Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.
~ William Shakespeare
“Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.”
CHAPTER 8: Casualties of War
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall quartered on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. was completed in 1982. It was born of and created by Vietnam Veterans. At first, the government had no hand in the memorial. The idea came from veterans themselves who wanted to honor the terrible price that was paid in blood by American boys. Its intent: to honor the “courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country” for those that served. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now to perpetually remain on the northwest corner of the National Mall, dignifying those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. The Memorial has two black granite walls composed of seventy panels, on which are inscribed the names of over 58,000 men and a few women. It serves as a stark reminder of the staggering cost borne by American sons in one of America’s longer wars.
The war in Southeast Asia bore one of the higher death tolls of America’s wars. Now that the war has passed, those who came home think of those days in northern I Corps in vignettes: some of those thoughts are mundane, some exotic; some are filled with remembered fear and some with deep remorse…
- The beautiful flowing Ao Dais dresses of young women.
- The smell of Nuc Mam.
- The heat, dust, and humidity.
- Hard stares from villagers.
- The smell of diesel fuel.
- The sudden crack of a rifle shot, a burst of automatic rifle fire.
- The boredom.
- The cacophonous confusion of a firefight.
- The wounded.
- The dead.
There is not a day that goes by that us Marines and Corpsmen don’t think of some aspect of the boredom, the drudgery, and the chilling experiences of our daily existence during that war. The one thing we sincerely don’t like to think about is the deaths we witnessed. Especially those that happened to comrades close to us. Fleeting thoughts such as, “What if he had lived…” intrude our daily thoughts at the most unexpected moments. “I wonder what he would be doing now were he alive.” “Why did I survive?” These thoughts invade our minds often. At the time one did not have even moments to think about the dead or to even mourn for them. Sergeant Felix Salmeron, a platoon Sergeant in Alpha Company, solemnly reflects, “I didn’t have time to grieve for them; I had others to think about and keep alive…I kept them moving!”
Human bonding borne of combat is part of the glue that holds a unit together. When one perishes, the survivor of that bonding process is forced to suppress bereavement and deal with the realities of the moment. Upon returning home most soldiers had no one around who had served or even understood the war. Grief sometimes erupted as rage. That silent rage was carried home with many and never discussed. In others, grief manifested as withdrawal from society. In a lot of instances, the grief and remembering came many years later. Men worked at careers for long hours to mute their war feelings. Some turned to drink or drugs to self-medicate the memories of combat. But everyone remembered…
Years later the dead would begin to appear and linger, looming real again. Some Marines/Corpsmen literally blocked out painful experiences of loss. Those events were summarily buried and consciously denied because of the close bond. The experience of comradeship throughout our Corps is legendary amongst its participants. A loss had long-lasting effects especially if it could not be discussed within the trusted group. Some left the battlefield and found themselves back at home within hours with no one to relate to. This was utterly perplexing for most veterans. Most of the society at the time did not understand what their psyche had experienced or the grief they had within them when they hastily arrived back in “the world.”. The nation and the society did not understand the war it was waging. Some people rejected these honorable men when they returned home.
The First Battalion, 27th Marines sustained extremely heavy casualties during its short deployment in the Republic of Vietnam in the aftermath of Tet. The official count is 112 KIAs and close to 700 Purple Heart Medals awarded to Battalion members in the almost seven months the Battalion was deployed. The mentally wounded only God knows. The entire Regiment was significantly understrength from the beginning. It had gone ashore in the Republic of Vietnam with the bare minimum of infantry billets and began operating as a functional unit. These next personal accounts of the families’ grief and how they dealt with losing their loved ones are just a few of the thousands of stories that overwhelmed our nation during the Vietnam War. The author wishes he could tell everyone’s story.
James Joseph Allen, KIA 5 June 1968
One such beloved Marine of the Battalion killed-in-action on 5 June of 1968 and forever remembered by his squad, platoon members, and family is James J. Allen of Charlie Company, aka “JJ” as he was called. JJ was liked by all. He made friends easily wherever he went and gained the respect of most in his circle of Marines. He was not clownish or a braggart.
Jimmy was the All-American kid from Philadelphia whose father had served honorably in World War II in Europe with the 1st Infantry Division, “the Big Red One” for 444 days without a break. His father had endured the invasion of North Africa and on to Sicily. He had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and slogged through the European countries of France, Belgium, Germany, and finally Czechoslovakia with the 32nd Field Artillery. His son, Jimmy, was a pride and joy to him and his wife. Together they had lovingly instilled the values of family, patriotism, and worshipping in church every Sunday. They were extremely proud of their five children. Robert, the youngest, recollects, “We went to church every Sunday as a family and we were not allowed to skip out of going…the services back in those days were all in Latin. It was boring to us because we did not know what was being said…and of course, we would get questions, for example, what was the gospel, what was this, what was that…and a lot of the time we didn’t know the answer to the questions…but we went to church every Sunday, religiously!” Jimmy’s younger brother admiringly tagged along everywhere and basked in his tutelage. Sometimes he was not allowed to hang around with Jimmy’s older friends. “I was like a little puppy and he and his buddies sometimes did not want me in their world. So, I was told to leave. And sometimes they would hide from me, not wanting me to follow them. I suppose they thought I might tell on them. God knows what they were up to?”
Jimmy lived in a rough and tumble neighborhood of mostly blue-collar workers who were veterans of WWII. Robert remembers, “Everyone was very, very patriotic and I cannot think of a childhood friend whose father was not in the Second World War. Those values and patriotism were deeply instilled into all of us, my three older sisters included. I suspect that my father had PTSD as it is called nowadays. He seldom talked about the war. My mother told me years after he was gone that he would go into the basement anytime a plane would go overhead. She also said that he would take very long walks at night by himself. No one talked about it back in those days. As a child, you don’t understand these things and now that I am older I can put it all together.” The Allens had two sons and three older daughters. The daughters were all married by the time Jimmy enlisted in the Marines.
Jimmy started out in Catholic school and for a while did fine. However, as his younger brother points out, “These schools in the 1950s were pretty strict. The three older sisters all went to this school and Jimmy followed in their footsteps. I can remember when he was disciplined by one of the Nuns at the school. The sister had grabbed him and tried to get his attention and he pushed her back…that was the end of his parochial schooling. My mother took him out and placed him in public school. Subsequently, I followed in his footsteps. We attended Henry Armand Brown Elementary school then on to John Paul Jones Junior high and finally to Thomas Edison High School. Jimmy was very protective of me. I can remember being bullied by another kid one day on the playground. The kid that was confronting me was an older kid around Jimmy’s age. He just kept messing with me and taunting me and finally Jimmy just mopped the playground up with him. It wasn’t long after that, I was walking around the playground with my chest out and just daring someone else to mess with me… Nobody gave Jimmy any guff… He was not a bully and he would stand up for anyone being bullied…I remember that he was outspoken about that subject…about fairness and things like that.”
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