Even at the age of 54, I am a ‘gold-star’ kid — one of some 20,000 American boys and girls who lost their fathers in the Vietnam war. My dad, Captain David Marshall Davies, was mortally wounded in the bombing of the Victoria Hotel in Saigon, on April 1, 1966. He died the next day from blast trauma to the head. He was married with three children under the age of 4, he had just applied to law school, and he was just shy of his 26th birthday. You will find his name on panel 6E, row 74 of the memorial.
I had just turned two when “Daddy Dave,” as we refer to him still, was killed. While I don’t consciously remember him or the events surrounding his death, I and my two siblings still carry the grief deep in our bones. My older brother doesn’t really like to talk about him, and my little sister (who was just six weeks old when dad shipped out) can’t say his name without welling up. They are two halves of the same coin. I, on the other hand, have taken on the mantle of adding flesh to his bare bones. Over the years I have sifted through boxes of letters and photos, corresponded with people who knew him, taken a solo trip to Vietnam, and listened to a dozen, brittle, reel-to-reel tape recordings that he and my mother exchanged. I have never shied away from telling people that he was killed in Vietnam, but I have found it tricky navigating all of the “shoulds” in those moments: Should I feel sad talking about a man I never really knew? Should I feel proud that he served? Should I explain that he was a non-combatant to relieve people of the burden of their imaginations?
Of the 2.6 million soldiers who served within the borders of South Vietnam, only about 40 percent saw combat. The rest were non-combatants like my dad. (I was disappointed that the recent Ken Burns documentary didn’t include the role of non-combatants in the conflict.) Although I can find no statistics of how many of them lost their lives, my guess is not many. This makes his death feel all the more unjust. He had a “safe” job running a supply warehouse at the gigantic 506th Field Depot near the port of Saigon (rededicated “Camp Davies” in his honor after his death), and he lived in a “safe” billet — a coveted shared hotel room — rather than in a tent or barracks.
The ripples set in motion in the wake of losing a loved one to war alter everything. The grief and a heightened sensitivity to all military action is obvious, but it is the more subtle patterns that shape all that follows which interest me. For example, I was raised by a stepfather who was a friend of my dad’s, and I in turn became a stepmother by marrying the widow of a friend who had also died from a brain-related trauma; the Viet Cong soldiers were referred to as “Charlie,” and I made the unconscious choice to name my son Charlie; after my son lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand (thankfully reattached), I discovered that Daddy Dave had suffered the same injury to the same fingers (one not reattached); Dad left for Vietnam on July 28, 1965, and 33 years later to the day I departed my native Seattle to move to the UK, where I still am today.
I hope you enjoy your time at the memorial, and I hope this letter reminds you that all who were lost in Vietnam (soldier or civilians, “us” or “them”) left the world a little changed by having been in it, and broke someone’s heart when they died. They deserve to be remembered and grieved. My wish is that whatever your political leanings, you may always land on the side of compassion, reason and nonviolent action whenever possible. For as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Tricia Davies Nearn