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John Early Andrews Collection of Letters

Letter of February 1969 from William Xavier Andrews in Vietnam about the Tet Offensive Saturday night February 22, 1969
Submitter: John Early Andrews
jandrewsfam@juno.com
Dear Daddy and Mama,

I am sorry that I haven't written before this - in such a long time but we are constantly on alert because of the offensive here. I guess you heard about the ground and rocket assualts on Long Binh Saturday night. Well I was supposed to go on guard Sat. night but about four days before that I switched with another boy so I could go to class Sat. night. No one really expected an offensive. Well, I went to the Education Center but the class was cancelled - because of some small rumors about an attack. I didn't think twice about it. Well I was sleeping in bed Sunday about 1:30 A.M. and out of nowhere rockets were coming in. We grabbed our M-16's helmets, etc. and established a peremeter in our company area. I really felt sorry for those guys on peremeter guard that night. In fact, the peremeter was broken and several dozen VC broke through before tanks closed up the hole. A major and 5 GI's were killed at our peremeter but I couldn't tell you the casualties overall. It was all over by 8 or 9 the next morning except for helecopters and jets shooting at the retreating VC and NVA. I was sent up to the peremeter early the next morning to relieve some of the GI's who had gone through the worst. I counted 15 dead VC on the road while we drove by. I got sick and had to get up. I don't know why death affects me like that - but nobody else got sick. In fact, guite a few officers and EM were just taking pictures of the bodies.

It is all over now and there hasn't been any shooting now for 4 days. The VC are miles away to out west heading for Cambodia. We can hear the B52's everynight and they are getting fainter and fainter. So there won't be any more difficulty over here any more - the VC lost over 300 in the Long Binh area over the last couple of days - yet what they died for really didn't amount to to much. They are exhausted now. We caught a prisoner of war - a boy 14 years old with a Soviet AK-47 at sling arms - he was pretty disgusted and exhausted - you could tell. I have to go to eat now.

I'll write ASAP again. I am enclosing my test paper - Please save it for me.

I love you both very much.
Love,
Bill

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Notes: The letter writer was stationed at the United States Military Academy Prep School at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia before hearing that his brother John was "on orders" for Viet Nam. He had done volunteer work during his off-hours for Senitor William Fulbright and Senator Pell while at Ft. Belvoir and asked them for assistance in getting him to Viet Nam so that his brother would not have to go.

