Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, families were torn apart, and in the end, the Vietnam war was declared one of the worst wartime decisions ever made by the United States.
The widespread devastation of the war spanned from November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975, and during that time some horrifying, sad, and touching photographs were caught in the midst of the turmoil.
We must warn you ahead of time that many of these rarely seen Vietnam war photographs will leave you saddened and with chills. With that being said, they are a strong reminder that war has a massive effect on everyone — extending well beyond the battlefield.
Here are some of the most amazing photos from the Vietnam war, and the touching stories that go with them.
Masked Activists Gather
Fearing the risk of potential interrogation and capture, these masked activists hid their faces from one another to prevent anyone from seeing their faces and knowing their identities. Shown here traveling slowly in the mangrove swamps of the Mekong Delta, the activists would meet in in the Nam Can forest.
Troops Endured the Worst Conditions
Amid heat, dirt, and exhaustion, U.S. soldiers braved on. Here, Airborne troops fought bravely during the 1967 Battle of Dak To. During the battle, which took place in the Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the Kon Tum Province, soldiers endured tense fighting and difficult conditions. The battle was one of the border battles to keep troops away from city borders.
New Recruits Became a Strong Force
In 1967, prior to the mandatory drafting system adopted in 1973, new recruits wait for their physical examinations in Haiphong. The People’s Army of Vietnam grew from approximately 35,000 men in 1950 to over half a million men in the mid-1970s, causing the US to concede that it was, in fact, a strong force to be reckoned with.
Jungle Convoy Braves on
The reality of war appears here in stark contrast to the beauty of a natural landscape. Shown here, the U.S. soldiers on a jungle convoy with mounted combat units remain alert in spite of the exhausting and difficult conditions. Part of Operations Cedar Falls, troops moved between the jungle and rubber plantation areas.
A Heartbreaking Scene
This photo depicts soldiers losing a comrade in a demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam, Sept. 18, 1966. The acute pain and grief they feel is captured eloquently in this photo and is a testament to their incredible service.
Witness important political negotiations in the next image.
Behind the scenes, politicians negotiate. Seen in this photo are Robert S. McNamara, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky (South Vietnam), President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu. The political negotiations in this photograph were made on Feb. 8, 1966.
Go on to the next picture for an image of a guerilla soldier you won’t believe.
Young Female Viet Cong Guerilla Stands Guard
The sight of an armed young woman wasn’t unusual in the Viet Cong. The 24-year old woman shown here had been widowed twice by husbands, both soldiers, and she wasn’t alone. Other Viet Cong women were frequently seen on guard and bearing arms.
Read on for a glimpse of soldiers taking a rare breather from the stress of war.
Soldiers Take a Rare Breather
In this unique photo, a group of US soldiers who are assigned to reactivate a base take a rare breather in South Vietnam. In the background, the photo shows helicopters coming in to land. The soldiers’ expressions are wary, yet steadfast, representing all the emotional and physical tolls of the Vietnam War.
A Radio-Ready Group
This photo clearly depicts an alert and radio group from the North Vietnamese Army settled in the trenches. This photo was taken during the offensive on the city of Quang Tri in 1970 and truly show the seriousness of every aspect of the war.
Look on for a picture of the strength of dedicated soldiers during the war.
Running on Empty
Taken in 1972, this photo shows soldiers and militia members using every ounce of strength to allow the North Vietnam’s Russian T-54 tanks to head towards the battlefront. The appearance of the soldiers, working feverishly during what is obviously a terrible rainstorm, is a telling sign of dedication.
Keep reading for a look at a truly surreal image.
Mass Disappearance of Vietnamese Soldiers
This photo, taken at the fall of Saigon in 1975, offers a surreal depiction of the scene. South Vietnamese soldiers, fleeing the area, sacrificed their uniforms and left them behind on the outskirt of Saigon in the hopes that they could avoid revealing their military status to the battle’s victors.
