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Letters to Saigon
The photograph is worn with age, the edges now a melancholy yellow and flecked with spots from sun exposure. It gives an antique impression; classic Polaroid printed with the definitive white borders, silently framing the subjects. It lies carefully among a peculiar collection of items, resting between a small stack of letters with "Return to Sender" carelessly stamped across each envelope. Among the other items is a postcard proclaiming the wonders and beauties of Hanoi, depicting a lush landscape with city lights rising in the distance, and a pair of gold cuff links, each engraved with the initials J.L.W in fancy cursive script.
In the photo, two men stand, their backs to an aircraft hangar, planes dotting the tarmac behind them. One of the men is dressed in army fatigues, sage green against the black of the asphalt. He is smirking, hat positioned jauntily on his head, shadowing brown eyes and revealing only a few locks of shiny blond hair. The only way to describe him is golden; he seems to glisten in the light with bronzed skin and white teeth, arm grasped tightly around the smaller man. His face is open, not yet ravaged by war, and he wears the military garb proudly. His only flaw is a small chip on his upper tooth, barely even visible in the picture. The younger man, seemingly shorter both in stature and in charm, seems to embrace the opposite of the golden man. He does not wear a hat and dark black hair looks ruffled on his head, as if there was a breeze. His eyes, though also brown, do not seem to reflect the unadulterated glee of his companion but instead mirror a deep, stirring sadness, at place with a solemn, straight nose and thin, pale lips.
The date on the back is written in blocky handwriting. Visible in the center of the white background and written in smudged pencil is December 23rd 1966.
January 14th 1967
Listen, I can’t write very much because we’re leaving base soon and the company is gearing up; it’s gonna be the first scout of Danang. I’ve got to say though Will, things aren’t that bad here, and I don’t think I’ll be in Nam for long. When we got off the carrier these beautiful Vietnamese women greeted us, all done up in these white robes and giggling when we kissed them on the cheek. They would just move through our platoon like water saying "chao mung ban" (which I learned later means welcome) and placing wreaths of multicolored flowers around our necks. And though I miss home a lot, Vietnam ain’t so bad, everything here is exotic and fascinating. You wouldn’t believe some of the landscape I’ve seen, I’m talking true vistas that look out over little rolling hills and valleys filled with miniature rice paddies. The only thing I truly hate about this place is the food, everything is canned and the beer is always kind of stale. I gotta go now but tell Mum I love her and miss her and that I’ll be home real soon. Maybe you could send some real food with your next letter..Maybe a coke too.
January 30th 1967
I don’t really think you know how good it is to hear from you, we all miss you, mum especially. She cries at night when she thinks I’m asleep and sometimes I see her in your old room sitting on the bed and clutching your photograph. In your letters just...make sure you only tell her the good things okay? I don’t know how she would handle it if she knew you were getting shot at. I can’t tell you how happy I am that things are going easy for you, I just want you to come home safe. Things at home are okay, Missy got first place in her school spelling bee and is going to be competing in a state tournament. You’d be so proud of her, she can just spout off words like "glaucesent" and "tachycardia". As for me, I just got that acceptance letter for NYU and mum keeps calling me her little college kid...But really, it’s good to hear from you, write back soon.
P.S Mum sent a care package.
February 9th 1967
Things are a bit worse over here but morale is still high and nobody really doubts that the war will be over in a few months. I’ve been reassigned to An Hoa and will join a new company in the bush. It’s a bit more dangerous than manning the base like I was before, so just..don’t tell mom okay? I don’t want her to worry about me and we both know I’ll be fine. My new camp was hit with incoming artillery yesterday and a guy I shared a tent with, Paul, was killed. On a scouting mission yesterday we passed through a town allied with us that had been burned to the ground. Remember how I always used to love the constant noise of New York? I kinda wish for the quiet now, there’s an airfield right beside the base and I can hear the skyhawks fly in and out at all hours. I think if it wasn’t so goddamned hot here it would be fine, but this constant rain just soaks through everything and the humidity is horrible. Will, don’t ever come to Vietnam. Tell Missy I love her.
