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

July 17, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | 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:


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.

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