Destruction of the Environment
Taken in 1979, this photo shows a guerrilla in the Mekong Delta, viewing the devastation caused to a mangrove forest by Agent Orange. The bleak landscape not only illustrates the destruction of the fishing and agriculture industry of the area but serves as a symbol for the overall destruction caused by the war.
A Sad Path
A young-looking soldier treads a sad path with dozens of his deceased fellow soldiers leaving a disturbing trail in the background in this photo, taken in 1965. Rather than enjoying a childlike innocence, many young people instead gained a lifetime of painful memories from their experiences in the Vietnam War.
The Reality of Death
The gruesome reality of death is altogether too apparent in this picture taken in 1964. This sad image depicts the ARVN clearing up dead bodies in the wake of an aftermath of an ambush at Vi Thanh.
See another sobering image of the war in the next photo.
Death and Destruction
Taken during the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968, this photo shows more death and destruction. The men, likely desensitized to the violence, stand amid the filth. Weapons propped near the men are never far out of reach.
See how women began taking on men’s roles out of necessity in the next photo.
Women Taking on Hard Work
In this photo taken in 1974, women are working hard at hauling heaving fishing nets. This job, traditionally done only by men, was being taken over by women, showing how much the Vietnam War was affecting everyday life. The picture was taken on the upper branch of the Mekong River.
A View of a US Convoy
The elevated perspective of this photo offers a unique look and shows a strong-looking convoy prepared for anything. The efficient method of using convoys was commonly used in Vietnam, although there were always risks to the troops. Strict safety precautions were always taken.
Don’t miss the next photo for a poignant look at a US Navy plane.
A Reminder of Tremendous Loss
In this photo, taken in 1972, militia members are seen sorting through the wreckage and debris of a downed US Navy plane. The photo is likely of the A-7C Corsair II flown by Lt. Stephen Owen Musselman. He was supporting a B-52 bombing mission south of Hanoi when he was hit.
Incredibly Crowded Conditions for Refugees
Refugees are seen here in incredibly crowded conditions in this photo taken aboard the US military ship the Pioneer Contender. The crowded, uncomfortable conditions are just one more echo of tumultuous conditions caused by the Vietnam War and its aftermath. This image was taken April 23, 1975, after the fall of Saigon.
Up Close and Personal
The individual faces of these refugees illustrate the broad mix of emotions that people felt at this period of history. Fear, relief, apprehension, disbelief, and confusion may have all crossed their minds in this incredibly difficult juncture.
See the next image for a dangerous enemy you may never have thought about.
A Dangerous Enemy
Although we have much more advanced weaponry today, there were still incredibly dangerous defense mechanisms were used during the Vietnam War. Seen here, guerillas guard an outpost at a Vietnam-Cambodia border heavily guarded by more than soldiers. Sharpened and poisoned bamboo punji stakes were designed as booby traps to injure troops, instigating medevacs that would reveal their locations.
Stay tuned for a rare view of active combat in the next picture.
Helicopters and Harsh Conditions
The impressive view of the military helicopter in this image pays tribute to the fact that the Vietnam War was the first conflict that really saw wide scale tactical deployment of helicopters. The soldiers depicted in this picture, taken in the 1960s, stay on alert because of the seriously harsh conditions of the Vietnam environment.
A Rare View of Combat
This photo shows an extremely rare view of combat. On one side are the Viet Cong, on the other, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN). The camouflaging tactics are well-suited for the area’s terrain. The haze in the photo does little to mask violence of the battle.
Even These Antiquated Weapons Do Serious Damage
Looking at the weaponry in this image, it’s easy to see how far warfare has advanced. These rifles, however, utilized by militia group, Company #6 of the Yen My Commune, were still able to hit many of their US aircraft targets. These men practice firing ahead of the aircraft, in this photo taken in Thanh Tri.
A Touching Bond
US soldiers move together to help their wounded comrade. Despite the havoc that the Vietnam War has wreaked on their lives, through danger, harsh weather conditions, and the violent reality of war, bonds were formed.
