In this 1966 file photo, U.S. Army soldier Ruediger Richter puffs on a cigarette in a South Vietnamese jungle during his service in the Vietnam War. The picture of the Berlin native was taken within days of Richter’s image being captured in a photo that came to be known as “The Agony of War.” [Image below]. Richter was severely wounded by a gunshot through the head the following year and then struggled with anger, addictions and post-traumatic stress syndrome for decades. Now a 73-year-old grandfather, Richter lives with his wife in peace in the rural Southern United States near Columbus, Georgia. (AP Photo/Henri Huet, File)
Richter served as a German merchant marine in the late 1940s and was arrested with fellow sailors during a bar brawl. After three days in jail, he was given a choice by the judge: remain in prison or join the French Foreign Legion. He chose the latter and served five years with the Legion fighting in northern Africa. He then moved to the United States to live with an aunt and uncle, and joined the US Army in 1965.
On Aug. 14, 1966, Richter’s job was clearing a landing zone in South Vietnam so helicopters could evacuate the wounded and dead after mortars hit his unit.
Watching from a safe spot, Army paratrooper and photographer Paul Epley ignored an order to stay down and made the photo, which was transmitted by The Associated Press and used in publications worldwide.
“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, Ore., looks down 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 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.”
Read more here: The Agony of War