If you have spent any time on this site, you will have noticed that there are more than a few entries that relate to Israel and the history of the Jews. There is a page related to the history of America and how we came to be involved in the Middle East. There is also a page related to the Origin of the State of Israel. There are also a couple book reviews:
Not yet included are a couple of reviews of books related to the Dreyfuss Affair.
Well, this interest has nothing to do with any biologic or family connection. I have been a student of my personal genealogy since I was a teenager. I started from some work my mother did that traces me back to the Revolutionary War and General George Rogers Clark. I even have a book with my name in it as one of his descendants. I am directly descended from his brother William Clark of the Lewis And Clark Expedition. I took that back to the French Huguenots and the year 1400. Later I took it further back to a member of the army that invaded England with William The Conqueror…the year 1066. There is even a tenuous link to Charlemagne..around 800 AD. There are no Jewish folks in the family tree. So why the interest and the intense connection? Well, it’s a story of events that took place a while ago and which have much to do with who I am as a person, my values and the journey thru which I have lived.
So, pull up a chair, get a cup of coffee, and settle in for a true story…
The year is 1968, late fall. I am a member of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I’ve been there for about 7 months. I am a Finance Clerk assigned to the Headquarters Company of the Saigon Support Command, part of the First Logistical Command and stationed in Long Bien. Elsewhere on this site is a detailed history of my military experience, complete with a bunch of pictures I took. There is also a bit of history related to how we got there.
Long Bien was the largest support base in Vietnam and it was home to the largest ammunition dump on the planet at that time. It was a favorite target for the VC and NVA who regularly threw mortars and rockets at it in hopes for a random hit…which, when it happened, you heard it everywhere. The Army, in its wisdom, decided that it was too large a job to be handled by regular combat soldiers as it would tie too many of them down to be efficient. So…..they chose to ring the place with a circle of interconnected bunkers and put untrained (or mostly untrained) clerks, cooks, drivers, etc. in the bunker line as the first line defenders. About every 4-5 weeks, a list would be posted and I would spend 72 hours on the bunker line. I never spent that time with the same folks. There were always 3 warm bodies in each bunker. In the chronology I mentioned above, there are a few pictures taken of me and my companions out there. None of us had fired a shot in anger and at best had only qualified with the weaponry we were issued in the weeks prior to being shipped to Nam.
Not that it mattered much, but I had a bit more familiarity with the “tools of the trade” then most. That came about as a consequence of us, as a support group, being at “the bottom of the food chain” when it came to munitions. All this stuff has an expiration date and when that date approaches, one of 2 things seemed to happen: it was sent to the armory of a group like ourselves or it was destroyed. One of the high-lights of being on the bunker line was getting the crap scared out of you when they blew up a bunch of old munitions…sounded all tooooo close for comfort. But, the armorer always put out a call that anyone who wanted to get some practice could sign up to go to the local range and shoot off what was surplus and ready for destruction. I went as many times as I could. I gotta admit…it’s fun blowing things up (pictures in the chronology). On the down side, I did some permanent damage to my left ear when I forgot to use ear plugs…which consisted of the filter part of a Marlboro Red cigarette.
My behavior while on the bunker line was a bit on the odd side. Our schedule was always 2 hours on guard duty and 4 hours off. I never slept at all at night and I would take the shifts that the other 2 guys were assigned. That came about as a consequence of what happened the very first time I was on the line. I did my shift and crawled up into the upper of a double-bunk bed. I was rudely awakened by a large rat crawling on me. From that point on, I took some of my rations and set them out at the base of the bunker for the critters and stayed up all night. The others were appreciative of that and then let me sleep during the day.
So enough of the background to set the place and time.
On that particular day I had been around long enough and had the most rank (Specialist 4th Class) and I had been designated as the “Bunker Commander”. I still have the paper that assigned me that position from a later time when I spent New Years Eve and Day on the line. I recall that the night was pitch black and without a moon. Sometime around 10:00 PM, the entire line came alive as we all began to hear activity…persons and/or equipment moving around in front of us. That had never happened before and was never supposed to happpen. There was immediate chatter on the communication lines about what was being heard over a wide area. This “Com line” consisted of a telephone that you cranked by hand to activate and use. Each bunker was connected only to the one immediately to the left and right. All 3 of us were scared just as everyone else we talked to.