March 1st 1967
Just hang in there bud, I don’t know what you’ve seen over there or the things you’ve done but just please, for the sake of us, hang in there. We love you, and we don’t want to lose you. I was watching the boob tube and saw some footage from the jungle campaigns. I don’t know how you do it John, really, I don’t know how you live every day fearing mortar shells and machine gun fire. There’s a guy in the neighborhood who just came back, one of his legs is gone and every time he hears a loud noise he dives for cover. I don’t want you to go through that, God John just please come back safe. I see the hell you face on the telly and I can’t help but wonder how you survive day to day. Missy won her state tournament, when they interviewed her for the news they asked her what she wanted the most and she answered, "For my brother to come home." If not for me, please, for her.
We love you,
March 28th 1967
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to write this, it’s the first time in 22 days we’ve gotten mail. I guess it’s part of spending these weeks in the jungle. I’m trying Will, I’m trying so damn hard to hang in there for you guys. Two days ago we were ambushed by Charlie. We’re at such a disadvantage in this bush, Charlie is practically a shadow while we hack day and night at this godforsaken foliage. I’m okay Will. I’m stuck in this hell and all I want to do is go home, but I’m okay. There’s this kid in my company who’s your age, he just barely turned 18 before he was plunked down in the middle of this war. Sometimes when I look at him I see your face here Will. I just can’t imagine you here, here, where the only thing you see is death and destruction and the only colors are the green of the landscape and the red of the blood. There’s this operation called Rolling Thunder designed to bomb out Charlie. They’ve been flying over our area for a few days now, and you can see the bombs drop in the distance. Hundreds at a time, in little rows that don’t seem to end. I’m so confused Will, I don’t even remember what I’m fighting for.
April 5th 1967
Come home safe, please. I’ve mailed some stuff to remind you how much we love you and how much you have to come back to.
April 28th 1967
Thanks for the trinkets and photos. I can’t believe how quickly Missy has grown. I’m pretty sure that little box you sent is the only thing getting me through the days. Last week my company was attacked. My best friend here, a guy named Jimmy, died. Medavac was there within the hour but his heart had already stopped. I held him as he died Will. There is nothing on this Earth that will make me forget that feeling. I can’t help but think that maybe if I had squeezed out that round half a second quicker he might still be here with me, cracking jokes and covering my back. You remember that Beatles song we always used to listen to? Being here, is has infinitely more meaning.
When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me, help me, help me, oh.
I do not think I still remember a world without war; it’s all I see. There are men my age dropping down all around me and I can’t help but think that it’ll be me next. Pray for me Will.
All my love,
June 22nd 1967
My name is Danny Roman. I don’t know if they have notified you, but your brother John died 3 days ago, June 19th , in the bush outside Saigon. I wanted to tell you, tell you that your brother was one of the best men I have ever known and that we all loved him like family. He spoke about you all the time, telling us how proud he was of his little brother, who was smart enough to go to college. He was one of the most courageous, kindhearted and compassionate men I have ever met. I feel responsible to tell you this not only because he was a great friend of mine, but also because he died next to me in combat with the Vietcong in the jungles bordering the capital. He was killed by a grenade blast. He died instantly, his body blown to pieces. Every day I ask myself why he was the one to get hit when I was so close by, so close to the blast. Some days I wish it was me. Your brother died honorably, and God I know that does not make it any better, but I know he’s up above me somewhere and finally at peace.
June 19, 1991
The years have gone by, but it hasn’t made your death any easier. I sit here now at the Vietnam War Memorial exactly 24 years after your death, the first time I’ve ever visited the site. The memorial is a wall with names carved into it, stretching far in a kind of obtuse angle, a kind of gash in the earth. The stone is black and when I look into it I see myself reflected back. It reminds me of when we were small and people used to say we looked alike. I will admit, I still think about you every day, especially during those quiet moments I know you yearned for in Nam. I remember your laugh and easy smile. When I found your name on the wall, I cried. I have a family of my own now, a 10 year old daughter, a 7 year old son and a loving wife. My son’s name is John. He has your same blond hair and bright eyes. I am ashamed to say that I don’t talk about you often, just thinking about you dredges up painful memories. Missy has done well for herself, she’s a professor at MIT, but Mom hasn’t been the same since, I don’t blame her. It was so hard for me to come to terms with your death John, I’ve held on to my grief and anger for so long, become so comfortable with it...It’s only now that I think it is time to let you go. I have lived so long with hate in my heart and I am tired John... I never stopped sending letters to Saigon since your death, each one is returned, but I think now maybe it is time to stop. Forgive you for leaving me and Charlie for killing you. I will always miss you John.
All my love,