Editors note: The author of the THE LETTER is the sister of a Marine who served during the Vietnam War, she tells his story through letters they exchanged during the war.
Through Johnny’s letters we learned of his involvement in firefights, ambushes, perimeter patrol and reconnaissance missions. We also learned about his platoon mates. The platoon residing on Hill55, nearby Da Nang, was a cohesive one with varying personalities. For the most part they worked well together during that spring and summer of 1970. Some newbies would come into the unit and leave but the group of seven or eight that Johnny hung tight with made life bearable throughout his months in Vietnam. He wrote home about these guys and sent photos and tape recorded messages. Some of them even had a voice, some air time, on the tapes where mortar shells were heard in the background.
Johnny, a white, nineteen year old boy from an upper middle class Chicago neighborhood, never wrote home about the color of his new friends’ skin. Ironically enough, while racial wars surged among the civilian population in the home country of this group of Marines, where real war was going on, around a small hill in South Vietnam, Johnny and his platoon mates were colorblind. There were whites, blacks, Filipinos, Mexicans watching each other’s backs, entrusting their lives to each other. It was not like World War II, where there were separate black units. Every race, creed and color was mixed together in the U.S.’s fighting units of the Vietnam War. Although the race barrier was not completely obliterated in Nam as Karl Marlantes’ biography, Matterhorn, touches upon, Johnny’s squad offered a glimpse of insight to those of us back home on how to get past cultural barriers.
In 1970 anti-war sentiment and racial riots were occurring across the country. News of all this upheaval eventually reached Johnny. He referred to the May 4, 1970, Kent State tragedy in letters he wrote to both his fiancé(Denise) and my father, expressing concerns about the safety of our family and Denise. It felt to Johnny like the alien invasion in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. He claimed he was going to swim home if things got any worse. The riots in the U.S. headlines were reaching the North Vietnamese as well. The NVA used it as propaganda to get to the heads of Johnny and his platoon mates. As our country fought amongst each other these young men, new acquaintances, became tighter, to fight against their enemy.
Aunt Barbara, born a generation before Johnny, was disheartened during this period by the seemingly lack of awareness the public had of the young boys fighting in Vietnam. She referred to it as “The Forgotten War”. Society was frivolous and rambunctious. People were carrying on like there was no war, versus a conservative reverence one would expect while young men and women were putting their lives on the line for their country.
In April of 1970, only one month after Johnny had been deposited in Da Nang, he had received a letter from Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim had written that he did not agree with the protestors at Kent State. He let Johnny know that he supported what he was doing. Johnny shared this letter with his hill mates from various backgrounds. It boosted not only Johnny’s morale but also his new-found brothers’ morale.
Johnny’s letter back to Uncle Jim included the things he and his platoon mates were involved in:
We had to find the supply routes down to Dodge City. That’s where my company is at now. We have been getting heavy resistance from the NVA since we moved into Cambodia. The VC and NVA are running back with as much weapons as they can carry, right into the old stronghold we took away from them two months ago. We gave these areas we secured to the Army and now of course the “doggies” let go and we have to take them back. I am Fire Team Leader now and I have a lot more responsibility. Not only my life but three other men I have to watch and lead. I’m still a PFC, but you know rank doesn’t mean a thing in the bush. I am in charge of two Corporals and one Lance Corporal. So you can see it doesn’t mean a thing. My squad is due for a rest soon but maybe it’s just talk. I hope it isn’t just scuttlebutt. We found that supply route. Most of it was tunnels. I rigged charges on a trunk line all the way down. They ought to be slowed up a little bit by it. I set booby traps all along their route. Now they can taste what it’s like to hit booby traps. I know you won’t tell my ma that we did this. Cuz if I wrote it to her and dad they would worry like heck so don’t tell them. It’s 110 degrees out now and the monsoons have just about started. I freeze when it rains because the temp drops to 80 and I’m use to high temps. Your letter made me feel good. I let the men in my fire team read it and it made them feel pretty good too. I wish I could’ve been at the annual get together. I’m sure Denise and I would have been the deciding factor in the game. Well next year we will be there. I have to go now. Thanks for the letter Uncle Jim. It was good hearing from you.