Magnitudes of Loss
It was late; I adjusted the Coleman® lantern until the mantle barely glowed, checked my M16 on a hook near the door, noted where I’d left my helmet and flak vest, then removed my boots, loosened my belt, and stretched out on the canvas cot. I closed my eyes, let myself drift off.
About eleven the monsoon returned and the roar of raindrops on a sheet tin roof woke me. I set the field phone buzzer to maximum volume. Pulling a poncho liner over myself, I tried to sleep. I’d been in Vietnam for nine months, however, and had seen terrible things. Sometimes I had nightmares.
Somewhere in the twilight between sleep and awareness, during a lull in the storm, I heard a single Click! from the buzzer — as if some errant electrical impulse had passed through it, perhaps only a single electron, just enough to nudge the striker against the bell once. I pried the receiver from its spring-loaded clamps and put it to my ear.
"First Air Cavalry Public Information Office," I said. “Sgt. W___ speaking.”
A faint voice danced on the crackling line. The static receded and I heard a voice, and then another, tinny but clear and urgent in the darkness.
"Golf Course Tower," said the louder voice. "Use two-one right."
The Golf Course was the nearby division airfield.
"Copy two-one right," echoed the fainter voice. "Got a load of stiffs for the morgue."
Every hair on my body stood up.
"You'll see the field hospital on the right, halfway down the runway. The morgue is just beyond. Taxi over. Try not to blow it down."
"Hello!" I shouted into the phone. "Golf Course Tower, do you copy?"
I heard only the snap and hiss of an open line. I was on a telephone, and, amazingly, listening to a radio conversation. How could this happen? Again I shouted into the mouthpiece. Again I listened.
"Copy a load of stiffs?" said the Tower.
"Roger. Nineteen KIA. Mortar platoon got overrun."
My testicles shriveled, my guts churned and I choked back bile. A mortar platoon. A mortar platoon. Oh God, I thought. Not Paul. Not Sam.
The voices faded. I jammed the handset against my ear but heard only static, like grease writhing on a distant grill.
A year earlier, Paul and Marie Harrison had been my next-door neighbors. Paul was the All American Boy, ruggedly handsome, muscular, well grounded in common sense. He laughed often, worked hard, made friends easily.
He got drafted. Soon afterward, for complicated reasons, I decided to re-up. By chance we both wound up in the First Air Cav. Paul became a mortarman. I was a combat photographer.
Marie wrote me often, urging me to look after Paul. There was little I could do; he was in a rifle company; I was in PIO. We both spent most of our time in the field. We met twice, spoke on the phone a few times. But Marie wrote regularly; I knew how much she needed Paul.
A mortar platoon overrun. There were dozens of mortar platoons shi
But if it was — what about Sam Castan?
Sam had appeared four days earlier, at dusk, a slender man in his early thirties. Hardly had he introduced himself when the first Vietcong rocket screeched overhead. A moment later a muffled thud rose from the airfield. Then another screech, and another thud.
We spent the night in a bunker that doubled as my darkroom.
By morning I had come to know an admirable man. Castan was a rising star at LOOK, the picture-heavy newsmagazine. With his Roman nose, penetrating eyes and open, charming way, Sam was a gifted raconteur. He made me feel that he'd been everywhere and done everything. Self-deprecating, worldly, he perched comfortably at History's elbow to record what passed before him with wit and insight. I saw in Castan exactly the professional that I aspired to become.
The story that brought him to the Air Cav, his own idea, was the effect of a single American death. At that time about 200 GI coffins left Vietnam each week; he wanted readers to see the magnitude of that loss by illuminating the effects of just one death. Sam's plan was to join an operation; if someone was killed, he’d follow the body back for burial, along the way interviewing the deceased's buddies, family and friends. While treading close to the macabre, Sam felt that his story would provide the profound personal dimension lacking in faceless casualty lists.
I suggested that Castan join a brigade-sized foray called Operation Crazy Horse, set to kick off the next day. Paul's Charlie Company would be part of Crazy Horse; by escorting Castan I could spend time with both.
But as we were about to leave, my boss, Major Siler called me back.
"Castan’s cherry was popped a long time ago," he said. "He doesn't need babysitting, and I've got things for you to do around here." Siler had in mind a pile of paperwork that I'd been avoiding for weeks.
I drove Sam to the Twelfth Cav, introduced him to Charlie Company's topkick and hung out with Paul for a bit. That night I wrote Marie, assuring her of Paul’s good health.
And now this weird telephone call. I was spooked.
I called Graves Registration, woke an officer and asked what he knew about 19 dead in a mortar platoon.
"This can't wait until morning?" he growled.
I explained about the radio conversation on my field phone. The officer’s voice grew thick with sarcasm.
"Give Major Feldman a call in the morning."
Feldman was the division psychiatrist.
I sat, thinking. Was I nuts? Had the war finally got to me?
