Letters Bring Home Message of Viet War : The Making of a Poignant Anthology Filled With Pain and Hope

Times Staff Writer

The letters in this book were not meant to be their authors' last letters . . . they are constantly filled with plans, as if we believed that if we talked enough about the future we would have one . . . .

--William Broyles Jr.,

in the foreword to "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam"

Robert Santos, who was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, reflected on this riveting anthology and those who wrote it and said, "Some might have been lawyers and doctors and wonderful writers. On the other hand, they didn't survive."

The book, published in this, the 10th-anniversary year of the end of America's most agonizing war, is extraordinary by its very ordinariness, a collection of 208 letters written to wives and friends and lovers by 125 of the men and women who were there. They are, for the most part, neither deep nor philosophical, only very, very human.

Some of the writers were scared; some were angry; all were lonely. They wrote about the weather--"It's hot as hell"--and about "man-eating" mosquitoes. They wrote about a boredom that "would try the Pope's patience." They wrote about wet socks and blisters and foot-gripping mud and razor-sharp elephant grass, and of such Marine Corps "cuisine" as meatballs with beans in tomato sauce.

And they wrote about what it felt like to kill another human being.

Unlike those who, a decade later, were to expound in print and on television on the meaning of that war, said Santos, one of the compilers of the volume, "we didn't want reflection. We wanted to capture what it was like to be there at that point in time."

Santos views "Dear America" (W. W. Norton: $13.95) both as a kind of people's history and as a valuable tool for "comparing what went on there with what went on here."

What went on here did not go unnoticed by the letter writers. Some, such as 1st Lt. James M. Simmen from Danville, Calif., now a carpenter in Alaska, expressed their bitterness. In March, 1968, Simmen wrote to his brother Vern: " . . . When you see men suffer and die for principles, and take it so great, it's hard to forgive liberals and free thinkers crying over nothing."

Wrote Sgt. John Hagmann, "It's a funny feeling to be afraid to go home. . . ."

Sgt. Thomas Oathout, a soldier-poet, wrote:

Mother

I am cursed

I'm a soldier

In an age

When soldiers aren't in fashion.

Many of those who fought it did not see it as a just or winnable war. Peter Torrano, an Army specialist/5, assuring his mother that he was not going to re-enlist, wrote: "The Chinese would have to be coming up the Hudson (River) in sampans before I'd join again, and only after the women and children went first."

That so many letters from Vietnam were saved by those to whom they were sent is, Santos noted, more than luck. "This war was so strange," he said, and the families of those who were fighting it had so little support, that the letters took on an added importance. "If someone tried to reach out to neighbors, to tell them, 'God, Billy's in trouble over there,' they might have said, 'Well, it serves him right. . . .' "

"Dear America" is, Santos pointed out, a book that would not have been possible even five years ago. "Who would have cared?" he asked. "Who would have read it? Who would have sent us letters?"

But a new pride has surfaced among those who served in Vietnam. A bold, sad memorial in Washington draws tens of thousands of visitors. A parade in Manhattan in May was a celebration, a confetti-sprinkled thank-you to those veterans.

And, on that day, May 7, the 10th-anniversary date, in lower Manhattan another Vietnam memorial was dedicated. The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial is what Santos called "more than just an honor roll for the dead," not just a place to grieve but one that "generates hope, and thinking." It is a glass wall, 66 feet long and 16 feet high, on which are etched excerpts from those letters that became the book, "Dear America."

The book was unplanned. "We started out building a memorial," said Santos, who as deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation served as co-chairman of the design committee for the memorial commission.

Having chosen a design, the commission set out, through newspaper ads, appeals to members of Congress who had served in Vietnam ("a big zip" there, Santos said) and word of mouth, to gather the letters that would be excerpted for the wall. Ultimately 3,000 letters, tapes, poems and diary entries came in from 600 sources.

At that point one of the design jurors, a Vietnam veteran, said: "Jeez, we could probably write a book. . . ."

W. W. Norton was the publisher chosen because, Santos said, "they gave us 75% of the profits," earmarked for job programs for Vietnam veterans.

The letters selected do not purport to be representative either geographically, racially or ethnically, and Santos acknowledged some imbalance: "We thought we might get more from doctors and nurses. And we can't say for sure what the pilots felt when they were flying their missions to Haiphong. But I think 90% of the people who served in Vietnam are reflected."

The writers were, in a sense, historians, many of them posthumous historians. As Santos noted, "One-half to two-thirds of these people had no future."

Widows, parents and children responded to the appeal for letters. For each letter, written permission to reprint had to be obtained.

