Rare Photos of The Vietnam War That Have Never Been Seen
The Vietnam War was one of the most important wars in United States history, and although plenty have read and heard about it, few have actually seen what the war looked like. Like all wars, this war had its good times and its bad times.
If you have heard about this war and are curious about what it actually looked like in person, we got you covered with this gallery as it will show you some rare photos from the war. It may end up being just like you heard about, or after seeing these pictures, you may have a different outlook on this war.
Hovering helicopters pump machine-gun fire
We get to relive some moments in the early years of the Vietnam War thanks to remarkable photos of the war like this. Here we see some U.S. Army helicopters hovering in the air, and pumping some machine-gun fire into a tree line.
This was in a bid to provide sufficient cover for the advancing South Vietnamese troops who were on an attack on a Viet Cong camp. The camp was roughly 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, close to the Cambodian border.
American officers and South Vietnamese forces
In the early days of the war, there were provisionary huts in military camps in Central Vietnam. Here we see an American officer serving with the South Vietnamese forces. Together with the group of Montagnards, the officer struck a pose with the Montagnards in the military camp.
They were all hauled in by government forces in a rescue mission that freed them from captivity in a village where the communist Viet Cong forces used them as a labor force. These dark-skinned tribesmen numbered about 700,000 at the time, and they are native to Central Vietnam’s highlands.
Vietnamese airborne rangers
Pictured here are some Vietnamese airborne rangers along with a couple of U.S. advisers, and a team of 12 U.S. Special Forces troops that were on a raid of a Viet Cong supply base. The base lies roughly 62 miles to the northwest of Saigon, and the raid happened in August 1963.
The H-21 helicopters hovered about six feet above the ground in a bid to avoid the wires and spikes that had been laid there for them. The company would then be under sniper fire that forced them to jump out and attack as well.
Severely wounded soldier
Here’s a South Vietnamese Marine that was seriously wounded in an ambush perpetrated by Viet Cong forces. The touching bit of the picture is the wounded soldier isn’t alone but in the company of a couple of comrades, and the one holding him from behind comforted him while looking straight into the camera.
These events happened in a sugar-cane field at Duc Hoa, roughly 12 miles from Saigon, where a platoon of marines were looking for communist forces before some heavy fire killed one of them and injured others.
Clouds from Napalm air strikes
The gray monsoon skies in this picture are clouded by Napalm air strikes that raised clouds while houseboats slid down the Perfume River. The boats were gliding down toward Hue in Vietnam in February 1963, where there was a battle for control of the city.
That battle at the old Imperial city ended in defeat for the communist forces, and the clouds we see in this picture show how intense the battle was. A village on the outskirts of the city had firebombs directed at it.
Buddhist Monk burns himself
The darker side of the war was revealed when Thic Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, decided to burn himself to death in June 1963. He committed the unthinkable act in a desperate attempt to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the government in South Vietnam.
The South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic, and a member of the minority that had settled on discriminatory policies against the Buddhists, while also giving his fellow Catholics preferential treatment. It was against this backdrop that Duc burnt himself to death in front of a crowd of onlookers.
Skyraider drops bombs on a Viet Cong position
Pictured here is an A-1 Skyraider that flew low over the jungle so it could efficiently drop several 500-pound bombs on a position occupied by the Viet Cong forces. The warplane succeeded in dropping the bombs on the target, causing smoke to rise.
This happened in the wake of President Johnson securing a nearly unanimous consent from Congress for his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Every military deployment in Southeast Asia after that point was legitimized by the Resolution, so strikes like this were very much legal.
John McCain finally released
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, John McCain, who would later become a senator, was shot down over Hanoi and taken as a prisoner of war by North Vietnamese soldiers. Despite having multiple broken bones, he was held in solitary confinement and subjected to starvation, illness, and shackles.
Despite intense pressure, he steadfastly refused to provide the names of his fellow squadron members. Instead, as reported by Time magazine, McCain provided the North Vietnamese with the names of the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers. He remained in captivity for five and a half years and was ultimately released in 1973.
Dying Viet Cong Guerrilla
Here we see a partially covered and dying Viet Cong guerrilla as he raised his hands. He was discovered by South Vietnamese fighters who were on a search of the palm groves close to Long Binh in the Mekong Delta in February 1964.
The guerrilla fighter would eventually die, after sustaining terminal injuries during a battle between a Viet Cong unit and a battalion of South Vietnamese marines. This is another picture that paints an image of the darker side of the war.