I called the Tactical Operations Center and a sergeant I knew. I said I had an inquiry about an overrun mortar platoon with 19 KIA. What could he tell me?
He promised to check; when he called back he said that nothing like that had been reported.
I’d been dreaming, I decided. It seemed real, but it was absurd that I could have overheard radio traffic on a telephone. Worried about Sam and Paul, my mind had played tricks me. Exhausted, I lay down and slipped into deep, dreamless sleep.
The phone rang, loud and clear, and a sergeant with a deep, almost sepulchral voice said he was calling from the morgue. He had a body that he thought might be a civilian.
"Any newsmen you can't account for?" he asked.
I fought for breath, a fish jerked from a lake. The only reporter I knew about was Castan. Calm down, I told myself. Some newsie might have joined a unit in the field without bothering to check in; it wouldn't be the first time.
The morgue sergeant said they’d need an ID on the body. I pulled a poncho over my head and ran a few yards to Siler's hooch.
"I met him for two minutes," said Siler. "You spent hours together. This one's yours."
The morgue was a mile’s march; my dread grew with every step. From time to time I tilted my face skyward and let falling drops wash away my tears.
My mind cowered behind a wall of numbness as I stepped inside the morgue tent and identified myself to a staff sergeant. He shook out the contents of a plastic bag.
"Recognize any of this?" he said.
I saw Hong Kong coins, keys, a folding knife and a Zippo lighter engraved with the LOOK Magazine logo. On the other side were initials: S. C.
"Might be Castan's lighter," I said.
I followed him down a canvas corridor to a chamber cluttered with wooden tables. Naked bulbs dangled from overhead cords. Each table had a body bag. The sergeant consulted a zipper tag, glanced at me, opened the bag halfway and stepped back. Somebody moved in behind me to work over another body. Squinting, I hunched forward.
I was empty, spent, unutterably weary. Why Sam? What a waste, I thought. I tried to pull myself together.
"Need you to sign the death certificate, identifying him," he said.
Turning to leave, I glanced at a body on the table: Paul Harrison. Gruesome wounds marred his chest, limbs and abdomen but his face was unmarked and strangely peaceful. A sergeant put two pieces of paper in front of me, and I signed them. I don't remember walking back or telling Siler what happened, but somehow I did.
Later I learned a little about how Sam and Paul died: Helicopters had dropped Charlie Company on LZ Hereford, a jungled slope 20 miles east of our basecamp. As the rifle platoons moved down the mountain, looking for the enemy, the mortars remained to support their advance.
But in the thick elephant grass just above Hereford waited 100 heavily-armed men of the North Vietnamese Army, so well concealed that the rifle platoons passed right by them. When these platoons were far down the mountainside, out of sight, the NVA fell on the lightly-armed mortarmen. They radioed for help but by the time the rest of Charlie Company returned, the fight was over. Three badly wounded men hid in thick brush; everyone else was killed.
Several weeks later another Air Cav unit fought this same NVA regiment; among the gear and equipment we recovered from the battlefield were Sam's cameras and exposed film. Sam’s last photos included several of a mortarman using a bayonet and a shovel in desperate hand-to-hand combat. The very last exposure shows this soldier’s death:
It was Paul.
When I returned from Vietnam, I went to see Marie and her toddler daughter. Many years later we reconnected. Marie was still teaching third grade. She had remarried and borne a second daughter, but I soon realized that as much as Marie learned to love her second husband, she never entirely got over Paul's loss. We stayed in touch until her death two years ago.
Memories of Sam haunted me for decades. I felt complicit in his death; if I hadn’t wanted to see Paul, Sam would have accompanied another unit. With the arrival of the Internet and other research tools, I discovered that Sam had shortened his name from Castagna and that a plaque in New York's Overseas Press Club honors his memory. I wondered how his death had affected his wife, Frances, who had remarried and was known as a gifted poet and writing teacher.
Thirty-three years after Sam’s death, I was finally able to meet Frances. I told her how Sam found himself at LZ Hereford and asked her forgiveness for sending him to his death.
"There’s nothing to forgive," she said. "You couldn't know what would happen and you only were trying to help Sam."
I had told that to myself for years, but I needed to hear it from Frances. A great burden lifted from my soul.
Only then did I stop dreaming about my awful night in the morgue, and only then did it occur to me that if Siler hadn't prevented me from escorting Sam, surely I would have died with him at Hereford.
I don't know if I’ll ever find meaning in the lives of those who died in Vietnam, but from Marie and Frances I learned that hearts heal and lives go on. I have researched radio phenomena and learned how it was possible to pick up nearby radio transmissions on a telephone, especially in wet weather.
But I will never understand how, at precisely the moment when a pilot radioed the tower that he was bringing Paul and Sam's bodies to the morgue, a single chirp from my telephone summoned me to listen.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.