COLUMBUS, Ga. — Ruediger Richter barely recognizes himself in the yellowed military photograph hanging in his den — one of the best-known images of the Vietnam War.
A sinewy GI stands in the middle of the frame, staring into the distance; behind him, another soldier looks down at the body of a comrade, wrapped in a poncho. The photo, enshrined in the National Archives, came to be known as “The Agony of War.”
Richter is the man at the center, though he does not look the same. Partly, it’s because of age — he was 25 years old when the photo was taken, and he is now 73, with two grandchildren. Partly, it’s because of war’s ravages — months after the photo was taken, he was shot in the head, and he spent years coping with anger, alcohol, addiction to pain medications, post-traumatic stress.
But Richter himself will tell you that he does not resemble the man in the picture because he is no longer the man in the picture.
“I was a killer then,” Richter said on his front porch, the wife who helped save his life by his side, birds chirping in trees rustled by the breeze. “I have made my peace here.”
On Aug. 14, 1966, Richter’s job was clearing a landing zone in South Vietnam so helicopters could evacuate the wounded and dead after a mortar attack hit his unit.
Watching the scene unfold from a safe spot, Army paratrooper and photographer Paul Epley ignored an order to stay down to make the photo, which was used in newspapers and magazines worldwide after it was transmitted by The Associated Press.
“Climbing up the rocks, I saw the image coming together. I chased the light and caught it at the decisive moment,” said Epley, now retired and living in the woods of southern Virginia after a career as a commercial photographer and, later, a veterans’ service officer.
In the photo, Richter looks skyward with his mouth open and his arms raised slightly. Sgt. Daniel E. Spencer Jr. of Bend, Oregon, looks down mournfully at the body of PFC Daryl Raymond Corfman of Sycamore, Ohio; Spencer also was killed in action, in 1968. The scene is shrouded in smoke.
People have attached a range of emotions and attributes to the photo through the decades: Richter was praying, he was questioning God, perhaps calling upon angels.
Richter dismisses those interpretations with a profanity. “I was looking at a helicopter,” he said.
“That picture is genius because you see the smoke behind me,” he added. “It was a red smoke grenade I threw.”
The story of how he came to be in that place at that time is an extraordinary one.
Born in Berlin in February 1941, when Hitler’s Nazi troops already had been marauding across Europe for years, Richter’s earliest memories are of bodies outside bombed-out bunkers and bright flares dropped by Allied bombers.
“We called them Christmas trees. They were beautiful,” he said. “You could hear the sirens going off all over Berlin.”
Richter said when the war ended in 1945 and the Allies sliced the city into sectors, he was fortunate enough to live in the American district, where GIs were a soft touch for a young German boy begging for food. With few options in Berlin, Richter said, he joined the German merchant marine at age 14. That three-year stint ended when his ship docked in Calais, France, where he and other sailors were arrested after a bar fight.
“They put us in a dungeon with water dropping down, just like in a movie. There was just a little window with bars,” he said.
After three days in lockup, a judge gave the penniless Richter a choice: Stay in prison or join the French Foreign Legion, which was battling rebels in French-controlled North Africa. He was too young to join legally at age 17, Richter said, so he was given a new name — Horst Timm — and allowed to enlist.
Richter does not know how many men he killed with the Legion, or how many night-long marches he made through Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. But after five years, he left the Legion and regained his true name. An aunt and uncle living in Columbus suggested he come to America to restart his life, so he did in 1964. (Link to page two below).