I. The Identification
It was the least I could do. Compared to everyone else, I’d been either incredibly lucky or incredibly unlucky that day. Today, more than 40 years later, I’m still trying to decide which. I only know I felt I had to do something to redeem myself. So when the company gunny came up on the radio and said that someone had to go identify the body, I volunteered. A half hour later the gunny and I were in his jeep out on Highway 9 (just a dirt road really) heading toward Dong Ha and Delta Med.
His name was Jim Reaves, “like the country and western singer,” he liked to point out, “only spelled with an 'a'.” I first noticed him some six months earlier, atop a hill in Phu Bai, where we would soon practice artillery spotting. Undaunted by an exhausting climb, he was standing atop a sandbag wall, arms outstretched over the valley below, loudly proclaiming to all who would listen, “Look at me. I’m God!” At that moment, he didn’t look much like the God; but he was tall, blond, square-jawed, and generally imposing, and in another time and place, he probably could have passed for a god.
The rest of us were still trying to recover. Wearing helmets and flak jackets in Phu Bai’s wet heat, we had just climbed up and along a ridge that seemed to keep rising in steep intervals of at least a hundred yards from one peak to another, until at last we got to the highest peak. We were a polyglot group of about 20 young enlisted Marines, all of us from different units and backgrounds and all thrown together just days before as “volunteers” for the Combined Action Program, or “CAP” for short. At that point, I doubt that any of us knew exactly what the program was all about, only that we would be sent out to a village to win those fabled “hearts and minds.” For some us, I’m sure, the program seemed to represent a good way to get out of the bush; for others, including me, it represented one last chance to get into it. But before we would get out to our respective “villes,” as we called them then, we first had to go through a two-week school at Phu Bai, the main purpose of which seemed to be to ensure that we were tactically and technically, if not culturally, pro-ficient. That’s how Reaves and I and the others found ourselves on this hill about to call in real artillery fire from a battery stationed just below us.
The low sandbag wall that Reaves had jumped up on rimmed the western side of the summit, from which we could we see nearly straight down into a lush green valley, itself made up of gently rolling hills, which themselves soon rose into a series of equally lush but formidable looking mountains extending all the way to the horizon.
The view was spectacular, a point Reaves was not going to let the rest of us fail to appreciate. He soon started reaching down and tugging at the guys within his reach, commanding them to take a good look. “God, that’s BEAUTIFUL!” Reaves added, speaking to him-self, I suppose. It was a stirring sight, or should have been. As Hamlet says of Polonius, however, most of us were “for a jig or a tale of bawdry or [we slept].” I know I was still trying to recover from the climb and wasn’t up for any sightseeing. But Reaves wasn’t like the rest of us. As I came to know him, he was sensitive and intelligent and not afraid to show those qualities. Nothing ever seemed to get him down; he was irrepressible, always cheerful and gregarious. He could also be boisterous, arrogant, and even overbearing. At times I didn’t like him. But, truth be told, it was a dislike born of envy and resentment at both his background and his ability to relate to people.
As the gunny and I were driving along, I also remembered how Reaves and I had managed to get thrown together. I suppose that one trait we did have in common was foolhardiness or just reckless bravado. Toward the end of CAP school, one of our instructors asked if any of us would be willing to volunteer for “Papa Company, up north.” The program up there, he explained, was new. Papa Company was still “getting established.” “A couple of the units had been “hit,” he warned. In a cavalier mood, I raised my hand. So, too, did Reaves. I noticed him again on this occasion because he was elbowing the man next to him, commanding him to raise his hand. He dutifully obeyed. I would later come to know this other man as "Scotty," a quiet and unassuming Canadian who had enlisted in the Marine Corps to see something of our war.
All the way to Dong Ha, I kept marveling at what a beautiful day it was, sunny and cool, with hardly a cloud in the sky. That’s probably what had gotten us all in trouble in the first place. According to the calendar, it was early December, but spring had come to Quang Tri Province up in northern I Corps.
A preview of the monsoon rains had hit hard in September and continued into October in our area. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I never got any farther south than Da Nang. But when I think back on the discomforts of my days in country, Vietnam’s fa-bled heat doesn’t even come in as a close second to the monsoon cold.
