In 1967 LIFE photographer Co Rentmeester connected with a unit of American paratroopers as they made the first combat jumps of the Vietnam war.

The use of paratroopers was part of the incremental escalation that defined the war in Vietnam, and they were deployed in service of America’s biggest military operation to that point. But what makes this set of Rentmeester’s photos stand out is the intimacy and intensity of his paratrooper portraits, which resonate beyond their moment in history.

The operation was important enough that it made the cover of LIFE’s March 10, 1967 issue, with a photo of a silhouetted paratrooper leaping from the plane and the headline “Battle Jump: New Tactics Step Up the War.” Rentmeester’s photos capture the daring of the Second Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment as soldiers descended on Vietnam’s dried-up rice paddies during Operation Junction City. The operation was multidivisional assault on the suspected location of the enemy headquarters.

The story’s opening spread featured close-up photos of two soldiers on their way to the jump: one who had never done anything like this before and one who who knew the routine all too well. Baby-faced 19-year-old Pfc. Helmut Schmuck sat wide-eyed on the plane as he anticipated making his first combat jump ever. Then there was Sergeant First Class Leon Hostak, who had been a paratrooper during the Korean War and now was a leader of the young charges. According to LIFE’s story, when it came time to jump, Hostak “was practically throwing his troopers out of the plane.”

The story’s text, by Don Moser, described the mix of excitement and dread that preceded the jump:

Pfc. William D. Kuhl was bubbling with the excitement of it all. “My mother is going to be prouder of me than I am of myself,” he was saying. “Then he laughed and started to sing the paratroopers’ song. “Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,” he bellowed, but the rest just got quiet and curled up inside themselves.

All 800 paratroopers landed safely (including Kuhl, who snapped a photo on the way down for LIFE), despite encountering some initial sniper fire. But the mission itself was an anticlimax. The troops searched for a week before making major contact with enemy soldiers and “mostly pursued elusive shadows through the jungle,” LIFE reported. Both sides suffered casualties, and the soldiers did not find the headquarters they sought.

The last words of the story, attributed to an unnamed and frustrated planner of the mission, were “It’s a damned rough game.”

U.S. paratroopers in Vietnam, on their way to their first jump of the war, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Pfc. Helmut Schmuck, 19. a paratrooper of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, prepared for his first jump in combat, Vietnam, 1967.

Leon Hostak, a Sergeant First Class who had served as a paratrooper in 1951 during the Korean War, was back in action in Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The back of the helmet of American helicopter pilot John Rion had a sticker that depicted the ‘Peanuts’ comicstrip character Snoopy, Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In the first US combat parachute assault since the Korean War. paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade descended on South Vietnam, February 22, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

An American paratrooper of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, jumped out of a C-130 plane and into a war zone in South Vietnam, February 22, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In the first US combat parachute assault since the Korean War. paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade descend on jSouth Vietnam, February 22, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A photo taken by Pfc. Wiliam Kuhl of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade during the first paratrooper jump of the Vietnam War, February 22, 1967.

Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, on a mission in Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division set up a tarp next to a howitzer for Operation Junction City during the Vietnam war, February 1967. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter is in flight

.Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The Second Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The Second Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Paratroopers of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, wade through a stream in South Vietnam, February 22, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

US soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, 1st Division, aimed an M60 machine gun out of a foxhole during Operation Junction City in the Vietnam war, February 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

From front left: Specialist 4th class Raymond Hill, team leader Sergeant Reed Cundiff, and Specialist 4th class Manuel Moya, Vietnam, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A reconnaissance patrol In Vietnam during Operation Junction City, 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Manuel Moya (left) and Reed Cundiff of a U.S. Army Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol of the 173rd Airborne, South Vietnam, February 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Portrait of Manuel Moya of a US Army Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) of the 173rd Airborne as he sat, in camouflage, in a helicopter, Vietnam, February 1967.

Co Rentmeester/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

More Like This

history

A Young Actress Restarts Her Life in Postwar Paris

history

Eisenstadt’s Images of Change in the Pacific Northwest

history

Heartland Cool: Teenage Boys in Iowa, 1945

history

LIFE Said This Invention Would “Annihilate Time and Space”

history

“The Synanon Fix” in LIFE

history

Coca-Cola Comes to France!