Wading through a rice paddy
South Vietnamese marine troops found their way across a rice paddy in the Long An province while a couple of United States Eagle Flight helicopters hovered overhead. They were engaged in some missions against the Viet Cong guerrillas in the Mekong Delta in December 1964.
These weren’t just regular aircraft, but Eagle Flight choppers that were filled with airborne Vietnamese troops that were strategically dropped to support the forces on the ground whenever enemy contact was sighted. It wasn’t unusual for U.S. warplanes and choppers to hover above while the South Vietnamese forces advanced.
Victim of a pursuit by government forces
In another touching picture that portrays the darker side of the war and its profound effects on helpless citizens, we see a father holding the body of his child. He’d approached a company of South Vietnamese Army Rangers to show how his hapless child had been killed while the government forces were on a hot pursuit of guerrillas.
The Rangers had chased the rebels into a village close to the Cambodian border but, as with all war, innocent citizens, even children, paid the ultimate price for a war they did not want or cause.
Black Panther Party protesting
The Black Panther Party emerged from Oakland, California in 1969 to stage peaceful demonstrations against the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. The party also created free breakfast programs for students in cities where they had a presence and distributed free shoes to the impoverished.
In 1969, the party organized a march in Washington D.C. that became one of the largest peaceful protests in American history. Even though the protest remained nonviolent, the FBI still decided to intervene and shut down the protest.
Conducting an efficient evacuation
Despite being faced with lots of hard decisions, significant logistical problems and requirements, as well as endless security problems, the men of the U.S. military and civilians managed to conduct a smooth evacuation.
Graham Martin was the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, and he was also the man in charge of the evacuation. He thought that in the future, people would recognize the extraction at Saigon as a terrifically well-done job. The American Embassy on its part had shared a booklet called Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency.
The ship decks had gotten clogged
Helicopters hauled as many as fifty agitated men, women, and children toward warships, and soon enough the helicopters began to clog the ship decks. There was therefore a need to push some of the helicopters overboard so others would have the space required to land.
In some cases, helicopter pilots were instructed to ditch their vessels in the ocean, at which point they would be rescued. The carriers had quickly run out of room to park the helicopters, and the bulk of these helicopters belonged to South Vietnam.
Activists in the Nam Can Forest
Captured here are a couple of activists donning masks in a bid to conceal their identities from each other in case any of them got interrogated or captured. These activists met in the Nam Can forest, in the mangrove swamps of the Mekong Delta, from where it was typically difficult to get images sent to the North.
According to the photographer behind this shot, the photos would sometimes get lost on the way, or even worse, get confiscated altogether by some authority.
Thousands of Vietnamese were evacuated
Operation Frequent Wind also led to the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese citizens. Some were self-evacuated while others were rescued as part of the operation, and they ended up in U.S. custody, where they were processed as refugees to be conveyed to the U.S.
Their numbers totaled about 138,869, and this was actually one of the most productive helicopter airlifts ever, one that painted a picture of some desperate efforts by the United States to depart Vietnam once the time came.
Physical examinations for new recruits
In Haiphong, new recruits were made to undergo physical examinations before enlisting in the war. There was a volunteer system in the North that became transformed into a compulsory system in 1973; once the system became a mandatory one, essentially all able-bodied males in the North were drafted into the army.
In 1950, the corps had roughly 35,000 men but the number of boots in the Vietnam People's Armed Forces quickly ballooned to more than 500,000 men by the mid-1970s. At that point, even the U.S. military admitted that the North had assembled a fine force.
Painstaking Vietnamese photos
The Vietnamese had to make do with painfully outdated cameras, some of which had been made in the 1930s while the photographers from the West had new facilities. Nonetheless, the Vietnamese persisted in taking crucial photos despite film rolls being so precious.
They developed their pictures in the air using homemade chemicals, despite the lingering threat of B-52 strikes. Unfortunately, a lot of those pictures have never been published anywhere despite the significant story they tell of the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese.
Viet Cong Guerrilla in the Mekong Delta
Captured here is a Viet Cong Guerilla fighter standing guard in the Mekong Delta. This is a woman doing a man’s work and being unbothered by it. According to the photographer, women like her could be found nearly everywhere during the war in Vietnam.
At the time, the woman was only 24 years old, but she had already been in two marriages and both men had died. Both of the men she’d married were soldiers that had died in the war, a tragedy that meant the woman had made unbelievable sacrifices for Vietnam.
Paddling through a Mangrove Forest
Here’s another guerilla fighter, but unlike the woman standing guard above, this man was captured while he paddled through a mangrove forest that Agent Orange had defoliated. In a bid to deny cover to Viet Cong, the Americans had denuded the entire landscape with chemicals.
