Every year, there are days we remember for better or for worse. They play an important part of who we are–birthdays, wedding anniversaries, historic events, accidents and illnesses, triumphs and tragedies. Yearly remembrance of the important days in our lives allows us to reflect on how they have affected us–to appreciate the good events and to avoid a repeat of the bad ones. April 11 is an important day for me.
On the positive side of the ledger, the 11th of April is the birthday of my wife and dearest friend, Kelly. Although I won’t reveal which birthday this is, I can say that she has been a wonderful partner in our journey together. In addition, she is an accomplished writer and a great help in my journalistic endeavors. Kelly is just in the process of publishing her fifth novel and has been tremendously helpful in getting my second book–a Vietnam remembrance–ready to go to press.
On the other hand, I’ll never forget what happened on April 11 fifty years ago in the former Republic of Vietnam. The convergence of two extraordinary events has left me with lingering questions regarding that troubling war.
I lived and worked with South Vietnamese forces at the Tay Ninh Province Headquarters (Sector), about 50 miles northwest of Saigon. The Communists routinely fired artillery rockets and mortars at Sector, but were rather poor marksmen. The night of April 11, 1969, they got extremely lucky. A rocket landed in one of the buildings where our Vietnamese allies had negligently stockpiled about 240 tons of mortar and artillery shells, other explosives and ammunition of all sorts.
The place blew sky high, killing about 80 South Vietnamese soldiers, 50 suspected Viet Cong or draft dodgers, and more than 10 civilians. It was a rare and extremely tragic event. I would likely have been part of the casualty count but for the fact that my superior, Major Painter, insisted I stay the night at my unit’s base camp about two miles away. That evening I’d gotten an award for helping a local orphanage and when I started to return to Sector, the Major strongly urged me to stay and play poker with the other officers. I’d only spent two duty nights away from Sector in the six preceding months.
I still think about those who tragically perished in the explosions, particularly every year when April 11 rolls around. The futility of the Vietnam War also crosses my mind.
In January of 2018, Kelly and I visited Tay Ninh City—my first trip back to Vietnam. There were no remaining vestiges of Sector or any sign of the wartime U.S. presence in the city. I expect that most of the Vietnamese soldiers with whom I served had been killed, imprisoned, or fled the country after the Communists took over in 1975. There was no sign of them. But everyone we met was friendly and welcoming, despite the bitter struggle. The people genuinely like America and Americans. It makes you wonder what things would have been like if we had let the Vietnamese work their problems out among themselves in the first place.
I also wonder on April 11, and at other times, what caused the award ceremony to coincide with the Communists’ lucky shot and Major Painter’s entreaties that I not go back to Sector that night–just dumb luck or something more. Whatever the answer, we should use anniversaries of unfortunate events as a time to reflect on how we can help keep ugly things from happening again. The yearly milestone of happy events should be a reminder of the great blessings we have as citizens of this great country. Thanks for making life joyful, Kelly, and happy birthday.