Fifty years after David Allen Russell’s death during the Vietnam War, more than 100 of his family members and friends in St. Mary’s recently gathered at his gravesite at a church cemetery in Compton, along with a visitor from Pittsburgh.
“This is one thing I could not afford not to be a part of,” Richard Henke said before the start of the March 17 gathering, recalling the role he and Russell had in creating an official record, in real time, of what they witnessed during their wartime service. “We specialized in making movies. We just called [ourselves] news shooters.”
David Russell was killed in action at Nui Co To in South Vietnam on March 17, 1969, when he was 21 years old, according to a younger brother, Donald Russell, whose dedication to his brother’s memory has continued throughout the ensuing half-century, commemorating the selfless sacrifice that followed David’s younger years as a promising baseball player and teammate, with the old Leonardtown High School baseball team and the St. Clement Shores Yankees.
“David didn’t dodge the draft. He welcomed it,” Donald Russell said during a reception that day last March, held at the Leonardtown Volunteer Rescue Squad building after the service outside St. Francis Xavier Church, and a ceremony at the war memorials in the town square.
As a timeline of photographs of his brother were projected for the audience to view, Donald Russell said, “In six months’ time, you’ll see how he aged, and matured. Mom was very blessed to get a lot of photos of David.”
Henke has described the five teams working under U.S. Military Assistance Commands Vietnam, two with the Army and one each with the Navy, Air Force and Marines, as being headquartered at Tan Son Nhut Air Base and each including five men working directly for MACV and the Department of Defense. “The main job was filming Vietnamization in action,” Henke wrote, in reference to an effort to shift conduct of the war to the people living there, and the “purpose of the film was for network TV release, for the American people.”
Henke said before the ceremony at the cemetery, “When David and I were in the service, everything was [recorded on] film, 16 mm film.”
Donald Russell said during the presentation in Leonardtown that “they did hang out of the side of the helicopters, trying to find the snipers in the jungle. They were the real combat photographers. They went into the battleground.”
Before the trio of events in March, he noted that the dedication for his brother that day was to bring together veterans of all wars, family and friends of the young man to celebrate his short life that he gave for his country. Citing the National Archives listing of 58,220 total U.S. casualties in the war, including more than 40,000 who were killed in action, Donald Russell described his brother’s last assignment as one where he “was hand picked for his final mission as a combat photographer, to help locate a Viet Cong sniper who had killed several American and allied troops while trying to overtake the Viet Cong on Nui Co To.”
During the December before the mission that cost him his life, David Russell wrote home that, “I’ll be out of the field the rest of the month, shooting Christmas celebrations [and] the shows over here. It’s not really too bad here. It’s not much going on right now. “
In that letter, David Russell wished his brother a merry Christmas and thanked his brother for a birthday card, one that arrived before the soldier’s birthday on Dec. 16, two days before Donald Russell’s own birthday. They had shared birthday celebrations as youngsters, a concession that reflected the demands on a family with nine children, including a daughter also with a birthday just before Christmas.
A month later, in mid-January, David Russell wrote, “I have a good chance of going to Saigon for permanent duty at the end of this month. I’ll be working on a motion picture team that shoots civil actions. I’ll be getting extra benefits, [and] live in a hotel. The people here selected me to go, but the way they change things, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
A letter written to his parents after his death stated that when he found the sniper and was warning a sergeant, he was spotted by the sniper, according to his brother. David Russell died almost instantly and did not suffer, and the sniper who was entrenched in rocks near the top of the mountain was killed.
“That same [location] where David got killed, I was down in that area myself,” Henke said during his visit in March to St. Mary’s.
The Russell family learned after their soldier’s death that he already had been recognized for his bravery beforehand, and ultimately was awarded the Bronze Star with valor, for rescuing Vietnamese women and children who were were trapped behind enemy lines, until he led them to safety.
“They were right in the middle of the [gun]fire,” Donald Russell said during the presentation at the rescue squad. “We didn’t know about this until after David had passed away.”
A relay center was named in his brother’s honor in Vietnam, Donald Russell said during the program, his voice faltering as he read letters from majors and generals who later were received by the family.
A few years ago, according to Donald Russell, he met his brother’s officer-in-charge from that rescue, who said that “the rest of us were hunkered down because we were getting … shot” at, but that David Russell was not hunkered down, and was instead just outside a barbed wire fence photographing the enemy when he spotted the Vietnamese civilians.
Following his first encounter with Henke and other people serving with David Russell, four years ago at a 221st Signal Corps reunion, Donald Russell noted that “David was referred to as a ‘risk taker,’ … a hard charger [who] was always trying to get that film that would make a difference.”
Other combat photographers may have focused on the morale of the troops and stayed behind the safety of enemy lines, but Donald Russell has noted that his brother, going beyond that, once explained, “If you could see these poor, pitiful people, you would know why we are here.”