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September 10, 2020

The Story Behind the Iconic Photo of a Soldier Wearing a Hand Lettered “War is Hell” Slogan on His Helmet in Vietnam War

German photographer Horst Fass began his career at the age of 21. He was a photojournalist during the Vietnam War and took a handful of iconic photos of the time period. One of the most famous pictures is War is Hell. On June 18, 1965, Fass wrote in his notes: “the unidentified Army solider picture was shot June 18, 1965, and the soldier was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam.” For a while, this was the only information known about this photo. The soldier’s identity was a complete mystery.

AP photojournalist Horst Faas took this iconic photo on June 18, 1965, during the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam.

Fass’s picture grabbed the attention of many because of one main element: contrast. The soldier’s bright eyes contrast heavily with the darkness of the rest of the photo. He’s young and smiling innocently, despite his position as a soldier fighting in a very complex, mature war. “Take the helmet out, and this could easily be a high school yearbook photo.” Most importantly, his eyes lead the viewer to the words written on his helmet: War is Hell.

Years later, Fran Chaffin Morrison revealed that the soldier in the photograph was her late husband, Larry Wayne Chaffin. The two met while Chaffin was stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia; they married when Chaffin was 17 and Fran was 16. Chaffin served for a year in the 173rd brigade, beginning in May 1965. When the photo was taken, Chaffin was only 19 years old. He was discharged from the army, and his wife gratefully met him at the airport upon his return home. Tucked under his arm was a copy of the Stars and Stripes publication that featured the photograph of the unidentified soldier. He showed it to his wife and jokingly told her, “That picture is going to make me rich some time.” His portrait was printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch special about soldiers returning home, along with his name in the caption. There was no doubt the photo was of Chaffin.

A family photo shows Fran Morrison and Larry Wayne Chaffin reunited shortly after Chaffin returned from serving in the war.

Unfortunately, Chaffin had trouble readjusting to life back in the States. He developed diabetes, possibly as the result of the use of Agent Orange, and died of health complications at the age of 39. His family carries on his story, however. All three of his children know the story by heart. Chaffin’s daughter Belinda was working as a magazine distributer when she noticed the photograph in the November 2010 Time publication that she was delivering. Best of all, Belinda’s son Marcus strikingly resembles his grandfather and has been photographed next to the famous portrait.

(Photo by Horst Faas. This original article was written by Hannah Ross, and published on Sites at Penn State)

1 comment:

  1. I recently delved into an article on the AGM website It provides a fascinating look at the equipment and clothing worn by soldiers of the era. The detailed descriptions and historical context really enhanced my understanding and understanding of the military history of World War II.




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