The identity of the "exhausted Marine" in a widely published 1967 photo—until recently, thought to have been of another Marine later killed in action—had been unknown for 31 years until Rhode Island accountant and sailboat racer Michael W. Tripp came forward last year.
Sometimes you get a miracle when you're least expecting it. For me, it came in the form of a phone call last fall from a guy named Mike Tripp, a Rhode Island accountant who had been a crew chief in 1967 with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363 in Vietnam. Mike—or "Tripper," as he still cheerfully identifies himself—said he was the leatherneck in a famous war photograph I had written a three-part series about in The Washington Post the previous summer.
The series, "Peace Church, Vietnam: An American Journey," described the hellish combat circumstances surrounding the picture that had been taken in the little country parish of Nha Tho An Hoa (literally, "Peace Church") just south of Con Thien and the Demilitarized Zone in the area then known as "Leatherneck Square."
The photographer was my friend, Frank Johnston, himself an ex-Marine, now a Washington Post colleague, who at the time was working for United Press International. In the fog of battle, Frank had never ascertained the man's name, so this powerful image carried the simple caption: "An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa during a heavy North Vietnamese mortar attack."
He was EveryMarine. The photo appeared on front pages across the nation and later in books about the war. It was haunting in a way that nails you right in the gut—perfectly emblematic, somehow, of the warrior's weariness, alertness, determination, bravery.
For a couple of decades after the war, Frank had no clue as to the Marine's identity, until one day in 1987 he received a call from a man named Rob Sutter in Atlanta. Sutter believed the picture was of his brother, Richard, a Marine with Mike Company 3/26 who had died in a firefight near Khe Sanh on 21 July 1967. Indeed, pictures of Richard showed a remarkable likeness to the Marine in Frank's famous photo, and the entire Sutter family was convinced.
Frank and Rob became friends, as Rob—also a Marine—continued working to resolve the pain and anger he still felt at having lost his beloved older brother in a war that tore the nation apart. In Frank, I think, he was able, finally, to find a visceral connection with the past.
It made for a strong series, centered on Rob's quest for the meaning of his brother's life and death. Together with a group of Marines—some wives, sons, active-duty Marines, and a few Army types went along, too—we visited Vietnam in March 1998 on a trip organized by Military Historical Tours of Alexandria, Virginia. We found the remains of Peace Church, which had been blasted to smithereens by artillery the year after Frank shot the photo. I watched Rob and Frank say a prayer together on the very spot where the photo was taken.
It was an unforgettable trip. As we visited Khe Sanh, Peace Church, "Ambush Valley" just north of Cam Lo, and other places where members of the group had fought and lost dear friends, grown men cried and fell into one another's arms. Gathering their stories—and reexperiencing some of the things I had seen during the war myself—I developed a respect and love for each of those guys, from the former privates to a retired sergeant major, Len Koontz, who had earned the Navy Cross, and a retired four-star and former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Carl Mundy, who stood at the Ambush Valley site and described for us how "the rice paddies stood up" the day 3/26 had fought off human-wave assaults by an entire North Vietnamese Army regiment.
In more than a quarter-century at The Washington Post, I never had such an outpouring of response to an article or series. Hundreds of readers called or wrote to say how Rob's story—and the stories of all the men and their families—had touched them. In many cases, readers said, the series helped the former warriors to talk about Vietnam for the first time with their families. After all these years, a great need still persists for "healing" (I can't think of a better word) the personal traumas of that terrible conflict—a need to find some kind of peace.
Then, out of the blue, Tripper called!
He's a great guy, a man who belies the fashionable image of the screwed-up Vietnam vet. Mike is a solid, successful member of his community, a good family man, and—to top it off—an ocean sailboat racer. He has a great sense of humor, too. Frank and I flew up to see him, and Frank needed only one look to know Mike was the guy in the photo. Thirty-one years after they had locked eyes in Nha Tho An Hoa, I watched them give one another a big bear-hug on the front porch of Mike and Ella Tripp's charming colonial in the woodsy serenity of Barrington, Rhode Island.
Why had Mike not come forward earlier? He had tried, he told us. He had seen the photo almost immediately in some publication and written his wife and mother about it. But back in the States, when he had called UPI to contact Frank, he had been told erroneously that the photographer died in the war.
"We aren't doing too bad," Frank quipped during the reunion, "for a couple of dead guys having a beer together."
So I wrote another story—part four of what was to have been three—about the miraculous advent of Mike Tripp. Again the response was tremendous. Readers were thrilled, happy at the news. A few journalists carped that I should have known about Mike all along, but I had been honest in the series—writing that Sutter's unit was not near the church, that his commanders would concede only that he "could" have been there, and that it was "possible that the picture is not of Richard at all, but of some other Marine."
Mike Tripp's helicopter, Yankee Zulu-77, had been shot down about 500 meters from Peace Church in the midst of the raging battle. Suddenly, he found himself digging in with the grunts of Delta Company 1/9, who were glad to have his machineguns and the extra ammo he always insisted on carrying. Mike spent one terrifying night in a foxhole and the next in the church, thinking—as they all did—that they would be overrun at any moment.
Since his story appeared, Mike has received scores of letters and calls, many of them from Marines he had known during the war—connections that have been helpful to him as he and his family work through a deep grieving process they had not even quite realized they needed.
"I found out who the first medevac [casualty] was who was on our helicopter when it went down," Mike said later. "He died in that action. I talked with his mom. Now I think we've found the other medevac—he's a retired firefighter in Pennsylvania." Frank "Irish" Healey, a 1/9 Marine who also was in the church and whose photo had appeared in the series, went to visit Mike. When retired Marine Colonel Bruce Meyers, who had been with us on the Vietnam tour last March, called to chat, it turned out Meyers once had commanded Mike's squadron.
Mike, Frank, and I flew to Atlanta to see Rob Sutter; I'll never forget the moment when Mike looked at Rob and said the famous photo could just as well have been of Richard Sutter.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "the caption should be returned to the original. . . . 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."
Editor's Note: The "Peace Church" series is available free of charge on the Washington Post Web site, www.washingtonpost.com. Click on News, Nation; then on Special Reports/Military.
Mr. McCombs, a reporter for The Washington Post, was a U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, serving in the 1st Logistical Command, then as Saigon bureau chief of Pacific Stars & Stripes. He returned in 1973 as a Washington Post correspondent, remaining until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.