Memorial Day Remembrances

May 23, 2012 at 3:47 pm (Uncategorized)

 

Each year at this time as we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, my many vivid recollections of Vietnam resurface once again.  With them comes the understanding that perhaps we as a nation are losing sight of the true significance of this solemn holiday.  First conceived as “Decoration Day” in 1868 to honor our Civil War dead, Memorial Day has more recently come to be recognized as the unofficial beginning of the summer barbecue season.  My own memories, however, tend to leave me somewhat subdued rather than celebratory on the last Monday in May, at least until the parade is over and the first hamburger begins to sizzle on the grill.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in my family.  I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  My father-in-law flew fifty missions as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe and North Africa.  One of my uncles fought at the “Battle of the Bulge”, and another in Korea.  In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.  And we weren’t always good soldiers, either.  During World War I, one of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain by the Navy for desertion.  But the unspoken rule was that we had to show up.  So when the growing conflict in Southeast Asia drew me in during the mid-sixties, I grudgingly shouldered my share of the burden in keeping with the family custom.

I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in the spring of 1964 as an apprehensive twenty-year-old Army private.  There were just 16,000 Americans in-country at the time, and I was not particularly enthusiastic about being one of them.  That May, a one year tour of duty seemed like an eternity, with the end a lifetime away.

The Army immediately assigned me to an advisory team located in the I Corps tactical area, which comprised the provinces lying directly below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam.  I was based in the peaceful and beautiful city of Hue, but spent relatively little time there.  My primary duty was to serve as a radio operator at the remote outposts along the Laotian border manned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  Most of them had little-known and exotic names. But vicious fighting in the coming years would soon make Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and the A Shau Valley practically household words.

I was fortunate to have missed most of the heaviest fighting.  Much of my combat experience consisted of brief sniping engagements or small unit actions.  However, I was part of the relief force sent to secure the shattered Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, where Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.  I helped build sandbag emplacements after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American destroyers at sea, precipitating the now-controversial Tonkin Gulf incident that led to a widened war.  I saw the first Allied aircraft fly low overhead on their way to bomb North Vietnam.  And I watched the initial U.S. Marine combat units come ashore, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them in the bloody days ahead.

Many have questioned the value of what we did in Vietnam.  For me, there was never any doubt.  I saw the relief etched on the faces of simple people who appreciated the security our presence provided.  I delighted in the laughing children who followed the Americans everywhere, begging for money, food, and cigarettes.  I watched groups of primitive montagnards wait patiently in remote villages to be examined by teams of Green Beret medics.  For most of them this was the first and only medical treatment they would ever receive.

I have always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it was not fashionable to do so.  Unfortunately, that pride was all too often met with indifference.  I never experienced the outright hostility reserved for those who followed me, but, like them, I seldom spoke much about the war or my views on it.  Today, my intense disdain for anti-war protesters is long gone, with one or two notable exceptions.  And I am mightily pleased to see how well our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are treated. The attitude toward Vietnam vets is now so different, too. Not a day passes when I go out wearing my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to say, “Thanks for your service,” or “Welcome home”. Those moments to me are golden, and they never grow old.

I still cherish the memories of the American, Vietnamese, and Australian friends I made in Southeast Asia.  My closest Vietnamese pal was a young corporal named Troung, who served as an aide to the American advisors at camp Lang Vei.  We took great delight in playing practical jokes on Troung, and teasing him about his distaste for American food.  Troung openly admired my blue and silver Combat Infantry Badge, so I gave it to him when I finally left for home.  Lang Vei was subsequently overrun by North Vietnamese tanks during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  I often wonder if Troung was among the handful of survivors.  And I still regret that in the rush to go home I neglected to get the addresses of my good Australian buddy, Dave Walner, or my captain, Ed Walsh.

Many of the finest people I have ever known are Vietnam veterans.  Most went off to do their duty, and then returned home to lead full and productive lives.  Our society today is laced with “Nam” vets whose achievements should thoroughly debunk the once-commonly accepted image of them as “baby-killers” and drug addicts.  In truth, the only baby-killers I ever saw were on the other side.  Oh, there’s no denying that there were some rotten apples in the barrel, as there are in all armies.  The horror of My Lai attests to that.  But the vast majority of our Vietnam veterans represent the best America has to offer.

As for those who did not return, I have personal memories of them as well.  There was my young aviator friend whose light observation plane was shot down and whose body was never recovered.  He left behind a wife and an infant son he never saw.  And the lieutenant who was killed by a grenade during his second week in-country.  Or the career Special Forces sergeant whose bunk I used while he was out on the patrol that ultimately claimed his life.  I haven’t forgotten.  I say, “God bless them all”.

This May 28th, as Americans light their barbecues and chill their beverages, they could do well to pause, remember, and give thanks for the brave, dedicated men and women whose sacrifices helped pay for the freedom we enjoy.  Perhaps then we’ll all better understand the true significance of Memorial Day.

6 Comments

  1. John Capobianco said,

    Beautiful, it’s a shame what happened to the Vets coming back from Nam!

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks, John. We and the newer vets are treated much better now.

  2. Bonnie Caporale said,

    another enjoyable piece…also very thought provoking.

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks, Cousin! You always have such complimentary things to say. Not what I’m used to!

  3. Tom Smith said,

    My favorite story, Jim. I believe this may be the basis on which your upcoming book is based.

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks, Tom. Much of this story is contained in the preface to my book.

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