FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Dallas Brown still can see the bullets coming for him 50 years later, smacking into the dirt at his feet as north Vietnamese soldiers fired on his platoon during an ambush deep in the jungle.
Minutes later, as the deadly firefight wound down, Brown and his fellow soldiers in the 101st Airborne would be immortalized. In one of the most searing images of the Vietnam War, Brown grimaces as he lies on the ground with a back injury. Not far away, a platoon sergeant raises his arms to the heavens, seemingly seeking divine help.
Landing on the front page of The New York Times, the black-and-white image by Associated Press freelancer Art Greenspon gave Americans back home an unflinching look at the conditions soldiers endured in what would become the war’s deadliest year. Captured on April 1, 1968, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and appeared prominently in Ken Burns’ recent Vietnam War documentary. But for the young Americans who have decided to talk about it a half-century later, it was merely a moment in another sweltering day in a Southeast Asian jungle with well-hidden enemies all around. Some of them have spent years putting the experience in perspective.
“When I look at that picture now, I say, ‘If I can survive that, I can survive anything,’” said Tim Wintenburg, who in the photo helps carry a wounded soldier over brush hacked away to create a helicopter landing zone.
Sgt. Maj. Watson Baldwin has his arms raised to guide in a helicopter that would take away the wounded men, including one shot in the leg by the Vietnamese soldier who was firing at Brown. Baldwin died in 2005, according to Fort Campbell officials who recently tracked down soldiers in the photo.
Brown, who lives near Nashville, and Wintenburg, of Indianapolis, met with an Associated Press reporter at Fort Campbell in Kentucky to recount the events surrounding the photo – their first news media interviews ever on the war. After he received his draft notice in 1965, Wintenburg visited a recruiting office and was told he looked “like Airborne material.”
By early 1968, he was 20 years old and on the front lines. Brown, who was 18 when he landed in Vietnam, remembers being inspired by “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” He was encouraged to go through airborne training. Both men ended up at Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne.
In the spring of 1968, Brown and Wintenburg’s squad was in the dangerous A Shau Valley on a weekslong “search and destroy” mission, meaning they never took prisoners. Firefights were commonplace.
Brown recalled their battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, telling them before one mission: “You get a body count, you get a prize.”
“To my knowledge we might have taken a handful of prisoners the whole time we was in Vietnam,” Brown said.
The soldiers were hiking up a slippery mountain trail after a monsoon when they paused to eat lunch.
Brown, sitting on his rucksack with his M-16 rifle across his lap, thought he saw a sapling move down a ravine. He didn’t feel any wind. He switched his rifle to full-automatic as an enemy fighter stepped into view. Known in the platoon as “hillbilly” for his Tennessee drawl and proficiency with a rifle, Brown fired on the first north Vietnamese soldier, killing him and then another behind him. He was reloading when a third enemy fighter fired back.
“You know you see these movies where you see clods of dirt jumping up? I could see them, I mean they was coming right at me and that’s when I got off that rucksack,” Brown said. “I thought, this guy, he means to kill me as sure as the world.”
Brown lunged for cover, and a bullet struck the leg of a soldier who had been behind him. Once the ambush was put down, Brown carried the wounded man up the hill, injuring his back on the way.
Brown grimaced as the photo was snapped. Wintenburg, who had lost his helmet, helped the wounded soldier up to the landing spot. He glanced back toward Greenspon.
Greenspon now lives in Connecticut. He declined to be interviewed, saying the soldiers should always be the focus of any story about the photograph.
Brown and Wintenburg each spent about a year in Vietnam, and both men struggled with anxiety for years. But now, 50 years later, they relish opportunities to reunite with fellow 101st Airborne members.
Brown has a copy of the photo hanging in his home, and he has plenty of stories of how he convinced relatives and friends that he’s in it. A few years ago, Brown’s granddaughter and her boyfriend – now her husband – asked about it. Seeing it through their eyes reminded him of the growing pride he now takes in his piece of history.
Wintenburg shares that pride, although he is perhaps more sanguine about what led him to that moment.
“We didn’t really have a choice back then,” he said. “We did what we had to do.”