July 4, 2009 in City
What was left to say
Letters to Vietnam dead reflect grief and regret – but also friendship and news of family
OLYMPIA – They turn up on the granite, in a quiet niche carved into the earth: old medals, photographs, and letters to the dead.
“Dear Dad: This is your first grandchild,” one begins. “We all think she has your nose.”
“My husband saw you die,” says another. “He will never forget you.”
“You were the first boy to kiss me when we were in the eighth grade,” says another.
For more than 22 years, people have been leaving keepsakes and notes at the state’s Vietnam War memorial, a dark green rock wall engraved with the names of the Washingtonians who died in the war from 1963 through 1975. Of the 1,116 people listed, 87 were from Spokane.
The monument, dedicated in 1987, is one of several war memorials on the grounds of the state Capitol. Items left are usually found by state gardeners and groundskeepers, who have worked out a protocol. Flowers are left until they’re wilted and dried. Virtually everything else is boxed for safekeeping at the state’s underground archives.
“I think that’s the least we can do for the people that are on the wall,” said lead gardener Mark Robb, a Vietnam combat veteran. He knew two of the men whose names are on the wall.
Over the years, Robb has gathered a Jimi Hendrix album, a Purple Heart, a gearshift knob from a ’57 Chevy and a jar of marbles, among other things.
Items collected from the memorial fill more than a dozen storage boxes.
There are dog tags and live M-16 rounds, two teddy bears, a battered rosary, Hong Kong dollars, a can of peaches. Someone left a bottle of iodine water-purification tablets; someone else left a bottle of Tullamore Dew whiskey and a large shot glass. There’s a Marine fighting knife, a rice bowl, cans of beer.
“This memorial evokes a kind of impulse for citizens and family members to leave something behind,” state archivist Jerry Handfield said. “They’re trying to connect with the past.”
Someone left an old baseball and a photo of a 1955 Everett Boys Club baseball team.
“The best of times,” he wrote on the photo, noting the boy who would later die in Vietnam, as well as his two brothers. “Rest in peace.” The photo is signed “A teammate.”
There are photographs of young GIs posing with rifles or looking bedraggled in the bush. One Christmas card shows an engineering platoon brandishing rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers.
Other photos show young men in school. Family photos show young boys. There’s a class photo of a beaming, skinny-necktied young man, on which someone wrote, “Died Soong Ham Long, Viet Nam, Nov. 12, 1967.”
Someone left a wartime photo album of small black-and-white prints. It contains fading images of straw-roofed huts, tents surrounded by sandbags, a young girl in a Vietnamese dress standing in a field. There’s a photo of shirtless troops standing around a howitzer, and a photo of a military truck barreling down a dirt road, chickens darting out of the way.
The most poignant items, however, are the letters.
Many are from family members still grieving their loss.
“How different our lives would have been if we had been older, had more money and there was no war,” one woman wrote. “… You would be so proud of the kids – so proud. They are more than we were then.”
“Dad, I wish you were here to talk to,” another wrote. “I want so much to know you. I love you, Daddie.”
“I have been angry at you for going to war for many years. I am sorry,” wrote another. “I just wanted my Dad.”
Other letters are from long-ago comrades.
“I remember the week before you died, you got the letter that you were going to be a father,” read one letter with a Marine Corps insignia taped to the top. “I remember your pride and the plans you had for your child.” The baby was a girl, the letter said, and was named Joanna.
One veteran listed the names of five dead comrades.
“You’re up there and I’m out here,” he wrote. “I have not had a close friend since.”
The letters reflect a lot of guilt. People write of regret over changed patrol or flight duties, about arguments that were never resolved, about young couples struggling to hold their marriages together.
“I have prayed it was fast for you and you did not feel alone and afraid,” one squad leader wrote. “I want you to know I held your head in my lap and I cried for you when I could.”
“I watched the plane bob once and sink beneath the bow of the carrier. I watched the carrier drive over you,” another man wrote. “I watched the end of your life, and I felt so lost. I’m sorry that you had to die so young. I imagined your fear and the cold darkness of the sea.”
Other letters speak of a different kind of guilt.
“I took this off a dead” enemy, one Marine’s letter reads, using a racial slur. “It was barbaric. I don’t know why we were so sick. It was war. Please forgive us.”
It’s unclear what the Marine was referring to. Nothing in that particular archives box seems to be connected to the note.
And then there’s the typed letter, unsigned, left at the memorial in October 1991.
“A LETTER OF DEEP REGRET” is written across the top.
“Dear Young Lady,” it begins. “I am writing this letter to express my profound sorrow for your unfortunate death by my hand. The events of that day when my platoon occupied your village will live in my soul forever.”
The letter describes the writer, an 18-year-old soldier, assigned to guard a trail while other soldiers searched the village. He heard gunshots from the village as the girl came down the trail. He spun around and shot her.
“We were both robbed of our youth that day,” the man wrote. “You permanently, never to finish experiencing life on earth, and I by imposing years of guilt and doubt upon myself.”
Over the years, Robb says, the number of items turning up at the memorial has tapered off.
“It’s got less and less,” he said. “But the memory of Vietnam and the guys and gals who were there, it lives on forever. It’s like it was just yesterday.”