...In one more month I would be free. Never before had I thirsted so much for freedom. I would never again take it for granted. The euphoria was temporarily shattered by the death of a comrade. It was a late Sunday afternoon, a day of leisure and I was on my bunk recording a taped message home to Mom wishing her a happy Mother’s Day. I was communicating the good news of my impending early out and also the fact that I was to receive the Army Commendation Medal, an award which for many American soldiers in Vietnam was a perfunctory recognition that the recipient simply did his job without rancor or an Article Four conviction. For me, the medal was tantamount to collegiate grade inflation, an inexpensive way for the brass to build some sense of morale in a war that was increasingly looking like a military cul de sac. As I was doing my recording, I could hear the 105mm batteries at Bear Cat opening up. I was sure that Mom would hear the noise in the background and reassured her that it was merely a salvo of outgoing ordnance. When I finished the taping, I walked over to headquarters and asked the orderly what all the commotion was. He divulged from his information conduit – really a mix of gossip, speculation, and shreds of actual intelligence from the bamboo pipeline –that the area Viet Cong were mobilizing for some kind of a demonstration to celebrate the birthday of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese president who four months hence would die of natural causes. I shrugged wistfully and returned to my bunk to read the final chapter of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” ... after eating in the mess and playing a game of poker, turned in. I fell into a deep sleep. I awoke suddenly to a thunderous roar and with a blast which catapulted me out of my bunk. My first thought was that I had been hit by lightning. However, with flying sparks of shrapnel smashing through the plywood walls and ricocheting about, I knew instantly we were under attack. In the darkness everyone instinctively ran to the hooch door facing the wooden walkway closest to the large corrugated steel cylindrical bunker encased in sandbags. We wore nothing but our olive green boxer shorts and we all hit the door at the same time. The impact of nearly twenty GI’s was sufficient to knock the door off its hinges and the entire façade seemed to give way, ripping nails and screws from their moorings. Those of us in the back had to retreat momentarily to permit an efficient exit. I was actually laughing and I could hear others uttering a similar response. Granted it was nervous laughter. Pounding hearts and surging adrenaline levels more accurately represented our endorphin states – but still there was laughter. I cannot speak for the rest but, for me, it was the recognition that we had all been suddenly transformed into herd animals with none of the macho which passes for courage. Rather it was collective terror. Our guard was down and we were all behaving like frightened beasts and this is what seemed humorous at the time. Looking back on the event, some thirty-four years later, the scene appears surrealistic. We sprinted to the reinforced bunker while incoming rockets intermittently exploded. Because my bunk was at the opposite end of the hooch exit, I was the last from our hooch to enter the bunker. It was already filled to capacity with the boys from the entire company. All were sitting nervously on two parallel benches facing each other in the dark, all barefoot and in shorts. The atmosphere was heavy, hot, and stuffy with the strong sense of sweat and body odor. In only the second time since a child, I was suddenly overtaken by a sense of claustrophobic nausea and I worked my way out into the fresh air as comrades from more remote hooches tried to pile in. I knelt at the entrance, somewhat protected by the sandbagged parapet abutting the edifice. I breathed in the fresh air and regained my composure. As men were continuing to squeeze in, I saw in the partially illuminated night a fully uniformed sergeant rushing the opposite direction, yelling out for help. He yelled that there were some casualties. I arose and ran after him, thinking of giving a hand. We entered the hooch next to the outdoor theatre and water tank. In the erratic motion of flashlight illumination, I could see several injured men being helped out the opposite door where the ambulance driver, a Mormon friend from Utah, was at the wheel. Then I approached a bed at the far left. The top bunk was empty, its mattress and sheets ripped into shreds. On the bottom bunk was the contorted form of John Love, our occasional poker companion with the Scottish brogue and the eye for the photographs on my wall. A desperate effort was being made by a corpsman to stabilize him for the ambulance ride to the --- Medivac Hospital. Blood seemed to be pouring out of his body faster than the beer was running out of the midget refrigerator by his bed. Overhead was a poster of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – the face perforated and the heart pierced yet again. On the floor, blood and beer ran in rivulets about our bare feet. He was promptly evacuated with the other wounded and the rest of us returned to the bunker. I can’t recall how long it was but, after an interval when the rocket attack seemed to have subsided, the Mormon ambulance driver approached us and told us that John Love had died before he ever reached the hospital. A Chinese-made 140mm rocket had scored a direct hit, smashing through the metal roof of John’s hooch. Fortunately for John’s bunkmate, he was at that very moment returning from R&R and, had the attack had occurred a day later, would likely have shared John’s fate.

Heavy monsoon rains suddenly began to fall and the rocket attack ended as abruptly as it had begun. Except for a small group considering the possibility of a renewed attack, most of us returned to our hooches. As we slowly reentered the building, we kept the lights off to make it more difficult for VC on the perimeter to sight and align their rocket launchers to us. The din from the rains pounding against our metallic roof nearly drowned out the voice of one of our number. It sounded like Bob Lacosta but it was too dark to know for certain. The speaker reminded us that torrential rains fell immediately after the death of Christ. We were all stunned and eager for analogy, so this comment met with our approval. In the flicker of a cigarette lighter I could see some of us nodding.