Then one of the phone lines went dead and we were cut off from the bunker on one side, which I do not remember. That happened to another bunker further down the line.
On the working line, the command came down from the local Officer in charge that our bunker was to fire some flares to light up the area in front of us. That was something none of us had ever done before. A flare is a long cylinder with a cap on the top. One removed the cap, attached it to the base of the flare and gave it a strong whack with one hand. The thing fires a charge into the air and lights up quite a large area. At the same time, when you do that, you personally are lit up like a Christmas tree. For a short time, you can easily be seen for a quarter of a mile.
As the “Commander”, I turned to my companions. I found one of them curled up in the fetal position in the corner of the lower bunk and whimpering. The other flat refused to move, would not arm himself nor do anything. He said something like “I guess I’m going to die”. That left me. So….I took a flare, stepped outside at the base of the bunker and fired off a flare. Over the next hour I fired at least 3 more. The noise in front of the line continued.
So I’m left there by myself. I went to the front of the bunker and I remember clearly what I did. I was shaking like a leaf and my hands were trembling. I chambered a round in the M-60 machine gun in front of me and took the safety off. I chambered a round in my M-14 and took the safety off. I laid the 45 I carried to my right and took the safety off. I picked up the M-40 grenade launcher I had carried out there and put in a round. I reached over to the controls for the Claymore mines that rimmed the front of the bunker and armed them. I placed 3 grenades off to my left. And I waited. And I sure felt alone and scared.
After some time, the noise died down and the rest on the night was quiet. The following morning, an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) came down the road behind the line and informed us that all that went on was an “exercise” by some of our own folks…which they never bothered to tell us about. I do not recall any conversation with the other 2 guys in the bunker and I choose not to make an issue of their behavior. I was on the line a few more times before my tour ended and they were all calm and quiet.
Over the next 10-12 years, I never thought much about all this. I went into a form of hiding out when I came home. I grew my hair to shoulder length and acted out the part of a semi-hippie. I even attended an anti-war protest at the insistence of my wife…who was a somewhat far-left liberal. Go figure that one….. I never spoke of my Vietnam experience after being spat on. Except that at times I could be found wearing a bush hat and a short machete when I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park. I spent a lot of time up there alone studying the rocks and geology in the park.
All that changed around 1983 or 1984 on a day whose date is lost.
The Vietnam Memorial had opened in 1982 and I hated it. It was this black slab of a wall with no flag and no words to commemorate the fallen. Actually, I was afraid of it but would never admit it. I was working in downtown DC and drove past it every day going into and out of town. One day as I was driving home and was passing it, I pulled a sharp U-Turn on Constitution Avenue, parked and walked in. I have no memory of being there. Hindsight says I had a version of a total break-down. I vaguely remember being back in my car on I-395 headed out of town, crying and cursing and beating my hands against the steering wheel. I remember passing my turn-off to I-495 and kept driving south, not caring. Somewhere miles down the road I saw the first sign for Kings Dominion and kinda came back to my senses and drove home.
When I got home, I laid in my bed and came to a conclusion that changed my life….that reaction was totally not normal and I needed to find out why it happened. I would not see a therapist and I would not go to the VA. They both/all seemed to be no better than the media in treating us as drug-addicts and deranged. I decided to find out everything I could learn about the human experience of war. I started reading all the classic literature starting with the Greeks…Xenophon and “The March of the Ten Thousand”. I reread Homer and the Romans. Everything I could find except for anything related to the US Civil War and Vietnam.
In those days, the cable guide came as a printed magazine every week. I read it cover to cover looking for documentaries. I had no interest in Generals and their careers or pure histories. What I wanted was simply the stories told by those that had participated. The Greeks and the Persians, the women who survived the siege of Leningrad, the Gi’s in World War 1 and 2 and Korea and the Germans who lost the First World War. I wanted to know how they thought of their experience and what they felt. I developed an admiration for the Japanese pilots who became Kamikaze. There is a famous movie clip of a pilot trying to reach a US Battleship. He catches fire and never makes it. I root for him every time. I became a great admirer of the sacrifices made by the Russians in WW2. I rooted for the Afgans against the British. By the time I finished, I had a wall of video tapes that was about 7 feet tall by 5 feet wide filled with what I had found.
