Monday, April 03, 2017

When conversation turns to our next war ....

Vintage snapshots --- used to illustrate a Stars & Stripes news story a few years ago --- caught my eye Sunday while looking for something else.

Then, a story overlooked last week --- Congress, in a rare bipartisan effort this spring,  embedded March 29 in statute and the calendar as  National Vietnam Veterans Day and on Tuesday last, the president signed off on it. A salute to my subconscious.

March 29, 1973, was the day the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. Myself, a "Saigon warrior" and not a combat veteran, I left two years earlier, during 1971, although I have no recollection of the date, only of Nguyen Thi Neim's tears, then days of waiting for a flight home from Bien Hoa.


Those Stars & Stripes photos, taken at the U.S. Army Mortuary on Tan Son Nhut Air Base, are close-up views of my occasional longer-range view --- when I had business at battalion headquarters, separated from the mortuary by a fence and stretch of open ground, during that long-ago year.

Hundreds of empty metal transfer cases (recycled on a 60-day or so basis) stacked with military precision and awaiting human cargo; cases filled with plastic-wrapped human remains loaded on pallets (no more than nine per pallet; more would have been considered disrespectful) hauled to waiting transport planes for the overseas flight home, to Travis AFB (if the deceased had lived west of the Mississippi) or Dover (if east of the river).

Those of us who lived elsewhere in Saigon --- my home was a former French hotel a block off a street then called Nguyen Van Thieu, the main drag connecting Tan Son Nhut and Cho Lon --- rather than at headquarters, counted ourselves lucky.


Like the war itself, the Tan Son Nhut mortuary had expanded. Two rooms originally, the 20-table mortuary that I could see across the fence had opened during 1968 --- the year of the Tet Offensive. A smaller mortuary to deal with the dead in I Corps had opened at Da Nang during 1967.

The new Tan Son Nhut mortuary was intentionally remote --- reminders of death were bad for morale. Heaquarters of the 519th M.I. Battalion had moved in just over the fence, from a camp near Binh Loi Bridge, during 1969.

During February of 1968, just after launch of the Tet Offensive and before the new mortuary opened, the remains of 3,000 U.S. troops were processed on Tan Son Nhut; that year's total for Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang combined was 16,899.

The total during 1969, the year I received my b.a. degree in Iowa City and marched into the Field House carrying a white cross to protest the war, was 11,780. A total of 6,183 bodies were processed during 1970, the year of my arrival in country; 2,414 during 1971, when I left. The war was winding down.


Once remains arrived at the mortuary from collection points around the country, bodies were identified, stripped, embalmed, sealed in plastic and placed in those metal containers for the next leg of the trip home.

At Travis or Dover, bodies were dressed, placed in caskets and sent off to funeral homes in hometowns across the country.

There were none of the ceremonial arrivals we became accustomed to during later wars. Combat-related deaths became so common that, except in the smaller weeklies, they were no longer front-page news.

My friend, Bobby, a combat veteran himself, used to talk of being spat upon and cursed in airports while assigned to escort remains home from Travis.


Now, some 44 years later, we have an official National Vietnam Veterans Day --- a somewhat surreal form of national penance in a season of great national discontent. And I guess that's OK.

But when talk turns to the next war, as it inevitably does, my thoughts turn to that view of sunlight reflecting off stacked transport cases in an obscure corner of Tan Son Nhut.

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