This Memorial Day, in what's becoming an annual pilgrimage, I'll get to the Mall and visit the Vietnam memorial and I'll look at the names, that etched listing of 57,939 that I'll see superimposed over my reflection as I stare at that black wall. I'll look at the mass of names, then I'll search out the names of the people who were in my outfit. But I'll be going to see one name in particular, that of Pfc James Childers, who died instead of me somewhere near Danang in the year 1967.
As always since the first time I visited Maya Lin's stark design, I'll be somewhat afraid of being overwhelmed to the point of numbness by all the names, the way the war itself overwhelmed us with death after a while and we had to stop feeling in order to function. I know that the names on the wall will bring another picture to my mind, the memory of the first time I saw our dead en masse: a line of 50 marines lying in the red Quang Ngai mud outside B-Med at Chu Lai. It was raining, and all of their faces were covered with those useless ponchos we had, but their legs and feet were sticking out and they were all wearing my boots. I always wonder if I'll see that line of unadorned dead lying at the base of the memorial wall.
But it's been a long time since I had that moment of realization every soldier must have when he sees dead men wearing the so- familiar accoutrements of his own uniform and equipment; that recognition of his own mortality so alien to the mind of an 18-or 19-year-old. And I hope that I won't see the dead like that anymore; I hope that enough time has at last gone by. I'd like for once to honor them without the intrusion of my own thankfulness at surviving.
I don't know how well this will work out.
Flying medevacs you got used to the dead quickly, since you were often knee-deep in them. The missions I remember most vividly were the night missions: hanging over a machine gun, searching the blackness, waiting for the streams of green tracers to come flying up toward the aircraft; when they did my own tracers flashing red, curving toward the ground: an image still so real that it's ruined me for video games. The bottom would suddenly drop out of the world like a released trap door and we'd fall and land hard and they'd bring in the wounded and the dead while we'd feel the helicopter straining to lift off and be out of danger; we'd feel that in the tissues of our bodies. The wounded and the dead would lie on the deck around the gun mounts, the living holding on to each other, bleeding into each others' wounds, and we'd get out of there. And when we landed the stretcher bearers would carry out the hurt and unceremoniously drag out the dead and we'd wash the blood and other fluids off the deck with a hose and take off again to scoop up another load of names to be put on that quiet black wall near Constitution Avenue.
James Childers died in what was to have been the last week of the war for him. Our squadron was rotating to Okinawa to regroup and receive new aircraft, and he and I were in the small contingent left behind as a transition team.
It was the second time I'd rotated to Okinawa: my other squadron had gone there and disbanded after a seven-month stint in Vietnam. The statistics of its tour there are perhaps telling of what it meant to be in a helicopter squadron in Vietnam in 1966-1967. According to a base newspaper clipping I still have, our outfit had flown over 25,000 hours during those seven months and participated in more than a dozen operations, including several major efforts along the DMZ. The article mentions that the squadron averaged more than 200 medevacs a month, 25 percent of them flown at night, and that seven aircraft were lost during this period. It tells how one helicopter was brought back to base with more than 500 bullet holes in it, and another with 800. These last facts are not accurate: the holes were caused by shrapnel, not bullets. But holes they were.
The article does not mention the devastation a North Vietnamese army 12.7mm or a quad-50 caliber machine gun can wreak on low-flying helicopters, nor does it tell of Helicopter Valley, that deadly area near the Rockpile scattered with the crushed grasshoppers of shot-down helicopters, nor of the aircraft and crewmen we lost when one of our flights flew into a barrage of American artillery on its way to an emergency landing zone. A boy I knew was flying gunner on one of the helicopters that survived that flight. He told me how he could see the 155mm shell seem to drift, dream-like, into the cargo door of the ship in front of his, just before the aircraft burst into a fireball.
But this is a remembrance of James Childers. After my other squadron had disbanded, I came back to finish out my tour. It was my last week, and I was down to the last three days of it, but I was still flying. The transition had left both our squadron and our replacement unit shorthanded and everybody had to do everything. I spent part of my time dealing with last-minute paperwork, part of it helping with maintenance on the helicopters, and the rest of it in the air. Childers and I were often thrown together on details that week. We were friendly, but not close -- military acquaintances.
The facts of his death are simple enough. I was scheduled to be on standby flight status that night, but for a reason I've never known, his section chief came to me and asked if I'd mind switching places with him: Childers was scheduled to fly the next day. That night the aircraft he was assigned to was called out on an emergency resupply mission to a hill near Danang. The helicopter was on approach when it came under fire. A single bullet penetrated it and the body of James Childers, entering just below the bottom edge of his flak jacket. He died an hour later on an operating table in Charlie Med.
It was not an unusual way for a helicopter crewman to die, nor do I consider the way we happened to switch places particularly miraculous. Freaks of fate become mundane in a war. For the next two days I flew his missions and I was more terrified than I'd ever been. But the flights were all milk runs and I survived.
I survived and he didn't, and it was out of this simplest of reasons, which is of course the reason memorials are built in the first place, that I wanted to write this about him, to take a moment to remember James Childers, a boy I didn't know too well, but who died in my place and in your name, one of 57,939 who did the same.