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Soldiers in famous Vietnam photo interviewed for first time

By 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson • Updated Aug 20, 2017 at 10:00 AM

In April 1968, Associated Press photographer Art Greenspon took a photograph widely considered to be one of the most telling photos of the Vietnam War now titled “Help From Above.” 

Embedded with the soldiers of Co. A, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Greenspon caught the moment after an ambush where soldiers from the company moved casualties to a landing zone to be evacuated. Among other honors, the image inspired the poster for the Vietnam War movie ‘Platoon’ and graces the covers books and front pages of newspapers. For 49 years, few have known the stories of the soldiers whom Greenspon photographed that day, or their fates.

“Early that morning, Co. A moved forward on a search and destroy operation,” said retired Col. Tom Sewell, who was a first lieutenant and platoon leader in Co. A at the time. “As we were moving forward, the platoon behind us made contact with the enemy; we held our position in order to care for the wounded soldiers from the other platoon. In the process, we set up an LZ and began withdrawing the injured.”

The subject of the photograph, Sgt. Maj. Watson Baldwin, who was a staff sergeant at the time and Sewell’s platoon sergeant, stands with his arms outstretched in the air to signal the incoming aircraft. On the ground lays Spc. 4 Dallas Brown, writhing in pain. In the far right, a helmetless soldier, Sgt. Tim Wintenburg, glances back toward the camera as he carries a wounded comrade. Their company commander at the time, Cpt. Jay Cope, was also identified as the figure standing looking up with maps on his fatigues. Baldwin died in 2005, but in interviews conducted recently, Wintenburg, Brown and Sewell spoke about their experiences before, during and after the war. It was the first time all three of the men were interviewed.

“I graduated from high school in 1964 and went to work with my father,” said Sewell. “During the Christmas holidays, 1965, I received a letter from Uncle Sam stating ‘you have been selected to serve your country’ and entered the Army in January 1966. As I was in processing for basic training, I attended a briefing for officer candidate school [and] decided to apply during basic training. I arrived in Vietnam late January 1968, the beginning of the Tet Offensive.”

Brown, a Mt. Juliet native, was inspired by the famous ballad of the Green Beret to enlist. He decided he wanted to be a paratrooper.

“About six of us from my high school decided we were going to go into the Army,” said Brown. “Two of us got to go airborne. I attended Fort Benning for basic training, Fort Gordon for airborne training. After a short time at Fort Bragg, I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. At the end of expert infantrymen badge testing there, they called us together and told us they had a list of guys who would be going to get their combat infantryman badge in an undisclosed location in southeast Asia. I was the first name on the list.”

Wintenburg was a Los Angeles native who joined the Army partly to stay out of trouble. An athlete, the physical aspects of the military drew him.

“My brother convinced me to go down to the recruiter’s office,” said Wintenburg. “A lot of the jobs didn’t interest me, but I saw a picture of a paratrooper behind the recruiter’s desk, and he noticed I was big into football and weight training back then, and he said I’d make good airborne material.

“My first duty station was Fort Bragg before Fort Campbell. It was a real eye opener because there was a bunch of us what were called ‘cherries’ – those who had not been to combat. I went to the first sergeant and told him I wanted to go to Vietnam. He chuckled and told me we were all going anyway, so don’t worry about it.”

All three soldiers ended up assigned to Co. A, 2-327, a battalion in the 1st Brigade [Separate] of the 101st Airborne Division. The 1st Brigade, which consisted of 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment and 2-327, had arrived in Vietnam in 1965 before all the other elements of the division, who arrived in 1967. 

In April 1968, 1st Brigade was in the A Shau Valley near the border of Laos, blocking enemy activity from entering South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The war was at its height with the constant contact between U.S., North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces. Called the “valley of death” by troops fighting there, the fighting was some of toughest of the war at the time.

Greenspon embedded with the unit in late April. On the day “Help From Above” was taken, Co. A was tasked to assist Co. C of the 2-327. As they moved out to reinforce their fellow Screaming Eagles, they made contact with the enemy.

“There was a major trail, and we had to set up a perimeter for security as the company moved through,” said Brown. “I was sitting on my rucksack eating while we waited and I noticed a tree moving. I readied my M16, and NVA regulars began to emerge.”

A firefight soon ensued between Co. A and the NVA, and multiple soldiers were hit. Brown himself narrowly escaped being shot in the battle, but suffered an injury to his back, which caused him to be grimacing in pain when “Help From Above” was taken.

