quick reaction and reconnaissance units against Vietcong incursions in the south. MIKE Force also played a major role in search and rescue operations of downed American pilots shot down during bombing runs.
Soldier with smuggled in Budweiser and Coca-Cola
American Sniper and his Spotter in action
Freed American P.O.W.'s on the plane home
South Vietnamese American-trained commando prepares for action
In an attempt to lessen the need for American ground forces in Vietnam, a central focus of American policy was to train the South Vietnamese forces to a point where they could fight the war without American boots on the ground. This picture shows an American trained and equipped South Vietnamese commando, preparing to head out on a mission with his American counterparts. Although the South Vietnamese Army never reached the standards the U.S. wanted it to, some units did their American instructors proudly.
South Vietnamese infantry on the march
In far, far greater numbers than commando units, the United States also trained regular South Vietnamese infantry units, as pictured here. Many South Vietnamese units fought bravely, but in general, American efforts to establish a completely self-sufficient Army of South Vietnam that would be able to hold its own and defeat the north were futile. The effort was hampered by a lack of trust in the South Vietnamese government the U.S. backed amongst the population, which inspired little loyalty. As shown in the photo, the South Vietnamese Army was almost completely supplied and equipped by the U.S.
Marines landing on Cape Batangan, 1965
One of the main combat responsibilities of the U.S. Marine Corps is amphibious landings, where soldiers land on and thereafter storm beaches via small landing craft. This photo shows the Marines landing on Cape Batangan, 1965. The Marine Corps played a major role in the Vietnam War, as their training in both land combat and navy supported ground attacks, such as the operation pictured, made them a reliable weapon in the American arsenal for taking on the Vietcong.
U.S. Command and Communications Outpost
Armies consist of much, much more than just troops in combat. One of the most essential elements for any army is having an extensive and effective communications system to distribute orders to combat units and coordinate operations. The U.S. attempted to utilize its large advantage in communications technology when coordinating the fighting against the North Vietnamese, and employed immense amounts of radio, radar, and other technology for this purpose. Ensuring this aspect of the American military presence functioned correctly was of considerable importance.
Marines in the aftermath of an attack on Khe Sanh
Since the First World War, the machine gun has played a significant role in battles. These two American troops are pictured in the aftermath of a Vietcong attack on the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh, having used the pictured M-60 machine guns and expended considerable amounts of ammunition to do so. During the Battle, the Vietcong launched massive attacks with infantry units in an attempt to overwhelm U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and were ultimately unsuccessful, but did manage to tie them down and prevent them from fighting elsewhere.