I'm never quite sure what to make of Memorial Day.
I know it's the day when we honor those who have died in our country's wars. And, God knows, those men and women who paid the ultimate price deserve to be remembered. But what is being commemorated is not really something we want to dwell on too much.
Memorial Day is about death. Specifically, it is about death on the battlefield, and anybody who has ever been in combat will tell you there is nothing glorious or ennobling about meeting one's end in such a way.
The truth is, the vast majority of combat deaths are the result of sheer bad luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And almost all of them are pure waste, robbing a young man (or, today, a young woman) of all those years he could have lived, while contributing nothing to the war effort. As Gen. George S. Patton observed, you don't win wars by dying for your country, but by making the enemy die for his.
As it happened, the first American combat death I witnessed fell 40 years ago on what would have been Memorial Day if they reckoned the date then the way they do now.
It was the last Monday in May 1968 - May 27, to be exact - when a helicopter gunship sent a stream of minigun fire and four rockets into the middle of my platoon. It was what is called a "friendly fire incident."
My Army unit was patrolling the foothills of the Annam Cordillera, the mountain range that separates Vietnam from Laos. The soil in these hills is a hard, stony clay, so few trees grow in it. Mostly the vegetation consists of woody shrubs, and in places they grow so thickly that travel by foot can be difficult.
Travel had been especially difficult that day - made more so by the 100-plus degree temperature - and somehow we ended up where we weren't supposed to be. To get back on track, we would have to bushwhack our way down a steep slope covered with high, thick brush.
While we were doing this, someone spotted four North Vietnamese soldiers and fired at them. The enemy took off, so artillery strikes were called in and helicopter gunships were sent for, and the company command post radioed us to stop our bushwhacking and get down.
One of the rockets exploded about 10 feet from me. Had it not been for the thick brush, I probably would have been torn to ribbons by shrapnel from the blast. Farther down the hill, someone popped a colored smoke grenade so the gunship crews could see we were "friendlies." But the brush was dry, and the heat from the grenade ignited it. A curtain of flames began moving rapidly up the hill toward me.
I started to retreat back up the hill along the trail we had made, but had gone only a few feet when I burst into a clearing that was not there before. It was the rocket's blast crater.
On the edge of the crater was the machine-gunner we called "Tex." His body was covered with fragmentation wounds, and he had a really ugly abdominal wound. I realized then that the mound under his olive green T-shirt was his guts. He was alive, but he did not respond when I tried to talk to him. I yelled for "Doc," our platoon's medic, not realizing that he had been hit by one of the other rockets.
I wish I could say that at this point I became a hero, that I slung him over my shoulder fireman-style and scrambled to the top of the hill ahead of the flames, saving his life. But being a hero is also a matter of luck - good or bad, depending on how you look at it. And today it was bad.
Because of his abdominal wound, and because of his size, I'd have to drag him to safety, and the flames were coming on way too fast for that. So it looked like my choice was to abandon him and save myself or stay there and die with him.
As it happened, I was spared that choice. Three other men showed up in the clearing. Together, we were able to drag Tex to temporary safety.
We found ourselves at the head of a ravine, with no radio and completely cut off from our unit. We dressed his wounds as best we could, and eventually, after another hair-raising retreat from the flames, we were able to get to a bombed-out open area at the foot of the ravine, where we managed to get the attention of a small scout helicopter that had been flying around. The chopper landed and picked him up. After that, we caught up with the forward half of our platoon.
Tex - his real name was Thomas Hill - did not make it. He was taken to a MASH unit at Quang Tri, where he died that night.
Even worse, though, was what apparently happened to our medic, Jerry Wayne Vandevender. Nobody saw him after the rockets hit. His badly burned body was recovered after the fire had burned itself out. His death certificate gave the cause of death as "3rd degree burns to 100% of body." It noted that he also had received fragmentation wounds to his abdomen and thigh, so it appears he was alive, and likely conscious, when the flames got to him.
There were 33 nonfatal casualties who also had to be evacuated that day, most of whom had succumbed to the heat while fleeing the fire. The four enemy soldiers whose sighting set off the chain of events that caused these casualties apparently escaped unscathed.
Nobody got any medals that day, not even a Purple Heart. Back then, those killed or wounded by friendly fire were not eligible.
I would witness other combat deaths, though none was the result of friendly fire. Even so, there was no glory in any of them. Anyone who believes there is glory in dying in battle should take a look at the Matthew Brady photographs of the Antietam battlefield. Then you'll understand.
I suppose a society that sends its young people off to die in its wars has a need to somehow make their deaths meaningful. Thus, the three-volley rifle salutes, the playing of taps, the folded flags.
Thus Memorial Day. If nothing else, that day reminds us of what those who are sent into harm's way are risking for the rest of us.
Phil Manger, a Cockeysville resident, served with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. His e-mail is email@example.com.