This act was a despicable one because the mangrove forests are cherished by the locals, who used them for fishing and agriculture. Seeing the damage that had been done to these lands sickened the photographer.
Women hauling in fishing nets
In this remarkable picture, we see how gender roles are switched during wartime as roles that used to be exclusively done by men are taken up by women, who are compelled to do so because their men are either on the frontlines or dead.
The women in this photo can be seen hauling in heavy fishing nets on the Mekong River’s upper branch. This was a job that was typically done by the men but then the women had to take it up to keep food on the table and ensure the survival of all.
Sorting through the wreckage of a U.S. Navy Plane
Captured here are some militia members busying themselves by rummaging through the wreck of a U.S. Navy plane that had been downed on the outskirts of Hanoi. This was a TLV A-7C Corsair airplane that was flown by Lt. Stephen Owen Musselman before it was downed in September 1972.
Fortunately, Musselman managed to eject from the airplane before it crashed, but he wasn’t found until March 1, 1978, when a Presumptive Finding of Death was issued. His remains were found in July 1981 and were returned to the U.S.
Guarding an Outpost on the Cambodian Border
This outpost on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia was protected by bamboo punji stakes that had been poisoned, and the outpost was also guarded by Guerillas. The punji stakes were typically sharpened considerably before being hardened with fire, and these were typically concealed from sight for enemy soldiers until they stepped on them.
Intended to injure and not kill enemy soldiers, these booby traps worked well by slowing down entire units and having their positions revealed thanks to medevacs.
Rare image shows both sides in combat
In this rare picture, we see Viet Cong meeting the enemy head-on in a face-to-face encounter that is believed to have happened in either the Plain of Reeds or the Mekong Delta. Viet Cong fighters are in the foreground in this image while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers are at the top.
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam were flanked at the left and right by the Viet Cong fighters, and the most likely scenario that played out is the Army of the Republic of Vietnam unit was completely annihilated by the Viet Cong forces.
Militia company practicing
With the aid of overhead targets, here is a company of militia fighters practicing firing in front of speeding aircraft. These events happened in Thanh Tri, where even though the Vietnamese fighters were only equipped with outdated WWII rifles, they were able to shoot down or cripple several U.S. aircraft.
For several years in a row, the militia group called Company 6 of the Yen My Commune were rated as an Excellent Militia for their ability to brave the odds and deliver remarkable results with far less powerful artillery.
Workers discussing repairs of the Ham Rong Bridge
Here we have a couple of Vietnamese construction workers discussing how they were going to go about repairing the Ham Rong Bridge which had been bombed. The bridge was crucial for logistics during the war as it was the only way heavy trucks and machinery could cross the Ma River.
Due to its importance to the war efforts, the Ham Rong Bridge was a heavily-defended position, where multiple U.S. planes had been shot down. In 1973, an American MIA search team found some remains of pilots.
Walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail
In this stunning photo, the photographer captured the moment when troops were walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Truong Son Mountains. The mountains form Vietnam’s 750-mile-long spine, and they stretch across most of the western border of Vietnam.
The soldiers of the North called the Ho Chi Minh Trail the Truong Son Road at that point, and the photograph was taken by Le Minh Truong in 1966. The military supply route sent weapons, ammunition, manpower, and more from North to South Vietnam.
Hauling supplies by elephant
In Southern Laos, Laotian guerrillas hauled their supplies on foot and on elephants to Vietnam People's Armed Forces close to Route 9. This happened during the attempted interdiction of the trail by South Vietnam.
The invasion was called Operation Lam Son 719, and it was supposed to be a test of the capabilities of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam forces in the wake of dwindling support from the United States. At the end of the day, the results were disastrous, as Southern troops could only flee in panic at the onslaught.
A victim being carried to an operating room
Some pictures from the war are more touching than others, and this is certainly one of the more emotional shots we’ve seen so far. We see a victim of American bombs, an ethnic Cambodian guerrilla, being hauled to what is essentially an improvised operating room in a mangrove swamp located on the Ca Mau Peninsula.
This wasn’t done for publicity in any way, and it was actually a real medical emergency/situation, yet somehow the photographer thought there wasn’t anything exceptional about the picture, and therefore opted not to print it.
Vietnam People's Armed Forces scampering for safety
Here’s an actual picture of actual soldiers during the real-time war. A couple of Vietnam People's Armed Forces run across the open ground, scampering for safety as their position got bombarded and the enemies pulled closer. These events happened close to a crucial highway, Highway 9, that lies in southern Laos.
