Bob Kerr: Looking Back On Vietnam

Oct 6, 2017

Columnist Bob Kerr spent a year in Vietnam as a combat correspondent with the marines. He’s been processing the experience ever since, and trying to figure out where it all fits in. 

And after watching the 10-part film “The Vietnam War” on PBS he is still wondering. 

She was a beautiful little girl, with big eyes and a joyous laugh that seemed joyously apart from the time and place. We watched as she ran along the street in the village of Cam Lo and looked up at the Marine standing in the back of a large truck. It was the Christmas season of 1968 and the truck was filled with brightly wrapped gifts from people in the United States to children in Vietnam. When her turn came, she reached up and brought down a big box and tore off the wrapping.  She pulled out a pair of white figure skates. The look on her face seemed to ask why anyone would put metal blades on the bottom of a perfectly good pair of shoes.

A Navy corpsman, standing next to me near the aid station set up in the village, looked at the little girl.  Then he said, “Don’t those bozos back in the world know anything about this place?”

So another strange thing happened during my year in Vietnam.  And another snapshot was added to the collection I will forever carry with me from that time when I decided to let my life jump the tracks.

There was the 19-year-old Marine who sat next to me near the landing strip at Vandegrift Combat Base near the DMZ and pleaded with me to look the other way so he could run.  I reminded him that he was in Vietnam and in handcuffs.   I had been made a “brig chaser” to take him to the brig in Danang on his way to Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.  where he would serve 25 years for holding open the door of a hooch while another Marine threw in a grenade to kill their company commander. 

There were moments when the war collided with the culture.  I once ran down into a bunker during incoming and heard the Beach Boys blasting from a dusty stereo. There were the truly horrible Filipino rock bands flown in by the USO to present mangled phonetic renditions of “Twist and Shout” and “My Girl.”   There was a lot of drinking.   There was the heroin that a friend urged me to try.  It had been sent to him in some baked goods from back home.   There was the opportunity to take acid and take in the light show provided by the nighttime perimeter flares.

There was buying marijuana from local entrepreneurs, only to find it was neatly wrapped buffalo dung.

There was filling a truck with a bunch of kids from an orphanage in Quang Tri and heading to Cua Viet on the South China Sea for a day at the beach like any day at any beach.

There were the growing racial tensions.

I recall the snapshots on the day after seeing the final segment of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick's “The Vietnam War” on PBS and thinking how curiously incomplete it was.  

After 10 nights, filled with eloquent testimony to the horrors of the war and the deadly lies of American leaders and some of the most graphic combat footage most of us have ever seen, the film in many ways failed to answer the most basic question:  What was it like to be there?

I was a combat correspondent with the Third Marine Division, the Marine version of a reporter.  If there was such a thing as a good year in Vietnam, I might have had it.  I moved around.  I went on combat operations, on medical missions to small villages.  I spent time in a Montagnard village and attended the funeral of a village elder.  I covered combat engineers building bridges across the Perfume River in Hue.  I watched “The Green Berets” on a screen set up outside in Dong Ha and hooted and swore and threw an empty or two at the screen.  I drank too much when I had the chance and smoked some dope and listened to The Rolling Stones and The Doors and counted the days until R&R in Australia.

I tried to console a guy in my unit from Georgia who had heard from his wife that she was seeing someone else. He was actually allowed to go home to try to patch things up.  We urged him not to shoot the boyfriend.  He didn’t.  But he didn’t save his marriage either.

So much of what and who we were came together in Vietnam.  It’s important to remember that only about 10 percent of the Americans who went actually saw combat.  The rest drove trucks and cooked and worked as clerks and got to go to a club at night and drink beer and maybe watch some porn.

The PBS film seems to separate the Vietnam War from the Vietnam experience.  It was so much more than combat, so much more than politics.  It was millions of very young people, many of them drafted, bringing their American ways to a place where American ways didn't  play well.  There was arrogance, also ugly disrespect in some bases.  But in others, there was the attempt to reach across the cultural divide and make connections that had nothing to do with B-52s or Richard Nixon.   Some of us fell in love.  Some of us simply took the time to stop and look around and see one of the most beautiful places we would ever see.   Perhaps - perhaps - we sat down for fish heads and rice and knew we were being watched by the Vietnamese to see how we would handle the local fare.

It was a time for small moments that often grew large in our collective memory. The little girl dragging those figure skates down the dusty street in Cam Lo reappears often.  I went back to Cam Lo during a wonderful visit to Vietnam in 2003.  I had this crazy idea that maybe those skates were such a bizarre piece of American largesse that they had been kept as a reminder of how far away America really is.

I didn’t find the skates.  I did get a lot of strange looks as my interpreter tried to explain what I was looking for.

And I was reminded of the words of the Navy corpsman:  “Don’t those bozos back in the world know anything about this place?”

Sadly, the answer might be no more certain now than it was then.  We certainly know more about the war, more about the corruption and the lies and betrayal, if we watched the film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.   But we don’t know much more about the country or why it’s a really bad idea to send figure skates into a tropical climate.

And we know very little about the mad, crazy, inspired things Americans did to get through their time in that stunning place.  

Bob Kerr served two years in the marines and became a beloved columnist at The Providence Journal. He is now retired and lives in Fall River.