The above photograph of James E. Callahan is one of the most famous photos taken during the Vietnam War. Photographer Henri Huet captured a young medic trying to save the lives of his buddies in the midst of machine gun fire on June 17, 1967. It is not just that which makes this a remarkable image, it is the look on Callahan’s face that tells the entire heart wrenching story. A story of desperation and helplessness of sadness and loss. Arguably, the quintessential story of Vietnam.
In this photo, Callahan is giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying solider. Time wise, I think this photograph was taken directly before the famous one above.
During the three-hour battle in war zone D, about 50 miles northeast of Saigon, Huet again captured Callahan while the medic treats a different infantryman’s injuries. During the guerrilla ambush on the 1st Infantry Division on June 17, 1967, thirty-one men were killed and more than 100 wounded.
If, after seeing these photos, you wonder to yourself about the fate of Medic James E. Callahan. Did he make it out of Vietnam or did he succumb to the war?
After a quick Google search, I found more information on Callahan. Born in 1947, he was about 20 years old when Huet immortalized him on film. James did indeed survive the war. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1965-69 and served as a combat medic during the Vietnam War. After the war, he was a life member and president of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Chapter 65, VFW.
In March of 2008, James returned to Vietnam. Martha Green, member of Chapter 65 and an Army Nurse in Vietnam from 1968-1969, was friends with James. She even took a picture (as seen above) of James in front of Huet’s photograph of him at a museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Of the trip back to Vietnam, Martha described the impact it had on James in an email to me:
Jim’s trip back to Vietnam was one of healing, and it served its purpose. There was the feeling that a tremendous burden was lifted from his shoulders after his return to Lai Kei to revisit the location of the battle where those iconic pictures were taken. His family noticed a sense of peace that came over him that he hadn’t had for so many years. I was very happy that I was part of that healing process.
Sadly though, James passed away on July 29, 2008 after a motorcycle accident. After his death, the Pittsfield chapter was renamed the James E. Callahan Chapter 65 in his honor.
*A special thanks to everyone who reached out either in the comment section or by email with your stories and additional information about James Callahan.