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Letters Home Tell Of Hopes, Fears, Horror

May 7, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ Private Louis Willet told of his plans to buy a car and ″ride around the country.″ Lt. Marion Lee Kempner wrote of ″a country of thorns and cuts, of guns and marauding, of little hope and great failure.″ All Private Ray Griffiths wanted was ″the truth. Has Darlene been faithful to me?″

Each was a soldier in Vietnam, writing home about his dreams and fears, and each died there. But their words endure, etched in glass on the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was dedicated Monday, and in the pages of a new book, ″Dear America, Letters Home from Vietnam.″

The letters ″evoke a jungle world of emotion: the intense longing for home, the fear, the hope, the grief, the death,″ according to the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, which collected about 3,000 letters, tapes, journal entries and other writings from some 600 people, including veterans, their families and friends.

The book contains 203 letters written by 125 men and women, and the memorial bears excerpts from 83. The book’s publication and the memorial’s dedication were timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Proceeds from the book will help pay for an employment program for the city’s Vietnam veterans.

Its compilers hope that it will help explain Vietnam to those who were not there.

Cpl. John Houghton of Maple Heights, Ohio, writing to the mother of a slain comrade:

″I want to hold my head between my hands and run screaming away from here. ... I’m hollow, Mrs. Perko. I’m a shell and when I’m scared I rattle. I’m no one to tell you about your son.″

Rod Chastant, a Marine from Mobile, Ala., explaining to his mother why he decided to extend his stay in Vietnam: ″Here, there is a job to be done. There are moral decisions to be made almost every day. My experience is invaluable. This job requires a man of conscience. ... I am needed here, Mom. ... The incompetency and the wrongs committed in Vietnam are staggering. But through it all, I see a little light.″

Chastant was killed a month into his new tour of duty at the age of 25. His fate was shared by Griffiths, who was killed a few weeks after asking about his girlfriend’s affections, and by Willet, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the battle in which he was killed.

In another letter, Chastant had sought to alleviate his mother’s worry that her letters were too trivial:

″Mom, I appreciate all your letters. ... They aren’t trivial to me. I’m eager to read anything about what you or the family are doing. You can’t understand the importance these trivial events take on out here. (They) keep me civilized. For a while, as I read your letters, I am a normal person. I’m not killing people, or worried about being killed. Instead, I am going ice skating or walking through a department store to exchange a lamp shade.″

Kempner of Galveston, Texas, saw a beautiful yet thornless red jungle flower on a hillside and thought of his aunt Fannie - and Vietnam itself.

″It is a country of thorns and cuts, of guns and marauding, of little hope and of great failure,″ he wrote. ″Yet in the midst of it all, a beautiful thought, gesture and even person can arise among it, waving bravely at the death that pours down upon it. Some day this hill will be burned by napalm, and the red flower will crackle up and die among the thorns. So what was the use of it living ... ?″

The meaning of life, Kempner said, was the same for flower and man: ″His salvation from the thorns around him lies in the fact that he existed at all, in his very own personality.″

Three weeks after he wrote his aunt, Kempner was killed by shrapnel from a mine explosion.

Lt. Tyrone Pannell of New York City wrote a note to his uncomprehending infant daughter, Tracy: ″When I saw you for the first time just a few minutes old, I knew I could never love a son the way I loved you. ... The next time I see you, you will be a little lady, walking and talking. Learn how to say, ’Daddy.‴

On Nov. 30, 1965, exactly six months after his daughter was born, Pannell was killed in a land mine explosion.

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