Thomas P. McKenna
A VISIT TO THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
On the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the names of the 58,272 members of our armed forces who died during that war are engraved on 140 polished black granite panels. It is one of the most visited sites in Washington. Occasionally you can see someone reaching out to touch a name––to connect to the father, brother, or friend they lost so long ago. But to most of the millions of people who visit this memorial, the names engraved on it are just that––names. To me, about two-dozen of those names represent men I knew personally. Here are six whom I would like to introduce to you.
Almost all the names on The Wall are in chronological order by date of death, starting with the earliest on the first panel, 01E (East) to the right of the center. They continue out to the right end, where the panels taper to a point. They pick up again at the far left end and terminate back at 01W (West) the first panel left of the center. At http://thewall-usa.com/ you can locate names, read comments, and in some cases see a photograph to match with the name.
Captain Walter R. McCarthy was my first friend killed in Vietnam. In the Infantry Officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1960-61 we were seated alphabetically, so I spent an academic year sitting next to McCarthy. When he learned I was going to Washington to request assignment to Germany, Walt McCarthy said, “Tell them I want to go to Vietnam.” In Washington, the assignments colonel said, “Tell Captain McCarthy to put that in writing and we’ll have him in Vietnam in six weeks.” He did and they did. Walt was killed in an ambush on 16 June 1962, about a month after he arrived in Vietnam. This action is described in the revised edition of Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy. As one of the first casualties, Walt’s name is on Panel 01E Line 10, the first panel right of the center.
Andre C. Lucas sat near McCarthy and me in that course and we three swapped opinions, anecdotes, and jokes during the breaks. For action in Vietnam, Andre received the Medal of Honor posthumously. His name is on Panel 08W Line 46.
Special Forces Major John O. Cooper and I were friends for almost two decades. We double-dated together, climbed mountains together, and skied together. We were also Ranger School buddies. Recalling George Orwell’s book 1984, one Veterans Day J. O. remarked, “When I was a boy, they called it ‘Armistice Day,’ but that was before Newspeak.” Major Cooper died on 26 October 1967 when the helicopter he was in was shot down. His name is on Panel 28E Line 73.
Lieutenant Colonel Frederick French Van Deusen’s name is on Panel 53W Line 1, way out to the left of center. Fred died on 3 July 1968 when the helicopter he was in was shot down. After his death, back at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division presented Fred’s medals to his family: The Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. Fred was a really nice guy. Everybody liked him. His father graduated from West Point in 1909, a classmate of General George S. Patton. Fred and his older brother graduated from West Point and his older sister married an army officer. General William Westmoreland was Fred’s brother-in-law.
Colonel Robert W. Brownlee is listed with the last casualties of the war, on Panel 01 W Line 6, just left of the center. He was senior advisor to the Army of South Vietnam’s 47th Infantry Regiment at Dak To II in the Central Highlands. When the North Vietnamese attacked with tanks on 24 April 1972, the South Vietnamese soldiers threw down their weapons and fled in terror. Colonel Brownlee and his deputy, Captain Charles Carden, escaped out of Dak To II as enemy tanks and infantry overran the compound. They escaped and evaded and waded across a river. There was a high bank on the far side and Brownlee, who was ill, stopped to rest before climbing it. He ordered Carden to go ahead. Brownlee’s remains were never recovered.
In May 1972 the South Vietnamese 23rd Infantry Division was cut off and surrounded in Kontum City in the Central Highlands. The equivalent of three enemy divisions supported by heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and tanks were attacking this one division and its American advisors. The airfield was closed because of enemy artillery fire and the only supplies were coming in by parachute. In late May enemy artillery rounds were falling around the division headquarters bunker. U.S. Air Force Major Harold Dana Jones, our air liaison officer, was standing in the open, talking on the air force radio in his jeep. He was out of his element in the middle of a big ground battle but continuing to do his duty by coordinating the bombing and other air support that was saving us from being overrun. On 2 June 1972 Jones was in a helicopter that was shot down in flames, crashed, and burned––with the pilot trapped inside. Major Jones was badly burned and died the next day. His name is on Panel 01W Line 34 below Colonel Brownlee’s.
Standing at the center of The Wall, the first panel on the right lists the first casualties and the first panel on the left lists the last casualties of the Vietnam War. Walt McCarthy died in June 1962 and Harold Jones died in June 1972, exactly ten years apart. Their names engraved on The Wall are only a few feet apart.
Panel 01W, where Brownlee, Jones, and the other last casualties of the Vietnam War are listed has special significance for me. This is the panel where my name would be engraved if I had not been very, very lucky on 31 May 1972.
Thomas P. McKenna <email@example.com>
VT Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 20:45:04 (EDT)