No one was in the mood for bed. No one wanted to die alone in a bed like John. We began to sit on the plywood floor in the middle of the hooch or on the sides of nearby bunks. A rough circle began to form. In the light of a candle that we were careful to hold to the floor, we began a discussion which I will never forget. The conversation began with our poker group and it began quietly. Soon everyone in the hooch left their beds to join the conversation, a few talking and most listening. It was not long before the talk grew to such intensity that even the thunder outside, indistinguishable from the occasional artillery salvos from Bear Cat, did not interrupt us. We spoke of wives and lovers, of parents and hometown haunts. I had heard many of the stories before but now the telling possessed more urgency and depth. It was as if we wanted our stories told so they could outlive us. We had to speak loudly to be heard over the downpour.

We reminisced about John and tried to understand the meaning of his leaving us. We tried to imagine what an afterlife would be like. We spoke of free will and bad luck. We explored the purpose of pain and evil in the world and we acknowledged the injustice of death. This was a pretty sophisticated group in my midst. I never imaged that these carefree and reckless souls could ever be so serious. While sitting there discussing John Love’s life, I could not help remembering the bullsession that I had in our Walsh Hall dorm room when we heard of Ben Guthrie’s highway death in late 1965. Because Ben had been killed with his girlfriend after a weekend together in the Ozarks, one of our number had questioned whether God would punish him in the afterlife. I must have grown because the question seemed to deserve an answer four years earlier. Not now. It was as if God were required to offer some explanation for all death. Now in our Long Binh hooch, there was no agenda, thoughts and feelings haphazardly intermeshing, sometimes in randomly flowing verbage and sometimes in profoundly moving testimonials. I remember someone spoke of his sister’s out-of-body experience while on the operating table and another told the story of an aunt who late one night saw her husband standing in the doorway at the moment his ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Then someone told a joke about a naked cheerleader standing in the doorway and the resulting laughter was louder than the story deserved. We were clinging to levity no matter how banal. Some, I could fathom from the intonations, seemed to be laughing and weeping at the same time.

Soon Roland Renee and Glen Poppinga left their hooch nextdoor to join us. As the bull session grew in emotional intensity, other GI’s whose voices were not familiar to us joined in. The candlelight was now augmented by popping cigarette lighters and the occasional luminescence of parachute flares descending in the distance around the perimeter. The frankness with which we admitted our fears and the candor with which we spoke of disappointments in life and love’s dramas had a leveling effect, sealing us even more compactly into a band of brothers. The experience, I concluded, helped us to better understand the psychological components of the conflict and John’s death deepened that awareness. We could with greater insight, I thought, appreciate the value of camradship, group loyalty and personal responsibility.

I told the group that our assembly reminded me of a late medieval book I had once read, a book by Giovanni Boccacio called “The Decameron.” It concerned a group of young men and women who had left the city of Florence for a hideout in the countryside to escape the ravages of the Black Death. Like Chaucer’s “Canterbery Tales, each of the men and women told a story to while away the time. I told everyone present that none of us would probably ever forget this night. I told them that we could refer to it as our Vietnam Decameron.

I’ll never forget the dimly lit faces around the candle that night. My great regret is that I never kept a journal during these years. Already the ravages of time are assaulting my memory. The names are beginning to fade but not the faces. Many years later, after reading a book by Czech writer Milan Kundara, I made a trip to Washington DC with my wife and our three young sons. We were going to visit the Vietnam Wall. Kundara claimed in his novella that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness. As we walked toward the wall from the Lincoln Memorial, I could not help but think that I had already forgotten too much. When it comes to war, I believe we are all anesthetized to its reality by the stupor of romantic myth and the imperfect programming of our genetic codes. We become lethargic and forgetful.

At the wall I discovered to my dismay that John Love’s name appeared twice – two men by the same name killed in the same month. Because I could not remember his middle name or his exact date of death, I felt that something important was lost to me when I touched the two names on the polished black basalt. My wife, who had participated in several antiwar demonstrations at her medical school while I was in Nam, wept when she thought of the boys in her high school whose names were on the wall. Our three boys, observing the emotion overtaking both parents, remained silent.

Read more letters in the John Early Andrews Collection

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