MY FRIENDS ON THE WALL

This post is adapted and expanded from an oped piece that I wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner about 25 years ago. The Herald Examiner ceased publishing in 1989.

MY FRIENDS ON THE WALL

Looking through the grove of trees between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument that crisp autumn morning in 1983, I shivered.  There it was.  Two long tapering slabs pushed into the earth at their obtuse intersection, gleaming in the sunlight, black and fearful, with more than 58,000 souls lurking within.

The Wall.

Standing at the center, I could see wreaths, medals, vases of flowers and American flags placed in front of the panels that stretched away from me in either direction.

But it was the names I came to see.  I had 14 to look for, 14 friends who died in Vietnam. All but two had been comrades in the 187th Assault Helicopter Company.

James G. Brady is on panel 38W.  He was a crew chief/doorgunner blown apart by a rocket-propelled grenade. I had just gotten to know him a few days before he died when we had a beer together in our company’s tiny enlisted men’s club. On the same panel, because they died that same terrible November day in 1968, incinerated in the white-hot magnesium inferno of in a helicopter full of 100-pound parachute flares and jet fuel, are Jerome D. Chandler, David D. Creel, Allen E. Duneman, Frederick H. Frazer and August K. Ritzau. I was supposed to be on that helicopter. I was supposed to throw the flares but at the last minute, Jerry Chandler, who was a sergeant, and who put the volunteer crew together bumped me.  He decided he would throw the flares instead.

Two more panels down on 36W are Stephen C. Ponty and Gerald D. Markland, who were shot down and killed while laying a smokescreen around the edge of a landing zone that turned out to be “hot.” I didn’t know either of them well, but I knew Ponty lived in the hootch next door a little better than Markland was a pilot.

And it’s not far to 34W where I find John N. Cottrell. Johnny Cottrell and I went through two years of college together at Michigan Technological University-Sault Branch, which is now Lake Superior State University.  We also did two months of basic training in the same platoon in Fort Campbell Kentucky where we became good friends. I was platoon guide – the highest ranking boot – and Cottrell was one of the squad leaders. About a week before the end of boot camp, I screwed up and got busted. He became platoon guide. He was a good soldier and a natural leader. I was neither. Halfway through my Vietnam tour I spotted his name on a killed-in-action list in Stars and Stripes.  It was years before I found out that he died when a helicopter gunship missed its target and hit Johnny’s squad instead.

Ricardo I. Romero and Michael G. Porter are on 27W. They were killed by an incoming rocket that hit their hootch.  Romero was standing in the doorway talking to his best friend and died instantly. His friend wasn’t hurt, at least not physically.  Porter, who was inside the hootch, died in a field hospital the next day, just before the Red Cross straightened out a mixup that had kept his family’s letters from reaching him. Years later, I corresponded with one of Romero’s younger brothers and know the profound effect his death had on their family.

Clyde S. Evans was a crew chief who loved leaning out the door of his Huey gunship with one foot on the skid is on panel 24W.  He died in the crash that occurred when the tail rotor of his ship was shot away. Clyde was a casual acquaintance, and I liked him a lot.

Donald L. Kilpatrick, a helicopter pilot and platoon leader whose name is on panel 18W was hit in the head by a 51-caliber bullet and died in the hospital. It seemed like freaky bad luck as no other ship was even hit by fire that day. But that was Vietnam. Coincidentally, on his first combat flight in our company, Kilpatrick’s aircraft commander, Willard Suggs, was shot in the head and Kilpatrick flew Suggs to a hospital. Suggs was severely disabled and died last year (2012). He is not on The Wall.

The last name I’m looking for is on panel 6W, Richard W. Salmond. He lived next door to me in Shaw Hall at Michigan State University for two years.  He was not in my company, but went to Vietnam as a captain and pilot after I’d come home.  After getting his men out of a helicopter that had crashed, he was struck in the head and killed by the rotor blade.

All of them had been dead for 14 to 15 years then before I stood in front of the polished black granite of The Wall staring at the evenly etched names. But that’s when it finally sank in, and I cried. I’ve been back to The Wall several times since, and always moves me to tears.

I visited the Vietnam Memorial that first time to do a story for the Detroit News Sunday magazine.  For that story, I tracked down as many of my friends’ families as I could.

Some mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters were still wracked by grief.  At least one divorce seemed to have been triggered by the death of a son and there were several children who knew their fathers only from pictures.The pain did not seem to have receded very far.

My friends all died very young – the oldest was 25 – and of course, none planned on dying. Back then, all of us believed we were bulletproof.

They are only 14 of the names on The Wall.  Now, there are more than 58,000 names.  And they are only a fraction of the toll we remember on Memorial Day.

The World Almanac & Book of Facts lists 54,246 dead in the Korean War; 407,317 in World War II; 116,708 in World War I; 2,446 in the Spanish-American War; 364,511 in the Union forces in our Civil War (the book gives no figures for the Confederate side but most historians put the Civil War total for both sides at about 600,000.); 13,328 in the Mexican War; 4,210 in the War of 1812 and 25,324 in the Revolutionary War.

My friends died fighting for our country’s most basic ideals, and in an unsuccessful attempt to establish those ideals in another land. Their sacrifice touches me on a more personal level.

I tend to think of them in times of trouble. My problems pale in comparison with the finality of their deaths and priorities become more clearly perceived. I’m grateful for all of the happiness I’ve enjoyed. They missed out on that happiness. Their lives ended and of course that is a terrible waste. But I find comfort in their sacrifice and in the fact that there are men and women who are still willing to put their lives on the line for their belief in those same ideals.

I love them all, and their passing should not be taken lightly.

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