A Kind Of Immortality

19148226_xxlMemorial Day has come and gone, and our thoughts turn to those men and women who, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, gave “their last full measure of devotion” for their country. Of the just under one million men and women who have been killed in theater during all our wars, 58,282 of them have their names inscribed on the Vietnam Wall.

Nearly everyone who reads these words will know someone whose name is on that wall, but I want you to know at least eight more . . . I want you to know them as people, not just as names.

I will start with two that I didn’t serve with, but they were friends that I grew up with in Sikeston, MO.

James (Jimmy) Wyatt lived just one block away. We played football, baseball, and basketball together in empty lots and in our back yards. Jimmy’s dad was a truck driver, like my dad, and Jimmy’s uncle actually drove for my dad. Jimmy had a great sense of humor, and was good at throwing horse shoes. He was better than just good, he was so good that he was the Sikeston High School champion. Though we didn’t serve together, we were in country together, Jimmy was a cook at Bin Hoa, and he came to Phu Loi a couple of times to see me, but I was gone each time, so he left a little note. A couple of times when I was in Bin Hoa I dropped in to see him, but missed connection. Then, while he was returning to Bin Hoa on a supply run, his jeep hit a land mine, and he was killed.

Leslie Leroy Karnes and I were not only in school together, we were also in the National Guard together. Leroy was a big kid and if he was somewhat intimidating to others, it was his size, not his demeanor. He was, truly, a good guy, and I once saw him stop a bully on a bus, just by telling him to “Leave the kid alone.” He told me once that it was his ambition to make a career out of the army, and that was what he was doing. He was an SFC in Vietnam when his platoon was attacked while being transported in a swift boat. He left the boat and charged the VC, breaking up the attack, but giving up his own life in the process. He was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously.

CWO Dan Lambdin, met me when I got off the train in Schweinfurt, Germany. “Welcome to the Seventh Cav,” he said, extending his hand. When I took his hand, he was holding a twenty dollar bill. “What’s this?” I asked. “Personnel said you hadn’t been paid in over a month. I thought you might need it.” I was down to three dollars. If it hadn’t have been deemed unseemly, I would have hugged him, right there in the Scweinfort Eisenbanhoff. My favorite tour in the entire army, was my time in Germany, and friends like Dan are what made my time there so much fun. We didn’t deploy to Vietnam together, but he was in Vung Tau, and because 34th Group HQ was there, I was in Vung Tau frequently. Dan’s roommate was gone during one of the visits, and I stayed with him one night. We talked far into the night, remembering and laughing about shared experiences in Germany. “Do you ever wonder about getting killed over here?” he asked. “Yeah, I think about it,” I said. “Like, I wonder, if I’m killed here, will I know it? Will my soul still be here, and aware of what has just happened?” “Ha!” Dan said. “You better believe if I’m killed here, my soul won’t be hanging around in Vietnam any longer than it has to.” Dan was killed the very next day.

CWO Walt Morris and I also served together in Germany. Morris was very young, and we used to tease that his mother put him in the school bus one morning, and he wound up in flight school. I went with him to buy a new Volkswagen. “You can get a brand new one for $1200.00,” he said, excitedly. When we got there we were met by the sales manager. “Let me get someone who speaks English very well,” he said. “You speak English well enough,” Walt said. “I want to buy a car.” “Just a moment,” the sales manager said. A moment later, an exceptionally beautiful young woman showed up. When Walt said he wanted to buy a car, she led him over to a Volkswagen bus…..which was twice as expensive as the bug. “No, I want the bug.” The sales lady began extoling the virtues of the VW bus. When we drove back to the base, Walt was following me in the bus. The others questioned him about it. “All you’ve been talking about, is how you were going to buy a VW bug,” someone said. “Hey, Dick, tell them how beautiful that sales lady was,” Walt said, as if that explained everything. Walt was killed by some unseen VC on the ground who took a shot at the helicopter while it was on short final. The round came in through the window on his side. It was a fluke shot, and Walt was the only one killed.

I was in AMOC with Captain Benjamin “Bob” Bostick. He was a graduate of Northwestern University, and married to a woman who was so pretty that she would actually turn heads when she came into the officers’ club. It was rare that you went to Vietnam with anyone you actually knew, but Bob and I went over together. It was his first deployment, my second, so I took him under my wing. We were room mates in the 110th, at Tan Son Nhut, in Saigon, and it was his idea to build a company O club by adding a roof, and two walls between two of the BOQ hooches. Bob was also a very good artist, and was always making sketches of people. He was killed when his helicopter went down just off shore from Da Nang.

SP/4 Jimmy Winston was my driver. He was a young black soldier from Chicago, and unlike most of the people I grew up with, Jimmy had never driven a vehicle before he came into the army. He loved driving, and was always volunteering to go to Bin Hoa, Di An, Phu Loi, or Cho Lon…anywhere that would give him the opportunity to drive. We had a game we would play together. If he saw a flat rock in the road ahead, he would call it out. “Chief….see how far you can drag this rock.” He would pull over to it, I would put my foot down and catch the rock, then drag it under my foot. He said once that he was going to paint a rock on the side of the jeep for each one I was able to catch that way. Then, one night while he was duty driver, taking the indigenous KPs back home in a ¾ ton, he was broadsided by an ARVN deuce and a half. Fortunately he had already dropped off his last passenger, so Jimmy was the only one killed. When I came through Chicago on my way home, I called his mother from the airport and had a nice chat with her. I told her what a good soldier Jimmy was, how everyone liked him, and how much we missed him. She thanked me, and I was glad I could do that.

Eight of the names on that wall are women, and two of them, Lt. Carol Drazba, and Lt. Elizabeth Jones were nurses from the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. I was, at the time, a member of the 56th Trans at Tan Son Nhut, and the officers of the 56th, shared the mess, The Red Bull, with the doctors and nurses of the 3rd Field. They were killed in a helicopter crash while I was there, and though I remember seeing them at mess from time to time, I have to confess that I didn’t really know them.

The people I have listed here would be as old as I am now, had they lived. But now, they are forever young, forever a part of my life, and the life of those who knew and loved them. And their names will be on that wall for as long as there is a United States of America. That, in itself, is a kind of immortality.

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