In that happened to be a real surprise – a picture of my own Father. One of the best of the best is the series “Victory At Sea”…the Navy in WW2. I recall watching it in black & white on our new TV sometime in the 50’s. There was a scene from a ship off of Okinawa of a memorial to the death of President Roosevelt. As the camera panned the setting, there he was. I bought the best software that was available at the time so I could extract each individual frame from the tape. I could read his name. Now, it was not the greatest thrill in my life, given that he had abandoned me and my brother back in 1951…but, it was a neat thing to find.
But, the real find in that program was the following statement at the end of the series:
“The real war will never be known to any other than those who fought it. It is they who understand. It is they who have suffered defeat, it is they who conquer. These are the men into whose hands society has places its means of survival today, its prayers for tomorrow. They have fought a good fight, they have finished their course. They have kept the faith.”
I have that text at my desk today.
In the end, I came to one simple conclusion: the way I felt was exactly how I should feel and I owed no one any apology for it. I had reason to be proud of what I did and how I did it. War changes a person…it always does and it always has. I had every right to both the pride and the anger. Stuffing a grenade up the ass of some fool with a Jane Fonda bumper sticker…well…I eventually got over that but it took time.
But at times, I would wander back to that night on the bunker line. I wondered…how was it that I managed to act in that way. How was it that as scared silly as I was, that I was able to get past that fear and do what I was supposed to do…and be willing to kill if need be. I knew I was no hero but…still…where did the courage come from that I found that night. After all, courage and fear are always constant companions and without fear, there can be no courage.
Around this same time, I faced up to my addiction problem and sought help. I was more than a decade away from alcohol and years away from any drugs. I was in Alcoholics Anonymous. I finally got over my resistance and got into therapy. I found a psychiatrist who knew veterans. I spent over a decade with him. Vietnam was a regular topic.
Somewhere in that journey, a memory opened up into the long forgotten past and I knew I had my answer. There was one who had shown me the way and planted the seed in me that sprouted that night.
I’ve always been a reader. There is an old cartoon from Peanuts that says it all:
And I had my library card before I was 10 years old. I read every book, well maybe not every book, in the Ocala Florida Public Library that had anything to do with the Second World War. After all, my Father had served in the Pacific, my Step-Father as well and my Mother helped to train glider pilots. Later in life I actually found someone, a relative of a co-worker, who remembered her from glider school. BTW – their survival rate was about 10%….
The key that unlocked the memory was the trip I made to the Holocaust Museum in DC. In that building is a hallway that is paved with cobblestones taken from the Warsaw Ghetto. As I walked thru the hall, I was overwhelmed by emotions and broke down. Even today it is hard to speak or think about the memory without tears.
What I remembered was a book….a book that I read as a child of about 10 years of age. The book told the story of another 10 year old boy who was in the ghetto when the uprising took place in 1944. He started as a runner, carrying messages between the fighters. Then he was carrying ammunition, then he was carrying a rifle. He fought and killed Germans. He threw stones at tanks. He never gave up. He kept fighting. I have no recall of how it was that he survived, but, survive he did. And he wrote this book of his experiences. Years later I tried to find the book but never was able to locate it.
I knew then how it was that I was able to summon the whatever it took to do as I did on that night in Nam. It was that 10 year old boy who spoke to me on the darkest scariest night of my life. It was his example, saved away in my deep memory that showed me the way. I own him my life. I owe him my integrity. Thru the tears in my eyes, all I can say is “thank you”. In so many ways, that night changed my life forever and I am forever grateful.
So….I have no Jewish blood in my history…but I owe a debt I can never fully repay to that 10 year old Jewish boy. He’s a part of my family….as are all Jews.
As an after-thought, here are a few relevant pictures:
This is what a bunker looked like
This is what equipment I took with me…leaving the Bible and Beer behind…
That rifle on the right is an M-14. I now own one just like it…..
My favorite picture of me from Nam…sitting on top of the bunker…obviously posed.
And with the M-60 machine gun I mentioned….