Memorial Day

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Imagine entering the following phrase into Google: “Memorial Day Sales” and receiving in return only a gentle rebuke: There are no sales on Memorial Day; it is a day of remembrance.

Not very likely, I know.

I was once very lucky, and I still recall some in my unit who were not. Remembrances, to recall, and share. But first a few thoughts about another “Memorial Day,” another country, another war, and other ways of remembering. It was once called “The Great War,” and since humankind had another one only some twenty years thereafter, we now usually refer to it as World War I. The centennial of its commencement is only a couple months away. In France, their “memorial day” is 11 November, since that is when The Great War ended in 1918. I was in France on 11 November, 1987, and heard Brahms’ “Requiem” performed in Paris, in the Madeleine. It was profoundly moving. But an even more moving experience occurred three years later, when I was also in France, on 11 November, 1990. I was in the Dordogne region, staying in a French farmhouse, and I drove to a nearby village for my daily bread. My two small children were in the back of the car, it was pouring down rain and cold, and I was driving through the small village of Saint Georges de Montclard. I looked to my left, numerous red, white and blue flags, not of the United States but of France. And 30 to 40 people, raincoats, umbrellas, the youngest must have been 60 or so. Gathered around an obelisk, which exists in all French villages, with a list of names, an incredible long list of names for the size of the village, and the invariable: “Mort pour La France.” It was 72 years after The Great War had ended, and these people had gathered, to still remember, those youths who “did not make it.”

Those threads of history: Vietnam had once been a French colony. A few lingered on, in the midst of another war. A Frenchman, and his two daughters, still lived on a tea plantation to the west of Pleiku, along Highway 19. I was a Medical Corpsman with the 1/69th Armor, 4th Infantry Division, for a year, 1968-69. It was a battalion of between 400 and 500 soldiers. During its four year deployment in Vietnam, 61 members of the battalion were killed in action. All their names are on “the wall,” in Washington, DC, at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. Recalling four of the 61:

Allan Napoleon Scavella: He had been drafted during the Korean War. At the war’s end, confronted with the made-in-America hell of Jim Crow, with its corresponding de jure and de facto racial segregation, he decided that the integrated Army looked relatively good in comparison. He re-enlisted. Now he was caught up in another war, and was determined to survive until he could retire with 20 years of service. He had a wife and three daughters. I never knew his first and second names until after he died. Everyone simply called him “cautious” Scavella. All tank commanders, except him, would normally ride seated on the cupola hatch. He would always stand on the tank commander’s seat, with the cupola hatch locked at a 45 degree angle behind him, thereby exposing only his head to possible enemy fire. He died on Highway 19, on Jan. 16, 1969, hit by an unbelievably accurate, or lucky shot from the NVA’s point of view, from a B-40 rocket, which resulted in his traumatic decapitation.

John Easton: He was a first lieutenant who had been in Vietnam only two months. In the early morning hours of Sept. 25, 1968, they were mortared in the Suoi Cai valley, Binh Dinh province. When he was arrived at LZ Uplift, having been evacuated by a “Dust-Off”, he looked perfectly normal, although he was already dead. Ironically, I had just finished reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and John Easton had died in exactly the same manner as Militiaman Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky did, at the end of the novel. He took a small fragmentation piece to the base of the skull.

Lynn Anderson and Jeffery Goss: I didn’t really know Jeffery Goss, but Lynn Anderson had been in Vietnam for 10 months. Tall, good-looking, just waiting to get back to the States, and resume relationships he had once had. On March 03, 1969, the NVA committed tanks against the Special Forces camp at Ben Het. It was the second time they used tanks; the first time being when they overran the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei. The first shot from an NVA PT-76 tank killed both men.

Erich Maria Remarque chose the deliberately ironic title, and those are the last words in his novel, which were the words the High Command chose to describe the battle conditions on the day the narrator died. Updating to the Vietnam War, the vast majority of those 61 died on days described by the press as: “MACV reported only light and scattered fighting in the Central Highlands.”

There were also at least two additional casualties of the war who had once served in the 1/69th Armor whose names are not on “the wall.” One is Dwight H. Johnson. His page at Wikipedia, along with a picture of President Lyndon Baines Johnson placing the Medal of Honor around his neck, can be viewed here

He is one of only 3488 Americans who have been awarded the nation’s highest military award. He committed suicide in 1971; as his mother said, he just needed someone else to pull the trigger. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, in his book Home from the War specifically addresses the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Johnson’s return to the United States, and ultimate untimely death, in establishing the diagnosis of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The second was my personal friend, and fellow medic, Irv Harper, who pulled the trigger with his own hand, over five years ago, in Whitehorse, the Yukon. The lack of meaningful employment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were factors in each of their deaths.

A Day of Remembrance. For those who died, 45 years ago, 43 years ago, and five years ago.

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