Every country has one or more holidays similar to America’s Memorial Day. As a kid growing up in Clarksville, it was commonly referred to a Decoration Day. In fact, it wasn’t officially declared Memorial Day until 1971, but its intent, as in other countries, was always the same: Honoring those who died during military conflict.
As a young kid, I remember visiting many cemeteries in Ohio and Kentucky with my parents on Decoration Day, and although I didn’t fully understand it, lots of man-hours were spent preparing the grounds for the many visitors like us.
As a teenager, I spent many hours with my friends mowing and hand trimming the Clarksville cemetery prior to that special day. All mowers were push mowers and there were no weed eaters back then. We probably made four or five dollars for the whole day, which was fine for buying most anything you needed at Clabos or Nick’s Shell station.
We now have had the chance to read the numerous books on the Vietnam War and watch the many documentaries about the enormous obstacles faced by the American military in a country that was hot, humid, and as about as foreign as it gets for a bunch of 19-year-old boys.
I have represented Vietnam veterans regarding their exposure to Agent Orange, several of whom died before the VA would finally rule in their favor. I’ve heard their stories of being in a distant battlefield that most Americans, at least at that time, could not even find on a map.
And while in Vietnam I have visited the hospitals and seen first-hand what Agent Orange continues to inflict upon another generation of babies.
Vietnam was not a nice place to be in the ’60s and ’70s, regardless of what uniform was worn. In all, over 56,000 US soldiers died and there are still over 1,600 declared missing.
The war was not popular, but these soldiers should never have been the brunt of America’s criticism. We were wrong to even suggest it was the soldiers’ fault.
One of the worst battles occurred in January and February of 1968. I was just a junior in high school at Clinton-Massie and knew little about Vietnam beyond what Walter Cronkite reported on the evening news or what was reported in the Wilmington News Journal or the Cincinnati Enquirer.
However, the Battle of Hue early that year was a head turner for most Americans, even for kid like me. Guys not much older than me were coming home in caskets while I was going to weekend basketball games.
For the first time in my life, I understood that there was much more going on in the world outside of the cocoon of Clarksville. That battle, lasting almost five weeks, led to the death and wounding of 1,580 Americans. That’s more than 300 killed each week.
While motor-biking in the Vietnam countryside in 2016, I was introduced to Quan. Quan Linh is an 87-year-old farmer who was born and raised in Hue, Thùa Thiên-Hué Province. From his early days as a boy living on the banks of the Perfume River, he and his family planted rice, sugar cane, and corn by hand.
These days you will normally find Quan in the shade of a small cafe on Doung Van Linh Street watching the local kids going back and forth to school, each student and grade being recognized by their school uniforms. His favorite piece of furniture is a hammock that was made by his mother in 1948, which he had positioned in such a way as to allow him to easily see passerby from either direction.
He lives on about One Million Vietnamese Dong each month, the equivalent of about 35 US dollars.
Quan Linh seldom talks to anyone other than a few locals. Unless you are looking for him, he remains generally invisible and does not look like the kind of person who is a war historian extraordinaire. He rarely shares his involvement in the American War (that’s what they call it).
He was once interviewed by Walter Cronkite in the weeks after the Battle of Hue. There is some video footage of that interview in a documentary produced by the History Channel a few years ago.
Prior to 2004, he never talked about his experiences to anyone for fear of government retribution, which was a typical fear for any soldier who helped the Americans. He has little surviving family.
His five brothers were executed by the North Vietnamese Army during the Battle of Hue. Their unmarked graves are at the edge of town. His only child, a daughter, fled to the Philippines after the fall of Saigon and eventually made her way to California. She visited him about every two years until she died of cancer in 2010.
Agent Orange was the likely cause of her demise because, as a young girl working in the rice fields, her clothes were sometimes soaked with defoliant from the American planes.
At age 30, he was drafted into the South Vietnamese Army and immediately assigned to a group of American Marines. According to Quan, he was the “old guy” among the young American Marines. Many of them were only 18 or 19 years old. He called them “nhûng câu bé lón”, translated roughly to “big boys.”
These boys were barely old enough to drink beer back home, but according to Quan, they were fearless. They were well-trained and disciplined and during the heat of the battle, they never retreated, despite being sometimes outnumbered 30 to one.
When they weren’t getting shot at, he said these big boys talked about their families back home, their girlfriends, cars and music. They shared care packages with Quan, giving him his first taste of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
He said that one Marine in particular, named Pvt. Scott, turned 18 while stationed in Hue. He was a tall, lanky, black kid from St. Louis whose mother sent so many “care packages” that sometimes three or four packages would arrive at one time.
Quan said this young man always kept some of his goodies for the Vietnamese children that were permitted inside the compounds. Pvt. Scott tried to teach a little English to those kids.
Quan said a lot of the Americans talked about what they were going to do after the war, some talking about marrying a girlfriend, going to college, or going to work in a family business.
Though few talked about it, most of these kids also knew about the increasing number of casualties and wounded being ferried out after skirmishes. Armed Services newspapers were not always forthright about the number of casualties, for good reason, but Quan heard these kids talk about the losses.
Few of the soldiers showed much emotion about the news, at least not in the open.
Quan was with the Marines who were stationed just outside of the Citadel in Hue on the night of Jan. 30, 1968. It was the beginning of the highly celebrated Vietnamese New Year and throughout the war, at least until then, there was always an unofficial cease fire among the troops on both sides.
He and about 60 of his own soldiers were quartered inside the Citadel. Quan and five other senior soldiers had just returned to their own encampment when the attack by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began about 4 a.m.
He said it seemed like they were coming from all directions, which turned out to be true. They were quickly pinned down and surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers who were well armed. While they were able to hold off a complete takeover of the Citadel, Quan and his men would soon run out of ammunition if help didn’t arrive.
Just about sunrise, Quan said the NVA starting taking fire from behind, leading to a breach in the North Vietnamese lines which had kept everyone dug in. The first Marine he recognized was that kid from St. Louis, Pvt. Scott, with his M60 machine gun unleashing a steady stream of fire. Right behind him were three other Marines, now standing out in the open and laying down so much firepower that their gun barrels were turning red.
The M60s had a bad habit of jamming when they were exposed to dirt and dust, but that particular morning, every M60 worked perfectly. As a result, 22 Marines and 20 of Quan’s men took out almost 100 North and it would be another 25 days before the NVA would be completely run out of Hue by a larger contingent of Marines.
Despite the threat of execution, many of the locals remained loyal to the American presence, and the majority of the locals went to great lengths to provide food, supplies, and other support for the Marines and the Army.
American Marines and soldiers were being dispatched to Hue thinking they would return to the safety of their base camps by dark, therefore few supplies came with them. But not for the contributions of the locals, few soldiers were have had food after their first or second day.
Although some historians believe that the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Kong ultimately won the battle for Hue, the locals and the Americans remember it much different.
The people of Hue loved the Americans as much as they loved their ancient capital city.
Quan says that during the next four weeks, he saw many kids die or get wounded, but he never saw one running away from the gunfire. Almost without exception, when one was shot, he said two more came to drag him to safety. They were tenacious, almost possessed, he said.
In all, America lost 216 kids in Hue in the following month, including Pvt. Scott from St. Louis.
Quan stops talking at this point to roll a cigarette. After a few long minutes of silence, he asks if the parents of those kids, or America, knew how fearless those kids were.
I said I’m sure those parents knew.
He said, “I thank America for sending those kids to help us. I’m just a poor old man now, but I will always be thankful for those kids. and I hope America thanks them too.”
Dennis Mattingly is a resident of Sabina and a contributing columnist for the News Journal.