Eyes and mouth taped for security, a Vietcong is held prisoner by U.S. Marines.
Caption from LIFE. Eyes and mouth taped for security, a Vietcong is held prisoner by U.S. Marines.Paul Schutzer—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Eyes and mouth taped for security, a Vietcong is held prisoner by U.S. Marines.
Graphic Warning Slide
Swarming out of Amtrak into surf, Leathernecks of the Seventh Marines storm ashore under cover of overhead fire. The beach is mined and snipper fire is coming from the tree line.
Edgy and winded after sprinting hard across the open beach under fire, assault troops hold up for a few seconds at the first patch of high ground. Then the NCOs pass the word to "Move Out!"
Screaming with terror amid the furious noises of war, a Vietnamese woman clutches her blood-drenched child who was wounded when jets strafed before landing. Before the air strikes, loudspeaker helicopters broadcast warnings, but many villagers were too panicked to follow instructions and evacuate. Distraught, this woman blundered into the thick of the battle.
US Marine holding an injured Vietnamese child.
A corpsman attached to the Marines, who took the little boy from her, cradles him in his arms and double-times across the beach under heavy Vietcong sniper fire so he can treat the baby in safety.
The mother of the wounded baby, numbed by shock, was guided like a blind person out of the battle zone. Now she sits amongst wounded villagers, clinging to her dying child. After bandaging the little boy as best he could, the medic returned him to the mother so he could rejoin his outfit. Soon afterward, the baby was airlifted to a hospital ship off-shore, where Navy doctors worked frantically but unsuccessfully to save him.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Marine leading a sweep into a fortified village pushes woman so he will have an unobstructed field of fire.
Within the village children shrink from a scout hunting the V.C. who strike from tunnels under huts.
Refugees from the fortified village rest in a cactus thicket on their way to a collection point where they will receive food and medical care. Children's heads are covered against the searing sun.
American soldiers wade through marshy area during the Vietnam War, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
A Vietcong prisoner flushed from underground position is guarded by Marine. His mouth and eyes are taped so he can neither yell for help nor spot friendly positions as he is taken back through our lines to a PW compound.
Vietnam, 1965.
Four-year-old refugee, belly swollen by malnutrition, puts away chicken and noodles from a can of C-rations.
Bone-weary troops flake out in an Amtrak after the beachhead is secured. Marines fought from dawn until dark in temperatures up to 130 degrees on just two canteens of water per man.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
Vietnam, 1965.
On his self-appointed rounds, Hospitalman 2|c Josiah Lucier doffs his helmet liner to some of the villagers.
His wash bin set up on the trail to show he's in business, the Doc lets young patient look over his instruments.
"These bright-eyed rascals could charm a lizard out of a tree," says the Doc of the children who gaily dog his footsteps. The face of the girl shows how the kids really feel toward him.
"Sin loy, sin loy" ("I'm sorry), murmurs Lucier as he dresses a girl's painfully infected arm.
Lucier pantomimes a comfortable sleeping position for a patient with an injured leg.
Lucier skylarks with one of the village elders with whom he has become fast friends.
Vietnam, 1965.
The Doc charms children like the Pied Piper. Some just sit beside him for a moment, while others skip along happily as he walks the jungle trails.
Vietnam, 1965.
The girl in bandages was burned by napalm in a U.S. bombing raid.
Caption from LIFE. Eyes and mouth taped for security, a Vietcong is held prisoner by U.S. Marines.
Paul Schutzer—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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39 Photos That Captured the Human Side of the Vietnam War

Apr 30, 2015

In March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam. By year’s end, there were 200,000 of them. When LIFE dispatched Associate Editor Michael Mok and Photographer Paul Schutzer to spend six weeks with them, the two men found the Marines mired in a world of ambiguity: They were at once dispatching lives and saving them, hailed as heroes and decried as villains.

Mok and Schutzer risked their lives to bring LIFE’s readers a 22-page photo essay on the “blunt reality” of the war—one that, Mok wrote, vividly called to mind scenes from Saipan in World War II and Inchon in the Korean War. “Only the locale is different, and this observer, now a generation older. No one used to call him ‘Pop’ or ‘Sir’ in the old days.”

The scenes the men captured, in images and words, reflect a world in which bullets and bandages were doled out in equal measure. The Marines carried out their missions, killing and capturing Viet Cong soldiers, but they also undertook a broader mission to win the hearts and minds of the people whose world they occupied. Treating the Vietnamese with dignity was as much a matter of human decency as it was a strategy to win the war: To acquire crucial intelligence from villagers, the Marines needed first to earn their trust.

The essay’s most enduring images are not those that portray scenes of battle and warfare, but those that capture the humanity of people embroiled in a situation not of their own making. There’s the Vietnamese mother carrying her wounded baby through her besieged village, and the U.S. Marine who scoops him up to get him to a medic, to no avail. There are Marines handing out dolls to children who have nothing, and children ripping them limb from limb, preferring the disembodied head of a doll to no doll at all.

The magazine chose a face to encapsulate the humanitarian side of American forces, and that face belonged to Hospitalman Second Class Josiah Lucier, 29. Nicknamed “The Doc,” Lucier’s primary job was to keep the Marines healthy. But, Mok wrote, “then there is the job he does because he wants to, which is holding sick call for all the villagers within walking distance.” Lucier treated his patients, especially the children, with a tenderness that’s palpable in photographs.

But he wasn’t Pollyannaish about the world he’d been living in for three years. Lucier carried a gun when he made house calls, never knowing where the enemy lurked. “I am a humanitarian and all that jazz,” he said, “but I am not completely out of my ever-lovin’ mind.”

For wartime readers, these images matched images of the faceless enemy with universal pictures of love and loss. They show another side to the soldier who might return home to be spit upon and scorned, a recipient of misplaced hatred.

The Marines, for their part, didn’t need to be greeted with protest signs to grapple with the gray area in which they lived each day. They had already internalized it. Said one, “Sometimes I feel like one of the bad guys … When we go into these villes and the people look at you in that sad kind of way they have, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine I’m wearing a white hat and riding a white horse.”

LIFE photographer Paul Schutzer and LIFE reporter Michael Mok on assignment in Vietnam, 1965 Paul Schutzer—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.  

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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