During my short visit home over the holidays, my dad and I often sat at the bar table sipping white peony tea. He was nibbling on a cinnamon roll, I was snacking on some leftover Goi Cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls) my mom made earlier in the evening.
My father fought in the Vietnam war. It’s where he met my mother. There are a slew of Vietnam veterans scattered throughout the country, but few managed to bring back a local from the war torn remains of Vietnam, and even fewer of these couples managed to keep their relationship together through the final, and most difficult hurdle: Culture Shock. Even if a Vietnamese woman were to escape her homeland and be with the GI of her dreams in the supposedly “happily ever after” ending following the Vietnam war, many of them experienced extreme culture shock from both the environment and their new marriage, and few could adapt to the new world they were living in. This is best portrayed in the movie Heaven and Earth, where after ten years of marriage the Vietnamese wife of a GI leaves the safe haven of the USA and, eventually, goes back to Vietnam.
It has been almost 50 years since the Vietnam war. My father is getting older, and now he tends to open up more about the war than in the past (he never shared war stories when I was younger). Over a pot of white tea, he suddenly turned to me and said: “Did I ever tell you about Big Joe?”
I was just a journalist, so I wasn’t allowed heavy weapons. I had an AK-47 slung over my right shoulder, a bag containing my notebook and tape recorder cradled on my left shoulder. I was covering a story near Cu-chi and it was an absolute mess. I interviewed a guy once that actually infiltrated those dark, damp tunnels trying to hunt out the viet-cong. Now that is fear. Crawling through a pitch black, narrow tunnel with your enemy all around you; the only thing preventing you from life and death being the rifle in your hand aimed straight ahead, shooting in the dark. Many of those guys never made it out of the tunnels–but if they did, they were never the same.
I wasn’t armed with heavy artillery like the other soldiers, so I tried to pick my war companions well. And no one made me feel safer than Big Joe.
Big Joe was a 6″2′ black man, built like a rock with a stone hard face to match, two pelts of bullets slung over each shoulder and crossing at his chest. He was like a big, black version of Rambo. I felt safe in his presence not because he was physically built to fight a bear bare-handed or had enough artillery on his body to shoot down an entire VC army. No. Around his neck criss crossed with his array of ammo were rosaries. I remember they were red and silver and worn, close to his heart at all times. He whispered a hail mary before each battle under his breath. I clung to him like a scared child clings to their parent during a lightning storm in the dark. But he didn’t mind. Big Joe never showed us, but I’m sure he felt like it was his duty to look out for me–for all of us.
Suddenly, a rain of gunfire. Firecrackers in the sky.
“Get down!” the other soldiers scream, and we immediately drop to the dirt floor in a nearby trench.
“The enemy isn’t supposed to be here!” the other guys panic. “We might be outnumbered!”
Everyone was afraid to stand up. To face the enemy. To be shot. There was panic everywhere.
Big Joe saw me inch near him. He looked me dead in the eye, “you afraid Mike?”
I don’t know why, but I let out a roar of laughter and said “well Joe, there’s a bunch of guys firing at us and were’ ambushed–doesn’t look so good!”
He let out a big, hearty laugh. The other men looked at us, fear in their eyes.
“What are we going to do?” A voice cries in the distance. Another round of shots fires above us.
“Quit being pussies,” Big Joe breaks the heavy air of silence. “We’re going to shoot ’em, that’s what.”
Big Joe stands up, loads up his machine gun, and shoots a spray of bullets in every direction. He probably killed ten VC in those few short moments.
The other men began to stand up and shoot. I stood up and loaded my gun. Big Joe stepped forward and fired in all directions. The VC dropped like flies in the grass.
It wasn’t just that time. Big Joe was always doing that. He stood up when the rest were afraid.
Now, that’s what bravery is. Standing up first.
“Do you still talk to Big Joe?” I ask.
He didn’t make it.
My dad paused.
He was a good guy, Big Joe. A really good guy.
I’ll never forget those rosary beads.
The Mass Must Go On
“You ever had a martini, Mike?” father Jack was mixing the holy grail of alcohol in Vietnam: A dry martini with an olive.
“Think I’ve had one of those, father” I smiled and took the drink from his hand, relishing in the sweet concoction I so fondly remembered from days long past. From home.
“Bet you never had one in Vietnam” he winked at me and finished mixing up his martini (with slightly more vermouth). We clinked our paper cups together and drank. Sometimes, that was all you could do here. It was an escape.
