WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2010 — Michael Tripp is a certified public accountant in East Providence, R.I. He’s also one of the most famous faces from the Vietnam War.
From April 1965 to March 1969, Tripp served in the Marine Corps. On March 14, 1967, his helicopter was shot down during a medical evacuation mission with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363, and he ended up spending three days with Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Division. Tripp and the other Marines found refuge in the wreckage of a church.
“While we were in the church, the UPI photographer Frank Johnston took a shot of me sitting on the altar, with the statue of Christ behind me,” Tripp said. “It became reasonably famous; it was in papers all over the place.”
The picture went out over the United Press International wire with a simple caption: “An exhausted Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa during a heavy North Vietnamese mortar attack.” It became one of the iconic images of the war.
“People would ask what we were doing in the church, and we’d always say ‘I was praying; what did you think I was doing?’ ” Tripp said.
After the photograph appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, including J. Robert Moskin’s “The U.S. Marine Corps Story,” a problem arose: a man named Rob Sutter in Atlanta was convinced the Marine in Johnston’s photo was his brother, Richard, who died at Khe Sanh later in 1967.
It wasn’t until a reporter from the Washington Post dug into the story in 1998 and profiled Sutter that the discrepancy was brought to light. After a three-part special report came out in the Post, Tripp’s photo was circulated again and ended up on a promotional spot for a show on The Learning Channel.
“I called up The Learning Channel. … The woman said, ‘Are you the man who thinks he’s the Marine in the photograph?’ ” Tripp said. “So I said, ‘No, I am the man in the photograph.’ ”
After some digging through Navy records, Tripp was able to prove his identity; but that left him with the task of talking to Sutter, who believed he had found a memorial to his lost brother.
Tripp said it was a hard visit, but the point wasn’t to take credit or diminish anyone’s memory. He said the photograph is representative of the Marine Corps in Vietnam, not of Tripp in Vietnam.
“It wasn’t me, it wasn’t anyone else; it was all of us,” he said.
Tripp found his way to the Marine Corps as an act of defiance. He was being pressured to go to college on a wrestling scholarship, he said, but he said he decided he was done being told what to do. Ironically, he went into the service.
“I was trying to find myself,” he said.
Tripp said he had a deferred enlistment, giving him a 30-day period between signing up and shipping out. In that time, he saw a special report Life magazine had done on helicopter pilots. He immediately went to the recruiter and told him he wanted to be a helicopter pilot, even if it meant a longer enlistment.
The Marine Corps is the best fraternity in the world, Tripp said, and servicemembers today shouldn’t take the camaraderie of service for granted. He expressed the hope that servicemembers deployed today will come home from the war zone so they can continue to enjoy the freedoms they’ve fought for and continue to enjoy the friendships they’ve developed in the service.
“Do your duty, be proud, and keep your head down,” he said. “When you get hit in the butt it heals. When you get hit in the head, it doesn’t.”
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)