Fifty years ago, my 21-year-old uncle died in the jungles of Vietnam.
Originally published at coachnobody.com on May 26, 2014 under the title “Memorial Day: Sacrifices Never Fade.” The title change in this repost is not an error, nor is it an act of disrespect. We’re getting older. We’re losing witnesses to the moment. The inevitable truth of history is that it doesn’t begin as history. It begins as life, then becomes personal memories. It always becomes history, however. Always.
Only two months after turning 21 my uncle, Sargent Jim Burch, died on a very hot May afternoon 47 years ago. According to the Infantry Captain Robert H. Sholly’s letter, slipped into the pile of documents the family has kept since that dark time:
“Jim received a fatal fragmentation wound to the neck. It may afford you some consolation to know that his death came quickly and he was not subject to any unnecessary suffering.”
Even though the Army more than likely glosses over every detail it can when it comes to “civilian consumption,” I like to think that the depiction of Uncle Jim’s wounds in that professionally brief but equally sincere letter are somewhat accurate. In other words, I fervently hope that my uncle died as peacefully as possible on that sweltering day.
Jim served in the 4th (or IV…or “ivy” as it’s called) division, Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, the 4th Platoon. He died on the first day of what would later be dubbed “The Nine Days in May,” an obscure battle overshadowed by more famous showdowns such as Khe Sanh and Tet. For years, the family knew little about what happened on the day Jim died. We knew his platoon was separated from the other three groups in his unit. We knew his squad was surrounded by NVA, and we knew they were slaughtered in the ensuing ambush. The number of survivors vary depending on which account you read: one article claimed eight soldiers lived through the harrowing nightmare playing opossum, as North Vietnamese soldiers rifled through the dead and dying bodies for personal effects, bayoneting anyone who stirred. Another account, anecdotal via conversation, claimed it was seven, and I swear I once read somewhere the number was only three (See Sholly’s response below for clarification). Whatever it was, it was small. For my part, I’m thankful that they made it, and I will never be able to even partially imagine how difficult it must have been “moving on” in the years which followed. When I think of those men, I feel both sympathy and a profound sense of respect.
Years later, declassified documents elaborated on the details of the fight. As the record goes, a pair of NVA called attention to themselves with sporadic gunfire and darted into the jungle. After a second quick exchange, the unit commanders decided to send two of the four platoons on quick recon missions, leaving the remaining two behind as an established camp. Jim’s unit headed west, and for reasons which still remain fuzzy (documentation suggests yet another NVA “wearing a green uniform and carrying a ruck sack” further got their attention), his platoon leader, Platoon Sargent Bruce Grandstaff, ordered his men deeper into the thicket and farther away from the rest of the unit. At approximately 1:00 in the afternoon, the platoon was surrounded, and the NVA opened fire. By late afternoon, most of the men were dead.
When I was very young, I often gazed upon Jim’s senior portrait displayed in Grandma’s living room, the soft-toned colors which seemed almost painted onto the exposure (a common sort of linotype coloration in the early ‘60’s). Uncle Jim stared out of that photo into the room serenely each and every summer day for most the 1970’s and early ‘80’s. I would look at this man, who was always there but never there, and see him almost as a god. I used to wonder what he looked like in the flesh, and for the longest time during my childhood I obsessed over the sound of his voice. When Grandma told me that a CBS news crew interviewed him only days before he was killed, I asked my mom to write them for access to a copy of the clip (CBS couldn’t find one). When my brother and I found an old reel-to-reel tape recorder we listened to it interminably because Grandma mentioned in passing that Jim used to play around with it all the time (all we heard was static and hiss).
When I myself turned 21, Jim was no longer a mythic figure. He was just a man like me. As I spent my 21st year in college facing no threat greater than the reckless habits of Terre Haute drivers, I often found myself spending that year imagining what it meant to end it all then, to be done with life after only a couple decades on earth. I didn’t think of myself as a kid at the time, but I did appreciate how much I had ahead of me, and I realized only then all that my uncle had lost.
Shortly before my son (himself named “Jim”) turned of age, one of his high school friends (coincidentally also 21 at the time) died in a tragic accident in Europe. It was a horrible, dark time in my son’s life, and in the lives of his friends. While no one at any age is really equipped to deal with loss like that, witnessing their open grief illustrated just how young 21 is. Needless to say, when I look at my son or his friends, I don’t see warriors, gods, or even men necessarily. I see boys.
For many Americans, Memorial Day is reflected in flags, moments of silence, the sound of “Taps,” and twenty-one-gun salutes. For others, the holiday means race cars, outdoor grills, and coolers full of beer. For me, as I get older, it’s increasingly a day where I realize how mortal we all are, and how terrifying death is. For me, Memorial Day is the uncomfortable, uncontrollable routine of imagining Uncle Jim, in the dirt, holding his neck as the life rushes out his body. For me Memorial Day is contemplating Jim’s final minutes, wondering how he processed the massive overload of anger, regret, sadness, and intense fear he had to be feeling.
Although nearly a half-century has elapsed since Uncle Jim died, he does indeed live on in the family that misses him as well as the family who never knew him. He was a hero, and he was a patriot. But he was also a 21-year-old kid who didn’t finish a promising life. In fact, he never really started it. I certainly agree that “honor” is the appropriate word when describing what we do on this holiday, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt: for those who die, those who live on, and those who are born shortly after.
When this column first ran on my original blog three years ago, Uncle Jim’s commander, then-captain Robert H. Sholly posted this reply:
“How strange to see the words I wrote to a grieving family in 1967, appear in an article I probably would never have seen if not for the Facebook connection. In my experience, Donovan Wheeler’s comments reflect the feelings of many families whose loved ones paid the full price for other’s freedoms. Jim Burch and the men of his platoon are remembered almost every day, not only by his family members, but by those survivors of his platoon and the men of his company. That day is seared into our psyches and as long as we old soldiers are alive, those memories will be relived again and again. Just to set the record straight, there were 30 men in the platoon, eight survived. One young man was taken prisoner and marched away by the North Vietnamese Army. the remaining seven survivors were reclaimed by our forces the following morning. According to later reports, PFC Joe DeLong, the MIA, was later killed by his captors during an escape attempt.”
“This particular battle is explained in detail in my newly published book, Young Soldiers Amazing Warriors and for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War, it will bring a better understanding of the conditions and sacrifices we Americans asked of our youth. We still do. As long as politicians see a need to project military power as a part of the national will to achieve political ends, the situation will never change. We are fortunate that we live in a country in which our youth, for the most part, are willing to subsume themselves into a national goal. If we ever lose that, we will have further eroded and hastened the end to the “Great Experiment” that is the United States of America.”
Since then I’ve read Sholly’s book. It’s an interesting read. The narrative describing the fire-fight which killed Uncle Jim is a very effective bit of editing and aggregation, masterfully combining Sholly’s own observations with the few eyewitness accounts which survived. Sholly found out about my piece because he was Facebook friends with my mother, who had spent most of her adult life actively working with the survivors of that day. Of course, mom is gone, now. As are my grandparents, who had to find out about Uncle Jim in the same personal, yet haunting, manner which so many American families experience. The gravel road leading to the farm house runs in a long “L” intersecting three large, open fields. I can only imagine the grey-white cloud of dust the Army’s black sedan churned up as it barrelled toward the farmhouse, delivering the news which would alter Mom’s life in ways we would never completely understand. But even though these residual effects of that moment still linger a half-century later, in another generation they will fade away, living on in history books and Ken Burns documentaries. No doubt that will still be powerful, but it’s not going to be quite as personal.