How Do We Tell the Story of Vietnam? Letters From a Soldier, Fifty Years On, Part Two
In Part One of this series, I explored reactions to Ken Burns’ latest endeavor on the Vietnam War and asked the question, “Is there any ‘good’ way to tell the story of Vietnam?”
What is clear is that a collective experience of the Vietnam War is not an easy goal, even in Burns’ seventeen on-screen hours. It must be told individually by those who died, those who lived, and by the families who continue to survive Vietnam.
Here is our story.
In the spring of 1967 my father boarded a plane, a handsome, idealistic young Captain in the United States Army. He was bound for the West Coast and then on to a small country which had become daily news all over the world, located in southeast Asia, called Vietnam. My mother, decked out to the nines, wore a small hat. We were dressed “for the airport” as families used to do in those days, with my seven-year-old brother sporting a bow tie.
The son of an Army Master Sergeant, my father dreamed early of joining the military and signed up for the Marine reserves before finishing high school. He was the new boy and the number one heartthrob in our little town when, at twelve years old in 1948, his family came to Caroline County to take up a tour of duty at Fort A.P. Hill. With movie star good looks and a high spirited, mischievous personality, years later I still hear from his female classmates. “I had the biggest crush on your father. He was the most beautiful man I ever saw.”
Those mischievous high spirited antics in junior high school landed him a stint at Fork Union Military Academy, which he came to love, but family fiances did not allow him to stay more than a year. He left Fork Union with another dream, and that was to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After unsuccessfully wrangling for some time after high school graduation to get an appointment there, he resigned from the reserves and mustered into the army in 1956 while he and my mother planned a big wedding.
He received overseas orders for Iceland so they were instead married in a week. The day after the wedding, the letter was received confirming his appointment to West Point, where married students were not allowed.
Hailing from a large extended and colorful Irish Catholic family from Maryland, my father was one of those rare individuals born with true idealism and convinced he had the power to change the world. His passion was history, and his patriotism for our country was as much a part of him as his bones. More importantly, he had the gift of making others believe they too could change the world, and that there was no sacrifice too great to ensure the gifts of living in the greatest country on earth.
My mother was the small home-town Virginia girl who decided on their first bus ride to school together at age twelve that he was the one. Just like in the old movies, they were high school sweethearts, she the co-captain of the cheerleaders, and he the counterpart on the football team.
After a three-day honeymoon, my father went on to Iceland, and she followed him, boarding a leaky old plane at a New York Airport, and their partnership began. Back home in that small Virginia town, her parents — my grandparents — provided supportive safe harbor and a place to live many times in between assignments, or when he was in places like Vietnam where she could not follow.
The early correspondence during their many separations shows their shared dream of him becoming an officer. She was the army wife who followed her husband through thick and thin. There was quite a bit of thin in the early days on an enlisted man’s pay in the 1950s with a baby.
I still have the note found among my late parents’ things from her to him, which she left on a jeep in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was pulling night duty and was not allowed to have phone calls. The baby was sick and they had no car. A neighbor had agreed to take the baby to the hospital. She had borrowed $2.00 from another neighbor for gas.
Dad was truly a scholar with a brilliant mind. Carefully cut-out local newspaper clippings that were saved by my grandparents document his achievements up the ladder as a Private, Corporal, and then Sargent, where he was first in every program and class he attended. Together he and my mother dreamed big, and even when he was kicked out of Officers Candidate School the first time, it did not stop them.
At OCS, while on cleaning duty in a teacher’s room, he witnessed three of his fellow students going through the teacher’s desk in search of exam answers. He was able to answer truthfully he had never been near the desk and had already passed the exam with flying colors. He refused, however, to give the names of those involved and was removed from school.
The following year after one of the students confessed, my mother urged him to reapply, and he graduated top of his class, while she was President of the Officer’s Wives Club.
Just a few years later, in 1965, we spent an adventurous week on a boat bound for the Panama Canal Zone to join Dad, now 1st Lt. Thomas J. Medley Sr., where his job in Military Intelligence was to watch the world.
In what would become our family tradition, we were never tourists in a foreign country. My father immersed us in the real history and culture of the country, learning the language and getting to know the people.
His great love was skydiving and the parachutist club he joined made excursions into the jungle and the interior of Panama. We went with him to see the people of the interior of Central America, in all colors, some decorated with nose rings and tattoos.