“As I was reloading,” said Brown. “One of them started to shoot at me. I could see clouds of dirt jumping as the bullets hit, and I barely dove out of the way. I got up and started moving up the hill toward the command post.”

As the battle raged, the men of Co. A moved to a hasty LZ they set up in the jungle after the soldiers hacked the foliage down so that a basket could be dropped from the air for the casualties. It was during that time Greenspon snapped “Help From Above.”

“I was in the point platoon, and in the ambush, a couple of guys behind me got wounded,” said Wintenburg. “That’s who we were carrying when the photo was taken, and I had lost my helmet on the way to the landing zone due to all the action going on. I remember Art Greenspon was on one knee crouching, and I had a strange feeling that something was behind us looking. As I turned to glance back, he took the photo.”

Sgt. Maj. Baldwin was signaling to the aircraft where to drop a basket for the wounded the moment the photo was taken. His striking pose, along with those of the soldiers around him, was soon internationally famous.

“Watson Baldwin was the finest platoon sergeant I had when I was in the Army,” said Wintenburg. “He was a lead-by-example type of guy, always up front leading the way and making sure we were doing the right thing. Baldwin was also very compassionate. He did two tours in Vietnam and retired as a sergeant major. After the war he went into trucking before he passed away.”

The image was soon on the front page of papers worldwide – an unfiltered image of the conflict. The soldiers in A Co. didn’t know about it until a while after it made the news. 

“Several weeks later I received a letter from my parents in Maryland with a newspaper article and picture enclosed with the caption A Co., 101st Airborne Division,” said Sewell. “My mother wrote, ‘this is why we worry about you.’ My written response to her was ‘don’t you even recognize your son?’” 

He acquired more copies of the photo and passed it out to soldiers in his platoon where most of them stashed it away for their return to the United States. The conflict continued, but by 1969, Sewell, Brown and Wintenburg had completed their tours and returned home.

Sewell would return to Vietnam once more in 1971 as part of the 101st Airborne Division, serving until the division’s role in the conflict ended a year. The officer would continue to serve for 24 more years after the conflict, retiring in 1996 at the rank of colonel. The retired soldier is now head of the Screaming Eagle foundation, which assists soldiers and their families from the 101st Airborne Division.

“Considering that I came from a very small town in Maryland, I feel my career was very successful and I am proud to have served our country,” said Sewell. “The most memorable moments in my Army career came from leading and serving with the greatest division in the world – the Screaming Eagles. The Army gave me the opportunity to explore and serve with the greatest soldiers in the world, and that’s why I wanted to continue serving and helping them after I retired.”

Brown and Wintenburg processed out of the Army soon after their return and joined the civilian workforce. Both men have enjoyed successful careers and are now retired. 

Each of the former soldiers is proud of their service and continues to be active with the 101st and the veterans’ community. In 2014, the three soldiers and other veterans of the unit visited Fort Campbell and spoke to current members of the 327th. 

“Being in the Army helped give me an excellent work ethic,” said Wintenburg. “I’m extremely proud of soldiers today and how professional they are. I remember seeing footage on the Military Channel of soldiers re-enlisting in Iraq and Afghanistan; that’s real patriotism. It brought a tear to my eye when I saw that. When we spoke to the soldiers at Fort Campbell, they basically rolled out the red carpet for us and told us how honored they were to continue the tradition.

“What people didn’t understand back then but understand more now is that we were soldiers doing our jobs. A lot of things back in the ‘world’ as we called it didn’t matter out there. What mattered was that it was life and death, and what mattered was keeping each other alive. The loyalty we had to each other was profound.”

When asked about the photo and why it became internationally famous, each soldier cites the fact of how it showed the day-to-day lives of soldiers in conflict. Brown, who has the photo hanging in his Mt. Juliet home, along with the Screaming Eagle flag, explained why it was so memorable in his eyes.

“The photo signifies what warfare is all about,” said Brown. “A soldier’s life in the field is rough. It’s either kill or be killed. The photo speaks of the volume of the 101st Airborne Division’s and U.S. Army’s commitment to anywhere in the world to defend our liberties and those of others.

“The 101st will always be the only unit in my mind. When boots are needed to be put on the ground, the 101 is always called. I love the division and am extremely proud of my service during the war.”

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