Wait until you see the next photo which depicts the only route across the Ma River.
Discussing Practical Matters
In this photograph, taken in 1973, construction workers discuss the repairs needed for the bombed-out Ham Rong Bridge. Located in Central North Vietnam, the bridge provided the single route across the Ma River for heavy trucks and machinery. Since the bridge area was heavily defended, several US planes were hit and shot down nearby.
Navigating Difficult Terrain
Taken in 1966, this picture captures soldiers moving along difficult terrain on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Truong Son Mountain. Known as the spine of Vietnam, this 750-mile rests along the western border. The light filtering above the soldiers presents a stark contrast to the difficulties they faced.
Innocence Against the Backdrop of War
The faces of the young children in this image starkly contrast with the face of the Vietnam War. Here Laotian guerrillas haul supplies by elephant in 1971. The supplies were intended for NVA troops near Route 9 in southern Laos after the failure of Operation Lam Son 71 which left South Vietnamese troops fleeing.
A marine from the first battalion, determined but alert and treading carefully, moves an alleged Viet Cong activist along after a search and clear mission. Search and clear missions were often used during the Vietnam War and were designed for troops to insert themselves into hostile territory, search out the enemy, remove them, and retain the territory.
Disturbing Conditions for Medical Care
A Cambodian guerilla is carried to a makeshift medical tent and operating room in this photo. Located in a mangrove swamp in the Ca Mau Peninsula, this photo illustrates the type of frightening sanitary conditions during the Vietnam War. Look at the next photo for amazing coverage of Operation Lam Son 719.
A Mad Dash For Strategic Ground
In a mad rush, NVA soldiers run across an open-ground strategic area. This high-action shot of the South’s failed attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail illustrates the kind of incredible pressure and violence those who were involved in the war continuously faced. The explosions in the background reflect the same ominous tone.
Battling in Air and on Foot
In a unique shot taken 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, which is located northwest of Saigon, US soldiers brave on and helicopters hover near the Cambodian borders to surprise a Viet Cong camp in 1965. The area of Tay Ninh became the sight of heavy fighting, and heavy casualties.
Running from Rockets
The reality of war is a constant threat of danger, and this photo vividly illustrates that reality. A South Vietnamese crew abandons their tank in this image after being hit by rockets. They are located in Svay Rieng in eastern Cambodia as the B40 rockets and automatic weapons target them.
Frightening Hidden Weapons
Although they weren’t up to the sophisticated caliber of today’s weapons, the weapons used during the Vietnam War were still capable of a frightening level of destruction. This image shows a Claymore anti-personnel mine, which can be detonated on command and emit metal balls much like a shotgun. Norman MacLeod was the inventor of this weapon.
A Blazing Cargo Plane
In a very unfortunate hit by communist mortars, an American C-123 cargo plane sadly burns in a tremendous blaze at the Marine post at Khe Sanh. The event took place in South Vietnam on March 1, 1968, and as the photo reveals, it left much destruction in its wake.
A Rare Smile
A vast majority of the images revolving around the Vietnam War involve somber expressions, death, destruction, and images of troops in the throes of battle. In a quiet moment, however, in this photo taken on September 20, 1970, the camera reveals a rare smile by this Cambodian soldier in Vietnam.
In an undesignated area of Vietnam, soldiers aboard the USS Blue Ridge push a South Vietnamese helicopter overboard. The helicopter was reportedly discarded either because it was damaged or in order to make room for other aircraft which might be attempting to land. The unusual event highlights another example of soldiers working together.
Go the next image to see a truly remarkable depiction of human spirit.
Humanity’s Resilient Spirit
In a unique and touching moment, this photo captures the joy and relief of two elders from the north and south embracing in 1975, having lived through an incredibly turbulent and divided time. The tremendous post-war effect is sobering, but the tremendous resilience of the human spirit is shown in this special picture.