In these villages of Panama, he was like the Pied Piper of children, bringing them treats and gifts. All of his life, my father had a deep love for children and when he retired, devoted himself to the youth of our community.
In fact, he was like a child magnet and always had time to get down on the floor and play games. He was the guy you could park your baby or toddler with and be sure to hear plenty of giggling. When he passed away, he had dozens of surrogate children in our community from babies to young men entering college.
In 1967, however, he was about to enter a country that would give him nightmares about suffering children for the rest of his life. In a cruel twist of fate, he would be stationed initially in Saigon in an office next to an orphanage, part of which was filled with traumatized and disfigured children. Their little spirits haunt the pages of his letters and when he died, I found boxes full of canceled checks where he had sponsored hungry children overseas in many third world countries for decades.
After Panama, at the age of 32, my father volunteered for Vietnam against my mother’s wishes, and we returned to my grandparents’ home to live for a year. That night, after we put him on the plane, my mother would again cry herself to sleep, convinced she would never see him again.
On our bedroom wall was a map of Vietnam mounted on foam board she found at the PX, with a red push pin stuck on the capital of Saigon. She comforted herself with the fact that he was in military intelligence and a direct aide to General Westmoreland, but inside she knew he would never be satisfied with a desk job. So many times she would say, “The problem is your father is not afraid of anything.”
He arrived in Vietnam in mid-May, and by the 20th had written eight of the over one hundred letters he would send home before he returned to the states a year later.
My mother wrote to him as well, providing an account of what was happening in the United States, the protests and the political unrest. She wrote about the exodus by young men to Canada to avoid the draft, and many other details of life in the late 1960s.
Both wrote of their feelings about being separated from one other, weighing them against the backdrop of loyalty to country and an underlying helplessness of being caught up in chaotic history and events which they could not control.
Despite working sometimes 18-hour days in a room with six other officers, which Dad describes as about a 10 x 10-foot area responsible for intelligence briefing to a number of generals and their staff, he had manged to write three to four letters a week in those first months.
May 20th 1967
I am in Bien Hoa today, pronounced in Vietnamese Ben Waugh, and is twenty three miles from the city limits of Saigon. The Viet Cong attacked the air base and guard complex last night about midnight. There was more mortar fire than rockets. 9 US soldiers were killed and 34 wounded. Some of the wounded were US Air Force personal. Just before I arrived (one week ago) the VC tried to fire mortars into the MACV Headquarters in Saigon where I work. They smuggled two mortars into the city and set them up in a house about ¾ mile from the headquarters. They cut a hole in the roof of that house to fire out of. They only fired a few rounds before they were discovered. No rounds hit the compound but two rounds hit a convoy passing the compound and killed 28 South Vietnamese Rangers. A Vietnamese City policemen discovered them once they started firing the mortars. He killed two of them with his pistol before they cut him in half with a sub machine gun. The VC then fled killing the women and children in the house with a hand grenade. This is not something nice to write about, I know but it really happened. If nothing happens, I will be off Sunday and will write you about the city after I take a little tour. There will be some days my darling when I will not be able to write, but I will write as often as possible.
In June he describes the city:
I got off work at 0715 this morning and went over to the house where our enlisted men live and had breakfast for 50 cents. They just started a policy in the detachment where the officers can eat at the EM house whenever they want at 50 cents meal. I can’t eat any cheaper anywhere else so will probably be taking advantage of it from time to time, besides I can have seconds there if I want it.
When I left the house after breakfast, I decided to walk awhile. I stopped in a Vietnamese Barber Shop and got a haircut which turned out to be an experience. The barber tools were all mechanical. Not electrical tools at all.
While walking back from the BOQ to the barber shop about 8 blocks, I stopped and watched construction on a five story building. The front of the building facing the sidewalk and street was only 25 feet wide running back off the street, and about 60 feet deep and five stories high. All the brick masons, laborers and mortar mixers were woman. Only two men around, who were apparently both supervisors.
Later I passed a boy about Tommys’ age (7) with only one hand sleeping on the sidewalk against the side of a building. More than likely he was an orphan. He was dirty, in rags and had no shoes, not old enough to understand war, and not big enough to harm anyone, but would follow anyone for a pair of sandals and something to eat, whether it be the South Vietnamese, Americans or the Viet Cong. It is not hard to understand how the Viet Cong can recruit people or children in a state like this by just promising and or giving them a pound of rice a day and a pair of sandals to wear.
