Stars and Stripes photo reunites Marine with doctor who saved his life in Vietnam
Special to The Washington Post January 2, 2023
In 2018, Mayer Katz read Mark Bowden's book "Hué 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam." It was the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the all-out assault by North Vietnam to invade the South, and the brutal battle by U.S. Marines to take back the historic city.
At the end of the book, Katz, who had been a U.S. Army surgeon with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit near Hué, encountered an iconic photo that came to symbolize the futility and brutality of the Vietnam War in 1968. The image, which showed bleeding Marines on top of a tank serving as a makeshift ambulance during the fighting in Hué, caused many Americans to question the wisdom of continuing the conflict.
In the foreground of the photo was the body of a prostrate young private with a corpsman tending to his chest wound. The caption identified the Marine as A.B. Grantham.
The name rang a bell with Katz, now 85. The retired doctor living in Rehoboth Beach, Del., rummaged through old files and found what he was looking for: a logbook of surgeries with the 22nd Surgical Hospital in Phu Bai, a U.S. air base near Hué. There, under Feb. 17, 1968 — the same date the photo was taken — were the medical details of A.B. Grantham's operation.
The photo that rekindled a half-century-old memory eventually led the two men to an improbable reunion in September — and a new friendship.
"I got to see him for a 54-year follow-up for surgery," said Grantham, 72, who lives in Alabama. "Dr. Katz said it turned out well."
Their first encounter had been less fortuitous. It was spurred by the Tet Offensive, which began on Jan. 31, 1968, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas poured over the border in an attempt to take control of South Vietnam.
Intense fighting erupted as the U.S. Marines and Army, along with the South Vietnamese military, tried to blunt the assault. The fiercest fighting occurred in Hué, where for nearly a month the 1st Marine Division engaged in brutal house-to-house warfare.
"It would require 24 days of terrible fighting to take the city back," Bowden wrote in his book. "The Battle of Hué would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, and a turning point not just in that conflict, but in American history."
On Feb. 17, 1968, Grantham was an 18-year-old Marine serving in a machine-gun squad. Of the five men in his unit, the ammo humper was the only one left standing after shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade had wounded the other four.
Grantham took over as gunner and went to assist another squad of Marines under attack. With bullets pinging all around him, he ran into a building and set up an M60 machine gun in a window to return fire.
North Vietnamese soldiers soon zeroed in on Grantham. The young Marine ducked several bullets before an AK-47 round hit him in the chest, just missing his heart but piercing his lung and exiting his right shoulder.
"It felt like someone had taken a red-hot poker out of the fire and stuck it through my chest," Grantham recalled. The sucking wound made it hard to breathe. "I didn't think I was going to make it."
Marines nearby reacted quickly. They plugged his holes with cellophane from cigarette packs and wrapped him in bandages. Another Marine kicked down a door for use as a stretcher.
The bleeding Grantham was hauled to safety and laid on an M-48 tank. Soon, other injured men joined him on the makeshift ambulance. That's when John Olson, a photographer for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, snapped one of the most stirring images of the Vietnam War.
Olson was also a stringer for Life magazine, which ran the photo across two pages in the March 6, 1968, issue.
"I remember the tank, I remember the lens I shot it with, but I don't remember taking the photo," Olson said. "I have very little memory of that moment. It was all a blur."
On the tank ride to an aid station, every bump in the road sent a jolt of pain through Grantham's body. Finally, he reached the 22nd Surgical Hospital in Phu Bai, where Capt. Katz, then 30, went to work on him.
"I remember him cutting my chest open," Grantham said. "The nurse gave me the shot, but Dr. Katz didn't wait for it to take effect. That hurt!"
Grantham was in surgery for hours. He was given 10 units of blood while Katz removed the top part of his right lung, as well as bone fragments and two ribs shattered by the bullet. The next day, Grantham was evacuated to a hospital ship, then to Japan, before he finally arrived at a hospital in Pensacola, Fla. During his recovery, his weight plummeted from 165 pounds to 116.
"As Marines, we were in top physical condition," Grantham said. "Dr. Katz said we were hard to kill."
Grantham was not aware of the photo until his brother-in-law spotted it in Life and showed it to him as he was recovering.
Then Grantham went to college, married, had kids, divorced, remarried and had a successful business career — all while dealing with the effects of PTSD.
Soon, Grantham was attending reunions with his fellow Marines. At one gathering, he bumped into Olson, who was displaying his combat photographs, including the image of the tank with the Marines. "That's me," Grantham told the photographer, who didn't believe him at first.
"Over the years, I've heard from hundreds of people claiming to be the Marine on the tank," Olson said. "None of them checked out. I was as impatient with A.B. as I was with all of the others. But as he told me his story, the hair stood up on the back of my neck."
After checking records and documents, Olson became convinced Grantham was the one. The U.S. Marine Corps, by contrast, has identified the Marine prone on the tank as James Blaine, who died of his wounds later that day. But Olson, who through his research has identified and interviewed 10 of the 11 men on the tank, is certain it's Grantham. So is Grantham himself.
Bowden spoke with Grantham for his book and, based on Olson's research, identified the injured Marine as Grantham. Bowden's photo caption led Katz's daughter to reach out to the author, who put Katz in touch with Grantham. They made plans to meet, though the coronavirus pandemic and the death of Katz's wife delayed their reunion.
In September, Grantham and his wife finally boarded a plane to spend a few days at Katz's Delaware home.
"When I saw A.B., I ran up and hugged him," Katz said, adding, "We couldn't stop talking."
"I thanked him many, many times," Grantham recalled.
Since then, Grantham has called Katz at least once a week.
"Dr. Katz is a big football fan, so we talk about that a lot," he said. "He roots for the Baltimore Ravens. I went to the University of Alabama after the war, so I sent him a 'Roll Tide' sweatshirt and said, 'You have to wear this.' I think I've won him over."