I Know Not

Though the following occurred 41 years ago, I remember it as yesterday. My plane landed in the evening. I was in Washington, D.C. to attend the annual convention of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, but the conference was not my first objective. 

In my room at the Mayflower Hotel, I unpacked and carefully “spit-shined” low-quarter shoes I had been issued when I first went on active duty, but which, once I earned my paratrooper wings, I wore only when wearing my dress blues. I laid out a pair of charcoal gray pants, a short-sleeved khaki shirt I had worn on active duty, and the red beret I wore in Viet Nam as an advisor to a Rifle Company of the ARVN Airborne Division. I ironed the shirt and slacks, then went to bed. It was still dark when I woke, but getting light by the time I was out of the shower, and lighter still by the time I was dressed and out of the hotel. 

The late September air was crisp; the sky clear, a faint breeze. I felt a chill on my bare arms, but I knew I would warm up quickly. Besides, I had been colder, much colder in Ranger School in the mountains of north Georgia in late January 1969. We were “Winter Rangers”. The city was quiet as the morning rush had not started. I did not know exactly where I was; I had not been to Washington, D.C. in about 26 years (1967); and then, not to sightsee, but to walk the halls of Congress trying to persuade members to end a war I did not believe in. My objective that morning was near the Lincoln Memorial; but I had not looked at any maps, and did not know where my objective was in relationship to either the hotel or the Lincoln Memorial. Pausing momentarily in the morning chill, I put on my red beret, canting it slightly to the left and down to my eyebrows, and  began to walk briskly.

I did not know the distance to my objective, nor would I hazard a guess. I remember now, as I knew then, I was not close; and it would take a while. I asked no one for directions, and seldom looked right or left except to turn  a corner. My eyes were fixed on the distance, on my as yet unseen objective. A light fog laid over the Mall as I passed the Washington Monument and continued to walk along the Reflecting Pool. I turned right, walking down a tree-lined path. After two hundred yards or so, ahead to  the right, as I looked through the scattered trees, the fog seemed thicker. I moved forward, sensing my objective was near. 

My pace had not slackened since I left the Mayflower. My strides were long, purposeful; the ground moved quickly beneath my feet. It was quiet, still, no one around. Just me, the morning fog, and a few scattered trees. Off to my right, the ground began to fall away. Then, emerging from the fog, the right arm of the Viet Nam Memorial came into view. For the first time, my pace slowed, my eyes fixed on the wall as I walked another hundred yards to the pathway near the Lincoln Memorial that would take me past the statue of three soldiers to the wall.  How did I get there? From the moment I left the Mayflower Hotel, though I did not know exactly where the wall was in relation to the hotel, I walked with the certainty I would go straight to the wall. As I walked, I never doubted, never questioned the direction in which I walked, where I should turn, or when I was approaching the wall even though I could not see it because of the fog and because of the wall itself being below ground level. I never slowed; I never stopped; I never questioned my direction; I made no wrong turns. Somehow, I knew. How? I know not.

The wall is an open “V” at about 125 degrees. The ends of the wall are buried in the ground, which slopes down on both sides to the apex of the “V”, giving the wall a height of about 10 feet. As I walked, and the wall rose above me, I felt very much like walking into a tomb. I looked at the names, so many names. Slowly, I walked the length of the wall, first descending into the earth, then slowly ascending as I walked toward the opposite end. Occasionally, I paused, moved on, reaching the opposite end, I slowly retraced my steps, occasionally pausing on the return.

There is no way to describe my feeling of reverence for my fallen brothers and sisters, my sadness and, perhaps ironically, a painful numbness; the same painful numbness I felt while holding three of my men as they died. Had I not numbed myself, I don’t think I could have stood the pain. They knew they were dying. I didn’t want them to die alone. I wanted them to know they were loved.  

Standing before the wall, my breathing became labored; my chest hurt; tears welled in my eyes. So many names, none of which I knew; though there were others I would recognize once I found them. 

Reaching the entrance, I found in a plastic case the thick book listing the name, rank, branch of service, hometown, age, date of death, panel and line for each of the fallen. I had brought a pencil, paper, and a stick of charcoal used for rubbings. 

I had several names to locate and get rubbings of; four in particular: Michael O’Donnell, Thomas Biddulph, Freddy Gonzalez, and Samuel Freeman. Yes, a Samuel Freeman died in Viet Nam. Sadly, there is no wall with the names of the Viet Namese brothers I lost, including Phuc, my RTO.