In addition to destroying the Viet Cong militarily we have got to win the hearts and minds of the common people. If we do not, and we meaning the South Vietnamese, the free world forces and the U.S. there will always be a problem here and unrest.
Well love I have a lot of burning to do tonight. ( Westmoreland’s HQ staff burned all excess paperwork every night on the roof in a small stove) I got to get back to the program. I may be off tomorrow night and if so plan to go to a movie. Love the little ones for me.
17 June 1967
Yesterday’s letter was a short one because I just did not have much time. It was a big day and an interesting one. I’m in a position where I am constantly in contact with central operations. I would like to tell you about them and will if I can separate the classified from the unclassified. You know there is a period one undergoes when reporting on a new job when you are referred to as the new man, new Captain, new officer and you just don’t fit in for a while. Well I feel like that test period is over and I have been accepted and feel good about it since I provide service for twenty some general officers two ambassadors and other ranking Defense Department personal. In fact by the time you receive this, I will be on special duty with Secretary of Defense McNamara’s party which will be visiting for five days June 20-24.
26 June (letter 30)
I’m sorry I have not written you a personal letter this past week and only wrote to the children. My work hours, sometimes as many as eighteen hours straight keep me so busy. It is a good thing, because it helps keep my mind off of how much I miss you all.
I try not to think about it, as well as what is happening around the office complex here with the orphans just next door. Some of the children here are disfigured and some crippled. Every three of four blocks on the street around the office are beggars without legs or arms, and every three or four of them are children. They are begging to survive. Old people and tiny children alike sleep on the sidewalks. I feel guilty in just having a bed. Whoever said war is hell must have been over here. Too many innocent people suffer here.
I was off today and Sgt Durham said he would take me on a tour of the city, which he did. I didn’t get up until nine in the morning, the longest night I have slept in Vietnam, 11 hours. We caught a bus and went down to the International House and had a marvelous breakfast. Bacon, eggs tomato juice, toast, coffee and hash brown potatoes. The food was really good. Then we went window shopping and sight seeing. After that fine meal, we walked among the hungry and sick. How does it affect you? Well I don’t think I could put it into words. Were I to have given each person a quarter who needed it desperately today that I encountered, I would have spent a thousand dollars and that is a conservative estimate.
We stopped for a beer in a french cafe about 12:30 because it was hot. While we were in there, a Vietnamese woman came up to me carrying a naked child about two years old and asked for five pilasters, about 4 cents. The child was evidently near starved. The woman was blind in one eye and maybe twenty years old and had terrible scars on her left arm, which we learned were from a bus which the Viet Cong hit with gasoline bombs.
While it is tough to look at a disfigured or starving adult, a child is something else particularly if you have children of your own. The beer you drank just sours in your stomach, you feel guilty, get up from the table and see if you can beat your companion to your wallet. For every one I see like her, there must be a thousand more over here. What is the criteria for giving one of these needy people money? You can’t possibly give everyone something who holds his hand out. Do you give to the ones who have children, the one is blind or the one who is missing an arm and a leg? The answer I will probably never find.
There is such a contrast here of the “Haves and Have nots” You can walk a block or two and see people who though some may look poor, look like they are living a fair life, and yet you can perhaps walk and see adults and children who look like they are barely staying alive.
My biggest consolation is that you and the children will never have to see any of this or live like this. For that I thank God. I witness it every day over here in some form or other.
The one thing I hope and pray for is for you and the children to be happy, even though I am not there. If you all are, it will make me happy too and make my tour a whole lot easier. Be happy and I will be happy. Love yall lots and miss you very much my darling. Pray for me and the unfortunate people here.
In subsequent letters my father begins to make it clear he can’t stay in Saigon, firmly believing he is not doing enough to make a difference in the war. He is unable to reconcile himself to the suffering in the city, although he does not say so in so many words.
“I just can’t push paper anymore,” he writes, “with what I see all around me.”
He petitions his immediate Colonel for a field position, and learns of brand new special security detachments which are being formed, that fit his talents perfectly. They will launch in the late fall. He would be detachment commander of a small group of seven men, assigned to the 101st Airborne. Over my mother’s strong objections, he pursues the assignment and is rewarded for his efforts in October of 1967.
Next: Into the field with the 101st Airborne.