The widow of Marine 2nd Lt. Tyrone S. Pannell, killed in November, 1965, in a mine explosion near Chuy Lai, six months after the birth of his daughter, Tracy Renee, submitted one of the most touching letters, written to Tracy three months before his death.

It reads, in part: " . . . Before you were born I, like most men, wanted a son. But 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. For a son grows and becomes a man while a daughter is always a child to be loved and cared for. . . .

"The next time I see you, you will be a little lady, walking and talking. Learn how to say 'Daddy.'

"I love you with all my heart . . . ."

Tracy Pannell, now a student at Stanford University, was, Santos said, reluctant to give permission to publish. "Numerous phone calls" later, he said, "I think she finally understood the context."

When they ran into trouble, the anthology compilers enlisted the assistance of a man they called "Deep Vet," a veteran who worked in a government agency with access to computer files.

Poignant letters were brought in by Deborah Brudno, widow of Air Force Maj. Edward A. Brudno, letters written while he was a POW for more than seven years before being repatriated in 1973. He wrote of his love for her, of his plans for the two of them, "the incomparable joy we will share."

On June 3, 1973, four months after his release and one day before his 33rd birthday, Edward Brudno committed suicide. Why? Santos shook his head and said, "I didn't want to know."

There is one Medal of Honor winner among those included but, Santos said, "We picked him for his thoughts. Two-thirds of the way through we found out."

Mortally Wounded

He was Army Pfc. Louis E. Willett, 21, of New York, killed in action on Feb. 15, 1967.

That Thanksgiving, in a letter home, Willett had written of the anticipation of coming home, of "buying a car and just riding around the country to see what there is. . . ."

No monetary compensation was offered for publication and only one letter-holder asked for money, Santos said--a family friend.

The vocabulary was not changed; the writers tell of killing "gooks" (a derogatory term for an Oriental), for example. But, Santos said, "We wanted people to understand how we were then, and how we are now. It was the language of the '60s, even though it is no longer appropriate."

The letters are filled with sentiment--and occasionally with savagery.

A lieutenant wrote to his brother, "You'd be surprised how similar killing is to hunting. I know I'm after souls, but I get all excited when I see a V.C. (Viet Cong), just like when I see a deer. . . ."

But another officer, putting down his thoughts after a raid, wrote, " . . . We, too, die while winning such fights. . . ."

Specialist/5 Thomas Pellaton, an opera singer who is now maitre d'hotel at New York's Carlyle hotel, wrote of the "human damage" of his war, "not just the dead, but the GIs who can't talk in coherent sentences anymore, or the ones who have found they love to kill, or the Vietnamese, who must have been a very gentle, graceful people before the war turned them into thieves, black marketeers and prostitutes. . . . I feel like I'm at the bottom of a great sewer. . . ."

Almost 3 million Americans served in Vietnam and 58,000 died there; 300,000 were wounded. Fear was a persistent theme in these letters home. Some openly acknowledged it; others smothered it in bravado.

The frustration of these men and women was enormous; their war simply was not fought by the rules. In their war, the POWs might be a woman, just made a widow, and her infant. In their war, the enemy could be a farmer by day and a Viet Cong at night. In their war, both sides fought again and again over the same ground--and the measure of victory was the body count.

The men were hot and sticky and miserable much of the time. One suggested that "the national flower of Vietnam should be an immense thorn."

Cathleen Cordova, now of Redondo Beach, who was a club director for Army special services, described her birthday party in November, 1968, a pull-out-the-stops banquet of corn flakes with chocolate milk in lieu of the usual cold rice and dried fish heads. And she told of troops, just in from months in the boondocks, flushing club toilets just for the wonder of seeing a flushing toilet.

Those who lived told of seeing arms and legs blown off buddies, eyes shot out, of friends so horribly wounded they were not, at first, recognizable. Army nurse Lynda Van Devanter wrote, "This war disgusts me. . . . I'm sick of facing, every day, a new bunch of children ripped to pieces. . . ."

Santos said, "I relate very closely to the letters written by officers, about how difficult it was to go on," to be responsible for people getting killed. (In a 1981 book, Al Santoli's "Everything We Had," Santos, a draftee, a green OCS lieutenant who became a much-decorated 101st Airborne Division rifle platoon leader, told of his feelings of inadequacy, a non-West Pointer, 21 years old, who "didn't know anything."

"I wrote very few letters home," Santos said, "because there was nothing to talk about." What he was feeling, he explained, was the devastation of losing eight of his 30 men, the feeling that there was nothing to be won in Vietnam. The goal, he said, was just to come home alive--without shaming your family and friends.

To Santos, "Dear America" is more than a history. Maybe now, he said, other families will feel they want to "open up their strongboxes, dust them off and read their own kid's letters."

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