In June 1969, LIFE magazine published a feature that today, incredibly, remains as moving and, in some quarters, as controversial as it was when it sparked debate and intensified a nation’s soul-searching more than 40 years ago. On the cover, a young man’s face — the very model of middle-America’s “boy next door” — along with 11 stark words: “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” Inside, across 10 funereal pages, LIFE published picture after picture and name after name of 242 young men killed halfway around the world — in the words of the official announcement of their deaths — “in connection with the conflict in Vietnam.”
More on LifeView Again
LIFE Magazine—Time & Life Pictures
Michael C. Volheim, 20, Army, SP4, Hayward, Calif.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the public’s response was immediate, and visceral. Some readers expressed amazement, in light of the thousands of American deaths suffered in a war with no end in sight, that it took so long for LIFE to produce something as dramatic and pointed as “One Week’s Toll.” Others were outraged that the magazine was, as one reader saw it, “supporting the antiwar demonstrators who are traitors to this country.” Still others — perhaps the vast majority — were quietly and disconsolately devastated. (See reader’s responses at the bottom of this page.)
Here, four decades after the last American combat troops left Vietnam — and as the United States once again fights a protracted, ambiguous war with a shadowy enemy on the other side of the globe — LIFE.com is republishing every picture and every name that originally appeared in (as the article itself was titled) “One Week’s Dead.”
Below is the text, in full, that not only accompanied portraits of those killed, but also explained why LIFE chose to publish “One Week’s Dead” when — and in the manner — it did.
From the June 27, 1969, issue of LIFE:
The faces shown on the next pages are the faces of American men killed — in the words of the official announcement of their deaths — “in connection with the conflict in Vietnam.” The names, 242, of them, were released on May 28 through June 3 , a span of no special significance except that it includes Memorial Day. The numbers of the dead are average for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.
It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead. We cannot tell with any precision what they thought of the political currents which drew them across the world. From the letters of some, it is possible to tell they felt strongly that they should be in Vietnam, that they had great sympathy for the Vietnamese people and were appalled at their enormous suffering. Some had voluntarily extended theirs tours of combat duty; some were desperate to come home. Their families provided most of these photographs, and many expressed their own feelings that their sons and husbands died in a necessary cause. Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed this war — 36,000 — though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week’s dead,unknown but families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes.
Below is the text, in full, from the last page of the “One Week’s Dead” feature in LIFE:
‘I see death coming up the hill’
On the back of a picture he sent home shortly before his death near Saigon, Sgt. William Anderson, 18, of Templeton, Pa., jotted a wry note: “Plain of Reeds, May 12, 1969. Here’s a picture of a 2-star general awarding me my Silver Star. I didn’t do anything. They just had some extra ones.” His family has a few other recent photographs of the boy, including one showing him this past February helping to put a beam into place on his town’s new church. His was the first military funeral held there.
Such fragments on film, in letters, in clippings and in recollection comprise the legacies of virtually every man show in these pages. To study the smallest portion of them, even without reference to their names, is to glimpse the scope of a much broader tragedy. Writing his family just before the time he was scheduled to return to the U.S., a California man said, “I could be standing on the doorstep on the 8th [of June]…As you can see from my shaky printing, the strain of getting ‘short’ is getting to me, so I’ll close now.” The ironies and sad coincidences of time hang everywhere.
One Pfc. from the 101st Airborne was killed on his 21st birthday. A waiting bride had just bought her own wedding ring. A mother got flowers ordered by her son and then learned he had died the day they arrived. A Texan had just signed up for a second two-year tour of duty when he was killed, and his ROTC instructor back home remembered with great affection that the boy, a flag-bearer, had stumbled a lot. In the state of Oregon a solider was buried in a grave shared by the body of his brother, who had died in Vietnam two years earlier. A lieutenant was killed serving the battalion his father had commanded two years ago. A man from Colorado noted in his last letter that the Marines preferred captured North Vietnamese mortars to their own because they were lighter and much more accurate. At four that afternoon he as killed by enemy mortar fire.
Premonitions gripped many of the men. One wrote, “I have given my life as have many others for a cause in which I firmly believe.” Another, writing from Hamburger Hill, said, “You may not be able to read this. I am writing it in a hurry. I see death coming up the hill.” One more, who had come home on leave from Vietnam in January and had told his father he did not want to go back and was considering going AWOL, wrote last month, “Everyone’s dying, they’re all ripped apart. Dad, there’s no one left.” “I wish now I had told him to jump,” the boy’s father recalled. “I wish I had, but I couldn’t.”
Such despair was not everywhere. A lieutenant, a Notre Dame graduate, wrote home in some mild annoyance that he had not been given command of a company. (“I would have jumped at the chance but there are too many Capts. floating around”) and then reported with a certain pleasure that he was looking forward to his new assignment, which was leader of a reconnaissance platoon. In an entirely cheerful letter to his mother a young man from Georgia wrote, “I guess by now you are having some nice weather. Do you have tomatoes in the garden? ‘A’ Co. found an NVA farm two days ago with bananas, tomatoes and corn. This is real good land here. You can see why the North wants it.”
There is a catalogue of fact for every face. One boy had customized his 13-year-old car and planned to buy a ranch. Another man, a combat veteran of the Korean War, leaves seven children. A third had been an organist in his church and wanted to be a singer. One had been sending his pay home to contribute to his brother’s college expenses. The mother of one of the dead, whose son was the third of four to serve in the Army, insists with deep pride, “We are a patriotic family willing to pay that price.” An aunt who had raised her nephew said of him, “He was really and truly a conscientious objector. He told me it was a terrible thought going into the Army and winding up in Vietnam and shooting people who hadn’t done anything to him…such a waste. Such a shame.”
Every photograph, every face carriers its own simple and powerful message. The inscription on one boy’s picture to his girl reads:
To Miss Shirley Nash
We shall let no Love come between Love.
Only peace and happiness from Heaven Above.
Below are some of the reactions from readers that were published in the August 18, 1969, issue of LIFE — in which the entire Letters section of the magazine was given over to responses to “One Week’s Dead”:
Your story was the most eloquent and meaningful statement on the wastefulness and stupidity of war I have ever read. — From a reader in California
Certainly these tragic young men were far superior to the foreign policy they were called upon to defend. — From a U.S. Marine Corps Captain (resigned)
I feel you are supporting the antiwar demonstrators who are traitors to this country. You are helping them and therefore belong to this group. — From a reader in Texas
I cried for those Southern black soldiers. What did they die for? Tar paper shacks, malnutrition, unemployment and degradation? — From a reader in Ohio
While looking at the photographs I was shocked to see the smiling face of someone I used to know. He was only 19 years old. I guess I never realized that 19-year-olds have to die. — From a reader in Georgia
I felt I was staring into the eyes of the 11 troopers from my platoon who were killed while fighting for a cause they couldn’t understand — From a Marine second lieutenant in New Jersey who had commanded a rifle platoon in Vietnam