This was during Operation Lam Son 719, which was basically the failed attempt by the South to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was heavily guarded as a crucial link for the supply of manpower, ammunition, and other supplies.
Combat boots all over the road
On the outskirts of Saigon, the ground was completely littered with combat boots that had been abandoned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers. The boots were there because the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers had abandoned their uniforms in a bid to conceal their identities and hide their status as soldiers on the other side.
The photographer remembers the banging thump sound as their vehicle drove over the boots that were littered all over. He made sure to capture the unforgettable sight of all those boots after the U.S. soldiers had picked them up and lined them up. There was finally some peace after many years of war.
Marines bring heavy equipment ashore
In October 1965, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the People's Army of Vietnam launched an offensive campaign in the Central Highlands, forcing Westmoreland to respond with the Air Mobile. In November, the North Vietnamese forces and the U.S. faced off in brutal combat for the first time, and the moment Marines found their way ashore with heavy equipment was captured in this photo.
After a while of fighting, the U.S. forces managed to force the People's Army of Vietnam away from the valley, killing significantly more enemy soldiers than the casualties recorded in the process.
Captured Viet Cong Guerrilla Fighter
After a Viet Cong guerrilla fighter was captured by South Vietnamese fighters, he initially refused to communicate with or help his captors until he was persuaded to do so with the aid of a spear placed on his throat as if to kill him.
Once the spear was pressed on his neck, the fighter became more compliant and described where they could find a cache of grenades they intended to use. This soldier was apprehended along with 13 other guerrilla fighters some miles away from the Da Nang Air Force Base.
A wounded U.S. Army Soldier
An injured U.S. Army Soldier gets comforted by a nurse in one of the wards at the 8th Army Hospital in the Nha Trang region of South Vietnam. Nurses like the lady here were deployed to help cater to the welfare of injured soldiers on the frontlines.
The wounded soldier is one of over 100 soldiers that got wounded during the attacks launched by Viet Chong fighters on multiple U.S. military compounds. The attacks had happened at Pleiku, which lies roughly 240 miles from Saigon; a total of seven U.S. citizens lost their lives in that attack.
Four C-123 aircraft hover over a suspected Viet Cong position
Captured in this stunning aerial photo of the war in Vietnam are four Ranch Hand C-123 aircraft, spraying some liquid defoliant on a position suspected to have been occupied by Viet Cong fighters. Defoliants are used in times of warfare to deprive enemy forces of food crops or places to hide.
In this case, the four specialized aircraft managed to cover a swath of land 1,000 feet wide in the special liquid, despite the density of the vegetation all around the enemy position.
A field lit up by gunfire and flares
Here’s a tragic photo of a field covered with the wounded and the dead. The only form of illumination comes from gunfire and flares, which lit up the field. A battalion of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division got ambushed in the la Drang Valley in Vietnam in November 1965, after an intense battle that had been fought for days.
Several units of the unfortunate division were fighting to keep their lines against an entire regiment of North Viet Cong fighters. The clearing is where the bodies of the dead soldiers were carried along with their gear while they awaited evacuation efforts.
Raquel Welch dancing for the soldiers
During the War in Vietnam, Raquel Welch was one of the most energetic supporters of U.S. troops. She wasn’t just a vocal supporter of troops among her celebrity friends, she also decided to go along with Bob Hope during his USO trip in 1967.
Once she was there, the stunning celeb decided to do whatever it was she could do to make the men feel like they were home once again. Welch did everything from dancing to performing solo and she even did some comedy as part of a duo with Bob Hope.
Muhammad Ali and some police officers
Muhammad Ali wasn’t exempted from draft notices, and once he got his first, Ali declared he was a conscientious objector, and stated he’d never join the war. The legendary boxer then told the press he didn’t have any problems with the Viet Cong, and for refusing to serve in the U.S. military, Ali was handed a five-year prison sentence.
His passport was also taken away, and professional boxing was ripped from him too. Shortly after that though, Ali became a much-improved orator and he became a lot more popular.
An American soldier and his dog
During the brutal war in Vietnam, American soldiers would often turn to anything that could offer them some comfort in the face of the never-ending conflict. Sometimes things got so intense that it took only those with the strongest wills to pull through, and a lot of those that served during the war were changed for life.
Despite the tragedy and brutal conflict all around them, the soldiers still managed to look after the animals around them when their help was needed.
