Memorial Day 1999 essay
By PAT CHRISTIAN
Thank God our grandparents fought that war to end
all these damned wars.
Except wars have continued.
So one beautiful night I found myself sleeping near a cemetery
in Vietnam, watching a breathtaking crimson sunset.
The wide green valley looked deceptively peaceful.
I thought I could live here in this simple place and write
fiction instead of writing about and photographing this damned fact-muddled
The sun slid beneath the horizon as the 1st Air Cavalry
Division unit I was with finished securing camp for the night.
I dug my one-man foxhole.
Sitting on its edge, I was fine tuning notes I had scribbled
during the day and also labeled film cassettes.
A couple of us got killed today. But outnumbered, Charlie,
suffered many more casualties.
I got the story and photographs.
Right now, Charlie was somewhere across the beautiful green
rice paddy on another dry rise.
I always thought it was strange we called those guys we were
killing by my father's first name. Dad was a P-51 pilot and fought Germans
in World War II.
Charlie just had to be admiring the same sunset while waiting
until nightfall to creep into our camp -- and maybe finish one or more
of us if he wasn't zapped first.
He was home here in this beautiful place. And I was here
because I was drafted.
On this particular night, Charlie must have been on the
A young lieutenant was calculating in the dark with a slide
rule. His radio man transmitted the officer's coordinates for ground zero
to artillery men on one of the far off hills ringing this valley.
Lob the explosive 155 howitzer fire close to us, but not
too close; that was the idea.
Drop 'em in the creep zone where Charlie might be approaching
close enough to silently toss a grenade at us.
If Charlie really was on the move, some unlucky "kaboom"
might kill him. If it didn't, the bright flash might pinpoint him so we
could shoot him or chase him away with M-16 fire.
But the lieutenant must have mismanaged a digit or two.
Three off course rounds exploded in our camp before the
radio man could nix the fire order. At least one of the Willie Peter (white
phosphorus) rounds landed about 50 yards from me.
Everybody either dove for cover or ran to dodge the deadly
rain of hot phosphorus.
No direct hits. But through the darkness, I heard that
a couple of our guys were burned. I didn't hear how badly.
It was all over in seconds, and before long, I was out
a turned off light, off to some dream -- or nightmare.
Clinging to life
Sometime this or that side of midnight...
My silent night was shattered.
Damn to I hate waking up to the sound of a grenade exploding
I think there may have been two -- one that side of dreamland
and another after I had been jerked out of sleep.
In a heartbeat, I figured out terrain and trajectory and
ran to hug a headstone, putting it between me and where I believed Charlie
lurked while hurling his deadly fast balls.
I clung to the grave stone, afraid Charlie would toss another.
But he was probably headed back to safety by now. As far as I knew, no
damage was done.
Fifteen feet to my left, two riflemen pointed with their
fingers down a rise, whispering with some amount of intent. Now breathing
easier because of the passing minutes of renewed quiet, I moved over to
where they were surveying the darkness with a starlite scope.
"Down there. I think someone's moving around," one said.
Occasionally somebody would fire a single shot into the
When I looked through their scopes, I saw a mostly out
of focus green image. I could make out bushes and rocks, but I'm not sure
I saw Charlie.
"I think I may have hit him," one of the guys said.
We didn't find a body next morning, but maybe Dead Charlie
had been dragged away by comrades.
I returned to my foxhole to finish out the night.
Puff the Magic Dragon flew over us. The slow flying twin
engine plane roared whenever its Gatling guns fired into the creep zone
I watched its bright tracers arc into the rice paddies.
It was deadly, yet beautiful. It was also the last thing
I saw just that one night in Vietnam before sleep returned.
Day to remember
Now, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, are just any other day,
that's what they are.
Or maybe not.
The photographs I took and didn't take occasionally put
on a slide show in my head. Especially today and on Veterans' Day they
Thanks to the doughboys at the start of this century, the
ones who fought the war that was supposed to end all wars.
Only, they continue. Even as we are about to close a chapter
on this century -- the wars continue.
So here's to you veterans everywhere. Have the safest and
finest Memorial Day.
I drink a special toast to all you army journalists who
were in Major Cannon's USARV office in Saigon and Major Jones' First Cavalry
Public Affairs office in An Khe.
Montoya: The photograph I took of your thousand-yard
stare hangs on my wall -- so I won't forget.
Morgan: The photograph of you, well, I still have
Cain: You radical. Please don't mellow out too much.
Somebody's got to tell those boys in Washington: "Hell, no."
Graham: How's life under fire at the helm of the
Washington Post? I just bet you don't still play bridge every night, or
Tillstrom: You always knew what I meant when I walked
into the chow hall and quickly turned my head (as if I had just been slapped
in the face).
Amaral: What a coincidence two guys from the same
high school in California ended up in the same office writing about the
Puckett: You photographed Korea and Vietnam. Almost
Cosgrave, Bradley, Frank, Anthony, Cleveland, Denton,
Fleming, Griffin, Conant, Morris, Pigati, Thomas, and the rest of you whose
names I've regrettably forgotten: We shared some times, didn't we?
Ferguson: Thanks, Dixie,
for your service as a Red Cross doughnut Dolly in An Khe. You civilian
gals were some of the unsung heroes, and in my book are right up there
with the rest of us veterans.
Hope: Thanks. Your USO show was just what we needed
at the time.
By the way, all you veterans, I've given up on the stupid
idea of a war to end all wars.
Personally, I'm waiting for that long peace to end all
wars. But maybe it's just another of my crazy ideas.