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Touching surprise

When I was at my folk's house for the holidays, I was going through my cousin Gary's personal effects from Vietnam. I'd started posting his photos before I left. After I saw all there was to see, I decided I'd work up a website dedicated to Gary. Among his effects were several letters written to his folks by a Marine who was in Gary's unit in Vietnam. He came to Khe Sanh at the same time Gary did and they were good friends. He kept writing for over 25 years after Gary died and I know it helped my aunt and uncle greatly to have a personal link to someone who spent time with their son in his last months alive. After I returned to Illinois this month, I contacted the Khe Sanh Veterans Association and talked to Big John Pessoni, another Khe Sanh vet who helped me find some contact info for Gary's friend Bill Biolsi, the one who'd kept writing to Gary's folks. I emailed him to let him know in case he hadn't heard that both my aunt and uncle had passed away a few years ago and told him that if he'd like to continue to correspond that I was willing. I didn't hear anything for about 10 days and then last weekend when I was home, I checked my mailbox and found a package from Bill. Inside was a very touching and heartfelt letter for Bill telling me about my cousin. Bill described him as one of the finest individuals he'd ever met. Never excitable and quite literally cool under fire. Bill told me about a few touching encounters he'd had with Gary, and how Gary had taught him so many things just by the example he set. When Bill arrived in Vietnam in December of 1967, Gary was already there. They all came in from the port at Da Nang and then went on to Gio Linh. They were all assigned to the First Squad of the Second Platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. The unit was known as "The Walking Dead." In late January of 1968, the unti was sent up to Khe Sanh. Soon Gary was promoted to Squad Leader of the First Squad. Bill was wounded in action on March 13, 1968. A month later he was recovering from his wounds in a hospital in Japan and was told of Gary's death. Bill had more to say about Gary and I was crying by the time I reached the end of the letter. Then I looked back into the package to see what else was inside. There were some copies of covers from Newsweek on Vietnam and a copy of the promo poster from I think "Full Metal Jacket." A copy of the Khe Sanh Veterans Assoc. Newsletter called Red Clay. There was also a book called the Final Formation. This gives a day by day account from 1963 to 1972 of all the battles fought and all the men killed and wounded at Khe Sanh. It old how my cousin died. I don't think the book was out when my aunt and uncle were still alive. If it was, I hope they never read it. I have the letter sent them by Gary's company commander and tells a much more candy coated account than what actually happened. I can understand why. It's bad enough you have to tell someone that their son died in combat. You don't want to give them the full horrifying details.

"April 16, 1968...One of the guys, Redenius (Gary), got shot in the head. He was bleeding real bad and went down right away and going into convulsions."

The Company commander's letter reported he'd been hit by shrapnel from a mortar, was killed instantly and felt no pain. 17 other Marines from Charlie Company were killed that day as well.

Stuck between the pages of the book was a dog tag. It was not the USMC issue tags as we have those with Gary's other things. Both my Dad and John Pessoni think this is something the unit must have made up and given to each man as further identification.

I'm not sure how Bill got it. Maybe my aunt had sent it to him years ago. I felt very honored that he was giving it to me. I don't think I stopped crying that whole time just sitting in my car on the side of the road by my mailbox and reading everything in the package.

John Pessoni told me the Marine Corps was building a new historical museum at Quantico. One wing is to be dedicated to those who fought at Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh. He asked if I might be willing to donate the tag and one of Gary's letter's home to the museum. I'm thinking seriously about it. Later that same day, I made a trip down to Carthage, IL, my home town and the county seat of Hancock County. Gary was a resident of the county when he was killed. In 1989, the town built a memorial to all those killed in Vietnam from that county. I'd been there before but didn't have any photos. It was getting dark but I managed to get some. Especially of Gary's notation on the Memorial.

Afterwards, I went over to my Aunt Peggy's house near Bowen, IL. I needed to delivery some late Christmas gifts from my folks in NC. Peggy is Gary's mom's sister and her late husband Mervyn was Gary's father's cousin. We got to talking about Gary and I showed her what I'd gotten in the mail. She told me a rather chilling story about what happened when Gary's remains were sent home.

