Hello, Ed, Ray and James; how have you been since Vietnam?
By David Lowery
AMERICAN-STATESMAN EDITORIAL WRITER
May 31, 2004
It is a weird feeling to lift the lid off something that has been sealed and kept in the dark for 35 years. You don’t know what may turn up.
Thanks largely to the Internet, about a dozen of us who were friends in the Big Red One’s 1st Engineer Battalion in Vietnam have reconnected via a Web site, e-mails and phone calls. We didn’t train together, didn’t know each other before the war and didn’t maintain contact after it. But for whatever reason, now it seems important to look back on 1969 and remember. Or try to.
After so many years, it isn’t easy to recall much of anything with clarity. Of course, there are unforgettable people, places, incidents and close calls. But trying to unspool the 365 days in-country and connect the strands is an exercise in frustration as much as recollection.
Who was that guy shot at the laterite pit? Which top sergeant tore down the posters in our hootch? Who got bit by a snake while hooking up a Claymore? What ever happened to that Rome Plow driver wounded at Firebase Huertgen?
For most of my life, like most of the other guys in Headquarters and Headquarters Company in 1969, the answers weren’t pertinent. You did your year hoping to get home in one piece, then put it behind you; locked it away and got on with living. Guys you spent 10, 11, 12 months with — side by side, day and night, ducking rockets or steeped in sweaty boredom — were forgotten.
Maybe they surfaced in a funny anecdote now and then. At most, you might wonder what happened to Ed Garner or Ray Powell or James Foley, and how it might be fun to have a few drinks and tell stories. But too much time had passed, and we’re all different people than we were at 19 or 22 in Lai Khe, Di an and Quon Loi.
So nothing happened; that year was left buried in the past. No one was eager to talk about it anyway. In the 1970s, Vietnam was a fresh wound and not a polite subject for conversation. In the 1980s, life was too earnest for much reflection on the war, as families, wives, kids and the economy took priority. The memorial wall in Washington, so moving with all those names carved in black marble, brought some of it back. But the war was history by then and growing more dusty by the day.
So it was a surprise to open an e-mail from Ralph Webb asking whether I had been in the 1st Infantry Division. We had spent nearly the entire year together, in the same hootch and the same orderly room. Turned out he was right here in Austin — though we wouldn’t have recognized each other on the street, the years having been unkind enough to leave us looking our ages.
Recently came an e-mail from Andy Giancana in Chicago, who served with the battalion medics. Then from New York, David Cepler, company executive officer; from Fort Worth, Job Gonzalez, of the Tunnel Rats, and his platoon leader, Rat 6 Jack Flowers; and from Arizona, Sgt. Richard Montez. People began putting their pictures on the Diehardengineer Web site. (Diehard is the unit and radio designation for the 1st Engineer Battalion).
It’s a strange phenomenon, reconnecting with a past long buried. It’s mainly good conversation, but it can drift to the somber. Not that we have many buried memories we’d rather not dig up — there is little of that in this group of combat engineers, clerks, drivers and the like. And even the most painful memories have been dulled by years.
But the sense of fatalism that overlaid the war is still present. We recall our friend Robert Pitts, in his steel helmet and flak jacket, who died when shrapnel caught him in the throat while on guard duty. If your number was up, it was up.
Still, you ran for the bunkers when you heard the rockets whine. But we made it this far, and there’s talk about getting together at the Diehard reunion in Springfield, Mo., in September.
It could be the dustup over George Bush and John Kerry and Vietnam that got us thinking about one another. Or the war in Iraq. Five soldiers from our old unit were killed one day in April.
Or maybe it was just time to lift the lid and stir the memories, before it’s too late.
David Lowery was our HHC company clerk in 1969/70.
When he wrote this in 2004, he was an editor at the Austin, Texas Statesman.
(I believe he has since been ‘downsized’).
Great website, I was researching my grandfathers battalion this evening and came across your site. His name was Joseph Arcuri he was with the 1st Engineer Battalion and landed on Omaha Beach 6/6/44 . It was also his 25th birthday, he was born 6/6/1919, unfornately he passed a couple years ago. He was always very proud of his unit. He had gone to a couple reunions over the years and enjoyed seeing many of his war time friends. A brief story about my granddad. He asked me to take him to see saving private ryan a few years ago, so i did, after the movie I asked him how they portrayed the landing in the movie he said “Thats as close as they will get.” and that was that. He always told me “Sam, don’t sweat the small stuff”. I guess after landing on that beach everything is small stuff. This is a great site, it keeps guys like grandfathers memories alive.