I realize now, as I think I realized then, that the actual temperature may not have dropped below the fifties, maybe even the sixties. But put yourself in my place. When the humidity is 100 percent and it’s raining, the wind is blowing and you’re wet and you have no dry clothes left to change in to, and you can see your breath and you’re shivering—you’re cold. I can remember being out on patrol, for ex-ample, and getting so wet that my skin would wrinkle up just the way it did when, as a kid, I would stay in a swimming pool too long. Add to this the fact that the Marine Corps didn’t think we needed field jackets--we were in a “tropical country” after all--and maybe you’ll understand why, to this day, rainy days and cold water get me down. Ever since Vietnam, I’ve felt that I have some special insight into what Brook Benton meant when he sang, “Seems like it’s rain-in’ all over the world.”
But what a difference in one’s mood and morale a little sun can make. This was long before I’d heard of the pathetic fallacy or the idea of nature moralized. (You’ll have to pardon me. Since Vietnam, I’ve spent a lot of time going around in academic circles, pun intended.) At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the irony of our having been ambushed on such a beautiful day, although I think I certainly intuited it. As we drove along, a part of me wanted to blame the weather. It was as if it had conspired with the other side to throw us off guard. But, as I had to admit to myself, the truth of the matter was that it had been a long time since any of us had really been on our guard. All throughout that fall, we had suffered from friendly folly but not enemy fire. As a result, we had grown complacent and even lackadaisical.
Amazingly, no one seemed to blame our PFs, the Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers we were supposedly there to train and inspire. The patrol team had crossed the river alone, only five Marines and no PFs. The irony was that Papa Three Marines had pretty much been patrolling alone for the past month, ever since the PFs had first re-fused to patrol the hamlets on the northern side of the Song Cam Lo. “Beaucoup VC” they had given as their reason. I suppose we all realized that the PFs could have said, “We tried to tell you so!”
No, we couldn’t blame the PFs. It was not their fault. If my fellow Marines had ignored our CO’s directive that day, this trip to Charlie Med might not have been necessary. But, then, who was I to criticize? Only a day or two before, I had been the leader of this patrol team, and I don’t know how many patrols I had led along that very same route, violating the most basic rule in the book on my own initiative.
The truth is, I was a lousy leader, barely competent, painfully in-secure, and Reaves knew it. I still remember the first patrol I ever led. A group of us had gone out earlier in the day to a shallow part of the river to get rid of some old ordnance, mostly grenades. When someone, I forget whom, told our compound leader that a couple grenades had not gone off, he sent us out to retrieve them lest they fall into the enemy’s hands. Fortunately, we had thrown them into a fairly shallow bend in the river, and we found the first dud right away. After nearly an hour of wading around on our hands and knees looking for the second one, the guys were starting to suggest that we just “bag it” when suddenly I felt something hard and smooth under my knee. There was our second grenade. On the way back, Reaves slapped me on the back and said I was a “good leader” not to let us give up. I knew it wasn’t true. Reaves knew it wasn’t true. But it was a thoughtful and generous gesture, and I was grateful to him for making it.
And now Reaves was dead--he was really dead!--an idea I was still trying to wrap my mind around as we pulled up in front of Delta Med.
Neither of us knew exactly where to go. We stumbled into triage first, only to have an irritable corpsman abruptly chase us away from a couple of doctors working intently over an unconscious figure. Demanding to know our business, the corpsman brusquely directed us to Graves Registration, which was in a small unmarked shack out back. Here we were again challenged, this time by a lugubrious-looking sergeant who opened the door only wide enough to peek out at us speak-easy-style. The gunny explained why we were there, and our Charon for that day grudgingly opened the door, admitting us to the most macabre scene I had ever witnessed.
My dominant impression remains that of a cottage industry of death conducted in a matter-of-fact manner that only served to heighten the horror. The building itself wasn’t much larger than to-day’s average suburban two-car garage, and except for lacking a garage door, the effect was very much the same. The front door opened immediately into one large room. The floor was concrete and appeared to have been hosed down recently. Set up throughout the room were at least six rustic preparation tables constructed from two-by-fours and sheets of corrugated roofing tin. (As they used to say, “Nothing is too good for our boys.”) Three bodies lay out in plain view. They had been stripped naked and apparently hosed off.
Asking us to “wait one,” the sergeant--who was tall and thin, and whose generally forbidding presence reminded me of Raymond Massey--went over to a desk at the far side of the room to assemble some paperwork. Completely ignorant of the procedure, I assumed one of the three bodies must be Reaves and that I should be proceeding with the identification.