Michael O’Donnell, age 24, was a helicopter pilot flying out of Dak To. On the night of 24 March 1970, he and 3 other choppers were sent about 14 miles into Cambodia to extract a beleaguered Special Forces LRRP team needing immediate extraction.

Captain O’Donnell set his bird down in a small clearing and picked up all 8 men. Shortly after becoming airborne, his craft was shot down, probably by a B-40 rocket. A little over two months earlier, on 2 January 1970, somewhat prophetically, Michael wrote a beautiful poem about the insanity of this war; and it was that poem which caused me to seek his name that morning. Captain O’Donnell was listed as MIA. His remains were recovered and interned at Arlington National Cemetery on 16 August 2001. He was promoted posthumously to Major in 1978. A gentle hero who gave his life for an undeserving country.

Thomas Biddaulph, age 23, was a college classmate and friend who was killed 28 September 1968 by a landmine. We double-dated a few times because our dates always got along well, which meant we always had a good time together. Tom was a gentle soul who got caught up in the  Phoenix program–the systematic torture and slaughter of 40,000 Vietnamese people. He hated his assignment and went to MACV HQ in  Sai Gon, begging to be reassigned. Nothing doing. I cannot help but think my friend might have survived the war had he been transferred to another unit. 

Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzales, age 21, had returned home from Viet Nam shortly before the 1968 Tet Offensive. With his Marines taking heavy casualties, Freddy felt compelled to be with his brother Marines. Freddy’s initial demands to return were rebuffed, but in the end, he prevailed.  En route by truck to the battle to retake Hue, his unit was hit multiple times by snipers, machine guns and rockets fired from a heavily-fortified  position. On 4 February, Freddy’s unit took heavy casualties. Having been wounded in each of the 2 previous days, once while saving the life of a  wounded Marine, Freddy assaulted and largely neutralized the machine gun and rocket position before being fatally wounded. He was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor.

I did not have the honor of knowing Freddy personally until I moved to the Rio Grand Valley in deep south Texas in 1979. I came to know about him, and to know and love his mother; a beautiful lady who will grieve the loss of her son until her last breath. I made 2 rubbings. One for myself, and one for Dolia; although she already had several rubbings of her son’s name.

The last name was Samuel Freeman, age 40. Like me, Samuel was a paratrooper. He served as an intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne in the Nam, while I was an advisor to a Rifle Company of the South Viet Namese Airborne Division. On a reconnaissance flight, his small plane crashed and caught fire. Samuel extracted himself, and freed the pilot who had 2 broken legs and was trapped in the cockpit. Though burned over much of his body, Samuel stayed on the radio until a rescue helicopter arrived to extract him and the pilot. The pilot survived; Samuel succumbed to his burns at Walter Reed Hospital a few months later. He left a wife, Stephanie, and three children, including Samuel Freeman, IV, who has a son, Samuel, V. I hope there now is a Samuel, VI. 

Like many of my brothers, I suffer from survivor’s guilt. Standing before Samuel’s name on that black granite wall that day, I was forced to ask myself, as I have done innumerable times: If a Samuel Freeman had to die in Viet Nam, why did THAT Samuel Freeman die, and not THIS Samuel  Freeman.  The answer is the same as to the question of how I walked directly from the Mayflower Hotel to the Viet Nam Memorial without a map or any directions. Only God knows. I know not. 

On those days my heart cries tears of blood for my fallen brothers, Captain O’Donnell’s poem, which he did not title, but often is referred to as the “gentle hero poem”, brings me some comfort as I remember my “gentle heroes”. I never left them behind because I carry them in my heart every day, as I am sure many of my Nam brothers do, and as Michael would have, had he survived.  

If you are able
save for them a place
inside of you
and save one backward glance
when you are leaving
for the places they can
no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say
you loved them
though you may
or may not have always.
Take what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it with your own.
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one gentle moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind. 

Captain Michael Davis O’Donnell
1 January 1970, Dak To, Viet Nam

Samuel Freeman served as an advisor to an ARVN airborne infantry company in 1969-1970. Once home he earned a PhD in political science and became one of the first professors in the nation to teach a course on the American war in Vietnam, which he taught for thirty-five years. Email: srfree1542@icloud.com.