Jake (Gary's Dad) wanted an open casket funeral because he wasn't thinking about how bad Gary's injuries might have been. No one could convince him or his wife Florence that they didn't want to have one last look at Gary. Finally with the family pleading with him, he relented but asked his cousin Mervyn if he would get permission to look inside. Peggy said Merv lost several nights of sleep thinking how he was going to handle that. In the end he went to the funeral parlor when the casket arrived and talked to the funeral home personell about it. Merv never did look inside the casket and what was finally told to Jake and Florence was they didn't have a key to unlock the casket. I asked my Dad about this and he confirmed the story,

"Mervyn was deeply affected by Gary's death. It was difficult to convince Jake and Florence that the coffin should not be opened. Bodies exposed in the 90+ degree heat do not fare well and that does not take into account the damage done by combat. War is not a pleasant thing. I think the final excuse was that the local funeral home did not have the "special" key to open the many screws that sealed the container."

Some of the effects I photographed in NC included Gary's service medals including his Purple Heart as well as scanning many more of the photos taken around Khe Sanh just days before his death. I'll be organizing all these into a memorial website in the next week or so. I'll put up a link when I am finished with this.




( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 19th, 2006 02:19 am (UTC)
How touching and interesting! I'm so glad he sent those things to you.
Jan. 19th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC)
Yeah, me too. I'm hoping he wants to continue to correspond. He lives in Shenorock, NY. He doesn't seem to want to do email so this will be good practice and revive my letter writing skills.

Jan. 19th, 2006 05:30 pm (UTC)
Wow! that's like 112 miles from here. Roughly 2 hours away. Cool beans!
Jan. 19th, 2006 02:31 am (UTC)
I read every word :(! -Mystrys
Jan. 19th, 2006 03:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks dear.

Jan. 19th, 2006 07:41 am (UTC)
I look forward to seeing the website.

Your cousin seems to have been one awesome guy.

Jan. 19th, 2006 03:37 pm (UTC)
They were all awesome guys. As is everyone who goes to war to fight for American ideals. I'm not sure what I would have felt about Vietnam had I been old enough to think about it (I was born in 65). I've not always agreed with the reasons we've gone to war since then. But I think it's important that we always support our warriors. They are all heroes.

Gary joined the Marine Corps for much the same reason my Dad did. He's been a farm hand, working for his father since he could reach the pedals on the tractor. He wouldn't have minded being a farmer but he realized he had no money and in order to be a farmer you had to have land. So he would have had to have worked for someone else as a farmhand for several years and he just didn't like the sound of that. Military service provided a very viable option. You got room and board. You got training and if you stayed with it long enough they paid for your education. Back then if you were a Marine, you could sign up for as short as a 2 year hitch if you went to Vietnam. So for someone who was 18 and I'm sure didn't think much about getting killed, it was a great opportunity. Plus my Dad had been in the Marine Corps already for for 10 years and had already completed one tour of duty in Vietnam and was due to return for a second. And Gary really looked up to my Dad. My Dad's brother in law, Dean Smith, another of Gary's uncles had also been in the Air Force for some time by this time (1967) and was a pilot in Vietnam. So I'm sure it seemed to Gary that all these opportunities were opening up for him.

I don't regret that he died serving his country. I do regret that I never got to know him though. There are damned few people in the world that you could describe as "the finest person I ever met."

Jan. 19th, 2006 08:42 pm (UTC)
You leave little necessity for anything else to be said. Talk of Hanoi Jane's treason or of the validity of the reasons behind the war seem unimportant when you have so effectively reminded us of one critical fact: These men performed an heroic task with all too little support from their fellow citizens.
Jan. 19th, 2006 08:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks. You know I can see the reasons for the protests. But the disrespect people showed our returning wariors is unforgivable. It's that disrespect that more than anything else made people like my father, not want to talk about his experiences in Vietnam. Growing up I never heard much about Gary. Yet I heard plenty about relatives who fought in WW II and Korea. I think part of that was due to not knowing how people would react to other's talking about the soldiers who fought in Vietnam as heroes. Everyone who fights for his country deserves a hero's welcome home. Regardless of personal feelings about the political reasons for the war.

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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