In 1968, when no one really wanted to go to Vietnam, U.S. soldiers got a nice treat when Ann-Margret decided to make the trip and entertain the troops fighting the war. Seeing her so close must have lifted lots of spirits in those camps.
After making the trip to Vietnam, Ann-Margret ended up going back on two occasions. She’d developed a close bond with the soldiers, a lot of whom were big fans, and at one point she listened to veterans tell her how much seeing her meant to them.
Message on a Helmet
Whoever’s seen a helmet used by soldiers during the war in Vietnam will know that they’re cultural symbols as much as they are protective gear. The helmets from that period were covered in personal art, and a lot of the art was comprised of hand-written slogans and recognizable visuals.
As a result of these modifications, every helmet is unique compared to others, and while some feature messages that promote the war, others feature anti-war texts and slogans. The helmets became an avenue for people to express their political views.
A marine and a child
Despite the brutal conflict all around them, and in the face of real danger, American soldiers put some effort into making the locals realize they were in safe hands with them. Even though scores of them never quite became comfortable with having foreign soldiers around, several Vietnamese villagers began to enjoy the presence of U.S. forces.
Most American soldiers had to pass through Da Nang, which is where most members of the U.S. military entered from. A journey through Da Nang on foot was part of the trip, and this picture of the soldier and a local child must have been taken at one point during the trip.
Soldiers returning home after the war
Returning home in one piece after the brutal conflict in Vietnam meant so much to many young men enlisted to fight in the war. Being on a plane home, and away from the Vietnamese jungles, must have evoked feelings of elation and joy in the soldiers, who all look quite happy to be leaving the war behind.
At that point, it was apparent that the hustle and bustle of an American city and some decent home-cooked meals were all these young men had in mind.
John Wayne and a soldier’s helmet
John Wayne is one celebrity that has earned the respect of tough men, soldiers, and cowboys thanks to his own charisma, and the fact that he’s portrayed these classes of men with skill in the past.
During the time he spent researching The Green Beret in 1968, Wayne visited American troops in 1966 so he could speak directly to the soldiers on the ground. It turns out that Wayne became deeply affected by the trip, and he began to correspond with the men he met.
The incredibly young soldier
The soldier in this photo looks quite young but no one would imagine he was only 15 years old when this photo was taken. That’s because these days, it’s nearly impossible to join the military at such a young age without being found out.
There are computer records and systems with too many details and sophistication for a teenager to slip through and enlist. Unfortunately at the time, there was basically no way to tell if someone was forging their documents.
An interaction between a soldier and a local
Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths was there when American GIs began to hand over Mars bars to locals in an unusual bid to win over their minds and hearts. The tactic was used in Vietnam, and he captured it on camera, showing the corrupting and seductive influence that consumerism had on Vietnam’s innocent citizens.
The local child in this picture clearly appreciated the gift and even proceeded to eat the chocolate while locals in the background were looking on.
Some soldiers and a big snake
For the brutal Viet Cong fighters, warfare could be played out anywhere, so the entire jungle was flushed with traps at every conceivable step. Despite the significant threat of the traps, American troops faced an even bigger threat from the gigantic snakes known to inhabit Vietnam’s many jungles.
Lots of snake detailing happened to rid bases of snakes but then there were also some ophidiophobes (fear of snakes) in the military that couldn’t stand the sight of them. In this case, the soldiers appear to have killed or at least captured the gigantic snake in the photo above.
A soldier and a sign
Pictured here is an American soldier clutching onto his empty-looking water bottle, a piece of cloth in hand, his rifle on his lap, and his bag supporting an Oakland Calif sign.
In order to get through most days, troops had to think about their hometowns, and many also counted down the days that remained until they went back home. The soldier in this picture settled on creating the illusion that he only had to take a long trip to get back home.
A 23rd infantry member and some puppies
At the time the Vietnam War was fought, dogs were used as patrol and scout animals so it wasn’t unusual to find American forces in the company of dogs. The canines had a deadly job but they truly served their purpose while also providing comfort for soldiers that badly needed it during the brutal battle.
Both village people and soldiers became close to dogs, with many holding on to their sanity while gripping their canines. This soldier looks especially smitten with his puppy in his pouch.
U.S. Corpsman and an injured child
In this Don McCullin picture, an injured child is being carried away from the conflict by a U.S. Corpsman, in a rare occurrence that shows the true nature of dignity and human kindness.
The unfortunate child had wandered between the firing lines of the U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese fighters after both his parents had been killed. The child was taken into a bunker, cleaned up and his wounds were tended to under some candlelight, proving that even Marines are gentle, caring people in the right circumstances.