Life’s ‘Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam’

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Life Magazine,
Life Magazine, "Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam," mugshots of the 242 guys killed in Vietnam this week in 1969, published in the mag's Aug. 22, 1969 edition.

Life Magazine’s “Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll” photo feature gathered portraits of the 242 guys killed in Vietnam during the week including Memorial Day 1969 and was published in the mag’s June 27, 1969 edition.

This is how and when I found out my former neighbor and schoolmate at Wm. J. Bryan Elementary in North Miami, Bobby Randall, had been killed (he’s pictured in the top row, second from left).

Bobby was a year or so older than I, didn’t go to college, and got drafted. I was just graduating high school in late May ’69 and not yet 18, with the Vietnam War raging and the specter of the draft looming large.

LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969, featuring a portrait of U.S. Army specialist William C. Gearing, Jr., one of 242 American servicemen killed in a single week of fighting during the Vietnam War.
LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969, featuring a portrait of U.S. Army specialist William C. Gearing, Jr., one of 242 American servicemen killed in a single week of fighting during the Vietnam War.

Bobby’s death hit me hard. I wasn’t alone. History has shown this issue of Life had a similar impact on the American people, speeding their turn against the war.

When the time came I signed up for the draft, but also went to college and had a 2-S deferment. I have no regrets about that, especially knowing what we know now about Nixon’s treasonous involvement in derailing the 1968 peace talks to help him win the Nov. ’68 election, which confirms our suspicions at the time that he was indeed as corrupt as the reasons for prolonging the war.

I still find it very difficult to mourn my fallen friend, who was there not by choice, without also being bent about the BS “winding down the war” politics that sent him along with the other 55,000+ other Americans who went to an early grave. In May 1969, 36,000 Americans had died. Another 19,000 died “winding down the war” until Saigon fell six years later, on April  30, 1975.

That said, on this Memorial Weekend 2019, half a century after his death, I salute Bobby (even tho he wasn’t an officer, just a lowly grunt Pfc) and all the others who served and gave their lives, because whether just or unjust, they made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of us all.

LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969, featuring portraits of 242 American servicemen killed in a single week of fighting during the Vietnam War.
A page from LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969, featuring portraits of 242 American servicemen killed in a single week of fighting during the Vietnam War.

This text prefaced the photo gallery:

“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 [1969], 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 their 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 in 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 to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes.”