None of the bodies looked at all familiar at first glance, so I forced myself to walk up to one of the tables for a closer look. Bending over the face, I suddenly realized with a start that I was looking into a flattened, bullet-punctured eyeball.
I had just about convinced myself that this unfamiliar visage must be Reaves transformed by the shock of death when I was startled by a strange, thundering command: “I thought I told you to pick that up!” I just froze, wondering what I was to pick up, when a shy little lance corporal darted in front of me and, with a sheepish grin, bent down at my feet, coming up bare-handed with a fist-sized chuck of brain tissue. I had almost stepped on it.
This distraction, however, had come just in time. Before I could foolishly try to identify the wrong body, this same lance corporal was leading me into a back room saying, “Reaves is this way.”
I soon found myself in a narrow room facing a bank of stainless steel drawers, such as I had seen in any number of television and movie morgue scenes. Checking the numbers on the drawers against a sheet of paper, my guide went to one of the lower drawers and pulled it out between us. I remember that it extended the entire width of the room, touching the opposite wall, and that the room was dimly lit, the only light coming from a high window at the far end.
The body was in a translucent, zippered plastic bag, which the lance corporal unzipped and pulled away along the entire length of the body. This time I was sure. I recognized Reaves at a glance and said so. But before he would let me go, my ghoulish guide insisted upon tilting the head first one way and then the other, in the process revealing a small, neat puncture wound on one side, not even as large as a dime, and the gaping exit wound, large enough to put my fist in, on the other. Much of the brain tissue had been blasted out. What remained looked sort of like pink cauliflower. The eyes were half-open but turned back into the head. The mouth was open and fixed in a strange, half-grin. The teeth were yellow; I had remembered Reaves as having good, white teeth.
I especially remembered those teeth because Reaves, who was irrepressibly outspoken, had a peculiar self-effacing way of defusing the situation whenever he sensed that he had gone a bit too far in his kidding or his candor. With an index finger in each corner of his mouth, he would pull his mouth wide open to reveal clenched teeth and would then shake his head and whinny like a horse. The effect would be to leave you wondering if he were making fun of himself or of you. Either way, he was big enough, and imposing enough, that he always got away with it. “Where be his quiddities now . . . .?” Invariably, I picture Reaves doing his horse laugh whenever I read or hear that line.
After I don’t know how long, my guide looked up at me with a strange half-smile. I suppose he liked his work, especially the esoteric nature of it. He was privy to things that even combat Marines only occasionally glimpsed, and even then didn’t allow themselves to dwell on. This guy had perhaps made a study of all the ways a high-powered bullet could damage a body, and he seemed to take a perverse delight in showing them off. Satisfied at last that I had made positive identification, he zipped the body up, slid the drawer back in, and led me out.
A couple of formalities remained. I had to sign a form attesting to the positive identification, and the sergeant asked me to verify and witness a considerable sum of money Reaves had had on him. He handed me a wad of bills, asking me to count them. Ordinarily, it would not have been a difficult task. It was only about $300, remarkably, in U.S. currency rather than in the small bills of government-style Monopoly money, Military Payment Certificates or “MPCs.” I remember wondering why Reaves had been hoarding and carrying around so much American money. He hadn’t been up for R&R. I didn’t know until later that he was due to rotate home in days.
I tried to start the count, but I found myself just too shaken to concentrate. I kept thinking in particular of his former girl back home; they had planned to get married. She had sent him a Dear-John letter only a month or so before. The worst part of it, from what Reaves had confided, was that she had somehow felt entitled to the entire joint bank account that they had both paid into, over $500, a large sum to enlisted Marines in those days. When would she hear? Would she feel guilty? Would she feel responsible? I had my own reasons for taking a special interest in how she would react, even though I had never met this girl and never would.
I was on my third false start when the sergeant and gunny stepped in and counted the money for me. Somehow I managed to sign a receipt for the money and the rest of Reaves's personal effects—a watch, a wallet, a Marine Corps ring, and a few other odds and ends. The sergeant put them in a green cloth bag and gave them to me to take back to be included in the inventory with the rest of Reaves’s things. We were done at last.
Once we were back out on Highway 9, the gunny said, "Hell of a way to make a living, isn't it, Palm?” I agreed it was, and neither of us said another word all the way back to Papa Three.