Father lived in downtown Saigon. He lived in a very simple apartment; the paint was peeling from the walls, and the furniture, if you could call it that, was rotten wood years old. The table legs were wobbly, the top cover itself covered in stains. We stood near the open window, the light streaming in from the afternoon sun. A few other GIs were with us gathered in the living room sipping martinis in our humble little Dixie cups. We laughed and told jokes on the inside, but outside the world was a war torn mess.
Father invited us to his house every Sunday. This week, he gave us a special treat: Real alcohol.
Father Jack had nerves of steel. He volunteered to go to Vietnam of his own accord and had been there since the beginning. He had been preaching mass in Saigon for over ten years. I don’t even want to know what the man had seen in his years, but all I knew was his sermons helped keep us afloat. Not just us GIs, but the Vietnamese as well. It was the one place where the our two cultures could merge together, and here we congregated and managed to speak the same language.
I remember the church. There was no roof. There were no walls. It was just a husk of a building, the pillars being the only sign that gave it away as real architecture. It was meager for a church; the framework stood hollow and tall over us, but the splintered pews that lined the inside and the table (altar) at the front gave it that indistinguishable look of a church. We came here every week for mass in Saigon, and each pew was always full.
We were having mass. The priest had just blessed the eucharist and turned bread into the body of christ; wine into the blood of our savior. Then, we heard it: an ear shattering explosion a stone throw away. A rain shower of bullets. Screams erupted in all directions and we dropped head down into the pews. People were scattering and shouting outside the church confines. Chaos ensued. Another explosion echoed in the distance.
And through it all, I heard father Jack at the altar chanting the blessed sacrament. Despite the explosions, the gunfire, the screaming, the running, the shouting and the debris–he managed to stand stall. He held up the eucharist and continued like nothing was amiss. The bomb that dropped only a mere meter away was, to him, just a baby crying in the distance. Unwavering, he carried on with mass.
The orchestra of explosions and gunshots subsided. The helicopters were gone, the intruders taken care of. Slowly we began to peek our heads up from beneath the pews and felt safe enough to stand again. Father Jack just finished the prayer of the blessed sacrament and stood at the head of the pews, waiting patiently for us to come and receive communion.
“Father,” I finished my last swig of martini and looked him in the eye. “Don’t you get scared? Don’t you want to run away? I mean, how the hell do you do it?”
He laughed and finished the lat sip of his martini, “God sent me to Vietnam, Mike. I must carry out His mission.”
The bravery to stand in the face of fear is the greatest gift from god that any man could hope to have.
Result of the War
My parents never returned to Vietnam since the war ended. My mom hasn’t visited her homeland in over 35 years.
Me, on the other hand, knew I had to go. As soon as I began work in Japan, I was already scheming a trip to Vietnam for my upcoming holidays. I had to see my mother’s country and hometown. I had to go to Vietnam–I had to go to Saigon.
I went to the war memorial museum in Vietnam. I was alone. The war museum is most likely similar to that of the one in Nanjing; extremely bias toward the Vietnamese by portraying the American soldiers as animals that raped and pillaged Vietnam. I wanted to think it mere propaganda, but I knew it was true. There were photos of dead women and children piled on top of one another, American soldiers surrounding them. There was an entire gallery dedicated to the lethal and everlasting damage of agent orange. The ruins of what was once the lush and breathtaking tropical scenery of Vietnam reduced to ash. American soldiers shooting and killing civilians. Hundreds of half-Vietnamese and GI children abandoned in orphanages.
I never felt more discord than when I was in that museum. It was a strange dichotomy. A feeling of hatred filled with remorse; sympathy and betrayal all mixed into one.
War is terrible, and the Vietnam war especially atrocious. Lives were lost. Innocence was destroyed. Americans fought for something vague and out of reach. Vietnam was a country torn in half politically; brothers fighting one another, people dying for a cause that neither side was sure of.
And there I was. I was a result of the war. I stood at the exit of the war museum and looked back to a world of memories I never had, but that were eternally part of me. I was a strange hybrid, a mix; something that, I’m sure, wasn’t supposed to happen. The war was terrible, but without it I wouldn’t be here. The war made me.
I finished my last spring roll and looked at my dad.
“You know,” I poured him the last cup of tea. “I want to hear more of your stories from Vietnam.”
Vietnam. I miss you.