Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1945 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 7th Battalion, 9th Artillery Firebase Bear Cat, Binh Son Rubber Plantation Xuan Loc, and Nha Be Artillery Battery Executive Officer, 105mm howitzers, 1968
From the Artist: From a letter:
I arrived in Vietnam two weeks before the Tet Offensive in 1968 and came home on Christmas Day, 1968. Every event within that time period was charged with extremes: yelling, explosions, drunkenness, exhaustion. I was unprepared for the beast I met in Vietnam. It left me shaken. I hope to reflect this state in my work. I paint for myself, no one else.
I still have not dealt with all of my Vietnam War experiences some are much too difficult to revive.I relived some of them in the work while I was painting it, so as far as I am concerned the work is part of the Vietnam War, as I experienced it.
From a memior, ca. 1978:
...When I woke up, the first thing I wanted to know was who had had their heads up their a**es when this good*** f***up took place. Where had Lt. Yonson been? I found out that he had spent the night in the Fire Direction Center tent with his crony, Lt. Gore; so the guns had been fired without supervision. The gunners on No. 4 had reported the error shortly after it happened. Then, in the middle of the night, an emergency radio message had come from the Command in Saigon, asking all artillery batteries to check their fire and review the missions fired in the previous half-hour; a military post in Saigon had reported seeing incoming rounds. Yonson and Gore had refrained from waking me at the time, since, they said, nothing could be done until morning anyway.
As the executive officer, I had the responsibility to drive into Saigon as soon as possible to survey the damage. I was to talk to the family and express our deepest sympathy for their loss. This sympathy took the form of monetary compensation. The United States government had a formula to use on these occasions. In the event of an accident in a rubber plantation, we paid the owner (usually French, not Vietnamese) in the neighborhood of $300 per tree destroyed. I was once approached by an owner in a camp north of Vung Tau and asked to sign a document confirming his loss of thirteen rubber trees. I told him no way. Though I suppose it might have been true.
If we killed a farmer's water buffalo, the compensation was perhaps $100. For the loss of human life, the survivors received a sum near $55. Armed with this good news for the survivors, I left camp with Lt. Limb, a Vietnamese friend.
The drive into Saigon, first on a dusty access road, then on pavement, was about half an hour through beautiful green rice paddies. Beyond our camp there was only one other military installation, a small Navy base defended by a platoon of ARVN troops at Nha Be. Military traffic was light; most of the armed forces took the other road, from the Long Binh ammo dump and Bien Hoa, the gigantic base where our orders were issued.
As we drove closer to Saigon, the rice paddies gave way to lots filled with trash, the garbage the Americans left behind, which became the treasure of the Vietnamese. They scavenged for beer cans, nails, lumber, anything in short supply. Lt. Limb watched the scavengers as we passed. "I think." he said, "you should tell this family that the shell was VC."
"Why?" The idea did not appeal to me.
"Do you think," he said gently,"that we will get out of this neighborhood alive, if they know where the shell came from?" I thought about this proposition; as we entered the city it began to make sense.
We wound through the narrow streets of lower Saigon. Women and children stood in doorways of their living quarters, watching us. I was glad that Lt. Limb was with me, so they could see that I had a friend who was one of them. Children yelled, "Number One GI!" Translated into English this meant,"Throw candy! Throw candy!" but I didn't have any.
At first glance the house seemed unharmed. But it had no roof: our shell had fallen toward the rear of the shelter and scored a direct hit on the family's sleeping area. They were an ARVN soldier's wife, his daughter of twelve, and a nine-year-old son. A crowd gathered as we got out of the jeep. While I surveyed the damage, Lt. Limb spoke in Vietnamese to the survivor, a grandfather. I assumed he was explaining that the round had been Viet Cong. The old man was grateful that we had taken the time to come and speak to him; he wanted to show us the bodies.
I had seen plenty of Vietnamese bodies on the road during the Tet Offensive, but I was still not prepared for this. They were in a room on a table under a sheet, which was covered with flies. The old man pulled away the sheet, and I saw three charred bodies. With their contorted faces they looked like figures of clay, fired in a kiln with a matte black glaze. Their teeth were still white.